How Old-Time Radio Flourishes in the Digital Era

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Photo Credit: Amanda Kulczewski

If you had visited Chicago’s Public House Theater on a recent June evening, you would have witnessed a most curious sight: a dozen actors and actresses adorned in 1940s-era suits, hats, and dresses gathered around microphones and performing an old-time radio comedy in front of a cheering crowd. You would have met a bearded ex-pirate named Captain Jonathan Sunset, four harmonious women sounding strikingly like the Andrews Sisters, the voluptuous Southern Belle, and a space-traveling detective named Joe Jupiter. Welcome to the world of Locked into Vacancy Entertainment (LIVE), a Chicago acting troupe that has re-imagined vintage radio shows for a digital society. In an exclusive interview, LIVE Founder Shane Hill shares with me lessons for making content from another era relevant and engaging to the Millennial generation.

LIVE, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, consists of actors and musicians who perform a mix of comedy and mystery just like radio programs of the 1940s and 1950s used to do. The group — described on its Facebook page as “Harnessing the Sticky Goo of Inspiration” — conceives of, and delivers, a whacky series of adventures featuring characters like the time-traveling Joe Jupiter (portrayed by Hill),who encounters a random assortment of aliens and oddballs while swapping random one-liners that sound like a cross between Adventure Time, Doctor Who, and radio noir. As Hill explains in the following interview, LIVE shows are geared toward families, both parents and kids alike. In doing so, LIVE has a seemingly formidable task: make an entertainment format relevant to Gen X, Y, and Millennials who were not alive in the golden era of radio.

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According to Hill, entertainment from the analog era, if done well, feels fresh because it’s new to the digital generation. And in a sense, by developing characters like Joe Jupiter and Captain Jonathan Sunset, LIVE is doing what Marvel Comics has accomplished on a larger scale by making World War II-era archetypes such as Captain America appeal to the present day.

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Unlike Marvel, LIVE relies on no computer-generated special effects. The LIVE shows are performed in the manner of vintage radio, using live music and sound effects in front of a live audience. LIVE then makes the shows available via podcast on its website and social channels — thus tapping into the surging podcast market.

LIVE performs every few months at the Public House Theater, with its next show occurring September 14. As Hill explains, LIVE is steadily expanding its audience beyond Chicago by sharing its shows digitally. The live shows reward an in-person audience with the visual appeal of a cast mugging as they read scripts into microphones, relying on their voices, clothing, and body English to create energy. On podcast, listeners create their own intimacy with the LIVE team and fill in the details with their imaginations as was done in the radio era.

“LIVE provides theater of the mind,” Hill explains. “Theater of the mind will appeal to anyone if it’s done right.”

Read on for our interview, which provides insight into an imaginative theater experience.

Describe Locked into Vacancy Entertainment in one sentence.

Locked into Vacancy Entertainment is an old-time radio experience with a modern-day approach.

Where did the idea for LIVE come from?

LIVE was inspired by The Thrilling Adventure Hour, a production in Los Angeles also captures the spirit of old-time radio. I have always loved those great radio comedies and mysteries that flourished decades ago, when radio was the primary way that American families brought entertainment and information to their homes. About a year ago, I found some old radio scripts for the holidays that inspired me. Some fellow actors and I agreed that those old scripts would still sound great in a podcast environment. We were inspired to create our own shows with original material. Conducting LIVE shows is like time travel: the audience and the cast together experience a form of entertainment and cultural expression that was popular many years ago.

Where did your love of radio entertainment shows originate?

When I was a kid, I listened to old-time radio shows like X Minus One science fiction show, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Suspense with my parents and grandparents. Those shows are pure Americana. Without the classics like Hitchcock, Twilight Zone, and The Marx Brothers, we would not have entertainment as we know it today. The sit-com was born from a radio broadcast.

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I still listen to radio shows all the time. One of my favorites is The Creaking Door, broadcast from South Africa.

How do you capture an old-time experience with a modern approach?

When we record a show, our actors dress in clothing that would have been worn in the 1940s. We perform in front of a live audience, and we use live music to capture the feel of how shows were made during the golden era of live radio. We even create advertisements for products such as Bronson’s Lozenge, a make-believe sponsor. The modern approach comes in our creating and podcasts on iTunes and our website.

Technically we could do the shows without wearing old-time clothing. But the vintage clothing enhances the performance. The more you put into the show, the better your performance, and little details such as the clothing are all about getting into the spirit of the show, like the character of Hot Mess wearing her sunglasses. I enjoy wearing a real silk bow tie, and the ladies like their hats and dresses. The ritual of tying bow tie gets me into character. Clothing of the era makes the experience rewarding for the performers. We bring our energy to the audience, and the audience feeds off that energy.

