Throwing away ancient wisdom, painting with sound and staying awake: a conversation with radio dramatist and ZBS Foundation president Thomas Lopez

For four decades, Thomas Lopez, also known as Meatball Fulton, has been president of The ZBS Foundation, a not-for-profit arts organization dedicated to the production of lush, adventurous, experimental modern radio fiction. ZBS' large catalog of productions includes many adventures from characters who have, over the years, become beloved: metaphysical adventurer Jack Flanders and Ruby the Galactic Gumshoe are the two best-known. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]

“Radio drama,” “audio theater,” “audio drama,” “radio theater” — which do you prefer?

I was at the European Radio Drama conference, and they decided to change the name to “audio drama,” because it exists on so many different platforms other than just radio. In America, they generally would call it “audio theater,” but it was interesting to hear the Europeans' take on it, that theater seems to have a connotation of… you know, theater, as opposed to drama, which is more general. I always liked “radio fiction,” frankly.

That's one I've not heard before.

I prefer that, simply because it distinguishes it. Public radio, particularly, has gone to and I don't mean this is in a bad way news and information, and fewer and fewer fictions. What they call “radio stories” are really documentaries. They call that storytelling, which is fair enough, but it's not the type of storytelling that I do.

The_Fourth_Tower_of_Inverness_A_Jack_Flanders_Adventure_Meatball_Fulton_unabridged_compact_discs I do wonder why the bent has turned so strongly toward well-told nonfiction, when fiction could be told equally well in just about the same way on radio.

Definitely. That's why I did a series called Two-Minute Film Noir. The object was, I felt radio drama could exist with the documentaries there was no reason not to. It was well-produced little noir type stories, self-contained, running about two to three minutes, and at the time, NPR's Day to Day, which was a midday magazine show, would play some of these right in with the documentaries and news that they were doing. It worked perfectly fine, as I thought it would, and then, of course, NPR discontinued Day to Day. At least I was proven right, that if a station will give it a chance, the short pieces can work very well with the existing documentaries.

At the beginning of this program, the audience heard a scrap of radio fiction themselves, a clip of a ZBS production called Dreams of the Amazon, starring what I'd call the “primary protagonist” of ZBS, Jack Flanders. That was actually the first ZBS thing I ever heard. I'm pretty sure my story is fairly typical for a ZBS listener. Back in '93, I was just a kid browsing the library looking for CDs, and I found this Dreams of the Amazon thing with very cool cover art. I picked it up on the basis of that alone, popped it in and it was like nothing I'd ever before. If it was some kind of audiobook I wouldn't have been surprised, but it was this full-cast production with this lush sound. Is that a fairly common was for people to find ZBS?

What's particularly amusing is the young kids well, I call them kids that have never heard radio drama, don't even know what it is, and pick it up thinking that it's an audiobook, meaning somebody reading a book, and then discover a full production and had never heard anything quite like it. Not that they're aren't other things out there; they just aren't exposed to it.
The funny thing is that, back when I picked up Dreams of the Amazon and then heard other ZBS stuff, that actually got me into old-time radio drama. I didn't even know there was a tradition of it until I started in the present and moved back. But the character there who is the star of that particular show, Jack Flanders, I associate him as the main fictional entity when I think of ZBS.

We did start off in 1972 with the very first, The Fourth Tower of Inverness [clip], which featured Jack Flanders. That was actually sponsored by the Jefferson Airplane, or Jefferson Starship, as they were later called. They paid us for the production. We were in the process of doing it and we approached their public relations guy, and he liked it! He said, “What can we do? How can we work together?” They distributed it to 270 college stations this pre-existed NPR, so we called them “college stations.” It was about seven minutes a day, and oh the weekend there was also a half hour. People could hear it as a daily continuing serial, or catch, on the weekend, the full half hour.

I was re-listening to The Fourth Tower not long ago and noticing how Jack Flanders, the character, evolved. He was more of a standard protagonist of radio fiction early on, but what has he developed into over time?

At the time, The Fourth Tower's intention was that it was a bridge from old-time radio, which really didn't exist anymore at that time there were stations playing repeats, but nothing original had been done in years. It was kind of paying tribute to a series called I Love a Mystery, a wonderful daily series, about fifteen minutes a day, that existed back in the forties, fifties. It was paying tribute to it and then saying, “Okay, let's move on. Let's evolve from here. Now the technology is such that you can go out with a tape machine, gather your own sounds and do all kinds of things just with your own studio, as opposed to having to be part of NBC, ABC, CBS.

