Friday, March 26, 2010

Scripted Radio

I've just finished my month-long review of the radio scripts in the Thornton W. Burgess collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. I'll post about my discoveries over the course of the next two weeks or so. For now, I just wanted to say a little about the state of the collection and the nature of the scripts.

The documents in the collection are scripts, not transcripts. This is an important distinction. There are no audio recordings that I know of, thus we only have a record of what Burgess planned to say on the air, not what was actually said. Nevertheless, I am fairly confident Burgess kept to the scripts. First, he made notations on some scripts indicating omissions or sections "not used," suggesting that everything else was used. Second, he would include jokes and putatively off-hand comments in the scripts as well. (A particularly favorite device was the pretense that his producer was looking at him impatiently, requiring him to end the show). On the other hand, there are shows that undoubtedly did not go according to script--in his autobiography, Burgess relates one show in which he had to leave the microphone for an extended period in order to capture an escaped snake.

The HGARC collection is remarkably complete for the first run of the Radio Nature League (Jan 1925 to August 1930). It is very spotty for later runs, especially the sponsored Brewer "Sun Glow" Radio Nature League in 1935 and 1936. Here the script collection only provides a sample of programs, nothing comprehensive. Some key scripts are also missing, evidently pulled from the collection because of their significance. Unless the scripts show up elsewhere, I don't know what specifically "Farmer Brown's Boy" proposed in the week before the foundation of the League in 1925, or how Burgess explained why his show suddenly had a sponsor in 1935.

The collection is mostly (very fragile) carbon copies, but there are quite a few originals (on more stable paper, thankfully) with notations and last minute revisions. One very common notation, penciled in the margins, is "used on Sunday"--Burgess recycled the Radio Nature League scripts as material for his weekly Sunday newspaper columns (more on that in future posts). He would also pencil in thank yous for donations received after the script had been prepared and last minute schedule changes (there would be quite a few). Other notations indicate where copies or originals had been sent (he sent quite a few copies to KDKA--the chief station in the Westinghouse group at the time) and quite a few originals seem to have been gathered up and sent to the "Radio Institute" in 1936.

The scripts also indicate that Burgess did some of his own sound effects--specifically, bird calls. In later years, Burgess would rely on the advanced bird calling skills of Edward Avis. In the early years, when the script called for the "phebe" song of a chickadee, e.g., the script simply indicates "whistle." Two other calls that Burgess would do were "yellowlegs" (remember his long account of marsh hunting) and "screech owl." The last proves Burgess was a real birder (this is a call used to flush birds from their hiding places).

Next: Thornton Burgess radio scripts, an overview

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