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 Shane Hill (Center) — Photo Credit: Amanda Kulczewski

It would be easier to record and edit the show without a live audience, but it’s important that we capture the live vibe. We could have electronic sound effects, but having a foley and live music really ads to the effect. And when you are there in person, you can see the facial jokes we create as we read.

Who is your audience?

This is a family-friendly show. Our audience usually consists of parents and the kids they bring to shows. There is not a lot of family-friendly live entertainment in Chicago, but our experience is that if you cater to families, you can connect with both parents and 13-year-old kids. I know that there is a great deal of concern about kids being glued to their digital devices all the time. But if you give kids engaging live content, they will say no to their smart phones.

How do you appeal to people who were not around when radio was popular?

LIVE provides theater of the mind. Theater of the mind will appeal to anyone if it’s done right. People tend to live in their comfort zones, and theater of the mind challenges them to step outside their predictable zones and experience something different. And a live radio show feels like something new to generations who were born long after radio began to decline as a primary means of entertainment. It’s funny: entertainment that has been around a long time can seem fresh and new to someone who has not seen it. People love to see jugglers at the Bristol Renaissance Faire even though juggling is centuries old. Why? Because you don’t see a juggler every day. The same holds true for a live radio show: it’s a novelty.

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Photo Credit: Amanda Kulczewski

How do individual ideas come together for each show?

LIVE members Andy Huttel and Derrick Gaetke are the writing captains. We all brainstorm and come up with different bits together. For instance, I had wanted a singing sisters kind of routine, and we wanted something similar to the Andrews Sisters with a distinctly American, war-time feel. Since the last name of Captain America is Rogers, we all brainstormed on the name Rogers Sisters because Captain America is so appropriate for the era I had in mind.

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Photo Credit: Amanda Kulczewski

We bounce ideas off each other like that all the time. We hang out a lot together, and when we do, we always have our notebooks with us for jotting down ideas. We also have writing nights in which we use Google docs and throw ideas back and forth. But there is no substitute for the back-and-forth of face-to-face collaboration.

Where do the ideas come from?

Aside from The Thrilling Adventure Hour inspiring us, we are influenced by old shows and literary/entertainment tropes. One of our segments, Generic Hospital, is inspired by General Hospital. The segment we do about Joe Jupiter is classic noir. Ideas come from classic entertainment shows and characters, but we put our own spin on them.

What are some of the more memorable moments from recent shows?

For our Christmas 2013 Show, a character named Frontbottom proposed to the character Hot Mess — for real. The entire episode was recorded and will be broadcast soon. Every time we perform, we do better than last time. The show gets tighter and tighter. We have a good director with Nicole Keating. We want to make sure we do not get lazy — so ahead of time, we read the scripts enough to get the lines into our bodies and feel the words. That way we are tighter and embracing our partners rather than reading the script.

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Photo Credit: Amanda Kulczewski

How has LIVE made you a better performer? What have you learned?

I have learned that form follows function. A lot of us are stage performers. We cannot project our voices as we would do on stage because we will blow out the microphones. So we rely on a combination of body English and vocal tone, not amplification. I am a visual actor when I perform. I’ve been learning how to use inflection of my voice to carry the act, not my face.

And because we are providing theater of the mind, we have to use more exposition in our writing. When people are listening, they don’t see what you are doing. So you have to write for the listener and connect the dots more overtly. There is no one in front of you when people listen to a podcast. If we are going to grow the listening audience, we have to play to them.

How are your podcasts coming along? What kind of reaction are you getting?

We are getting listeners, but I would encourage them to leave reviews. We encourage them to do so. One of our goals is to boost our listeners. If we are not hitting the mark, we need to know. We need your feedback.

How are you generating support and building awareness?

We’ve been using our website and social media to build a groundswell of support, including channels such as Facebook and Twitter. We’ve also been running a campaign on IndieGogo to raise funds that will help us improve our equipment and take our show to places such as assisted living facilities. We’re starting to reach out via earned media, too, targeting outlets like Metro Mix.

What’s next for LIVE?

We’ll probably expand beyond vintage radio. We’re also taking a step back and getting more committed to sustained marketing. We have a lot of friends who are supportive, but we need to grow our audience. And yet, we have only been around for a year. Rome was not built in a day. It’s going to take some time to grow. We welcome ideas and support from the marketing community to do that.

Related links:

http://www.radiolovers.com

http://lockedintovacancy.com

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