How he evolved was, the actor, Robert Lorick, was essentially saying, “Jack's kind of… doesn't he ever learn anything? Shouldn't he be evolving somewhat?” It seemed to me that all these things were constantly happening to him, and he thought he should have some control over his life. The character evolved by being pushed by the actor.

That's the appeal of Jack Flanders. For audience members who haven't heard it, this is a fellow who gets into all sorts of outlandish adventures because he seems to have the ability to not only exist in the world as we all know it, but he moves into these “invisible realms” where a lot more mystical things happen to him. Perhaps you can explain a little better what befalls Jack in his travels.

Lopez2 Part of it is my fascination with the spiritual and the mystical. My mother was quite psychic I mean, she could put curses on people! I began to recognize that there are interesting things going on that is, other levels of reality that are really quite magical. Everyone has experienced all kinds of strange things: coincidences that are just too orchestrated, almost, encountering people that chance doesn't quite explain. There's a great tradition in terms of literature, the Arabian Nights, for example, a gathering of stories from India and all over that go way back, these wonderfully magical flying carpets and all these things. There's enough reality, in a sense, that can back up certain possibilities in terms of abilities by various shamans, the native American as well as some of the yogis in India. There's stories of people like Swami Yogananda, the first Indian Swami to come here, and his experiences of people that could be in more than one place at the same time. One encounters people in live who have had some strange experiences.

Many of these things get worked into the stories, as well as a kind of Buddhist philosophy woven within. Eastern mysticism has more possibilities than our own Christian tradition, that is, for the imagination to run wild, so to speak. Jack is similar to myself. He's a lucky guy, and I consider myself pretty lucky too. It's really luck that gets him out of situations, but it's also his attitude. His business card says, “What appears to be coming at you is coming from you,” which is a way of saying that what happens in one's life is what one attracts to themselves. You've noticed that if you don't go into certain places that are really bad, negative, dark, or if you're attracted to that, you are going to experience the things that come with that, which is likely to become a real problem in your life. But if you're more attracted to more positive, more optimistic, that in itself helps create your life for you.

The underlying message, I've realized only in these last few years, is one of loving kindness. That seems to be the most important thing in life: being kind to people. You find out, in return, all kinds of nice things happen to you, and it isn't like I'm doing this so that this will happen. It's more like this seems to be the sensible thing to do. It's taken me a long time to realize that, but it nonetheless makes life quite interesting.

Jack certainly has a lot of kindness to him. In so many of his adventures, he will go across the globe just to help somebody find a lost relative or something like that. He does have a lot of good things happen to him. It seems to me he also has a lot of scary stuff happen to him: he's confronted by visions and internal and external experiences I would imagine most of us would be frightened by. What I've always liked is, he takes it all in stride. He doesn't seem to believe in or disbelieve what's happening to him.

He definitely has more nerve than I do. I do like the idea of traveling places, like going to the Amazon and spending a week there recording, going to different countries with a tape machine and just finding myself in situations where I'm gathering sounds. Sometimes it's a little touchy; more than once, I've had guns pointed at me. In fact, it's happened several times, finding myself in the wrong place. You go limp and say, “Tourist, tourist.” That's a magic word that helps a lot, meaning “stupid person, but not of any real threat.”

I imagine this was a lot harder to do in the days when recording meant you had to carry a big Sony recorder over your shoulder and have a microphone that's two feel long, as opposed to day, when you can pretty much conceal it, right?


Did Jack become a world traveler because you were a world traveler? After The Fourth Tower, there was of course Moon Over Morocco [clip], and then he just went everywhere: the Amazon, Bali, Sumatra, Belize. It's getting harder and harder to find a place Jack hasn't been. Did he become this because you wanted to be a traveler?

I lived in Berkeley for about six years, then moved to London for a couple. While I was there, someone asked me to hop down to Tangier and record the writer Paul Bowles and do an interview with him. When I was there, I sad, “My gosh, there's great sounds here!” Wonderfully rich place: the language, the calls to prayer, the medina, the marketplace, so on, so forth. When I formed ZBS in 1970, someone did give me the money to go back to Morocco and travel around and record.

Lopez3 I had already done The Fourth Tower of Inverness, so it seemed like a natural place to go and gather sounds. In the process of traveling and recording randomly, whatever sound was interesting, I started talking notes for the story. When I got back, I listened to the sounds and decided I would write the sounds in that I liked. It was like using sounds like one would an interesting character. It didn't have to say, “Oh, here we are, blah blah blah” people could hear it. People would know because they have enough references, from seeing movies or whatever, that you could just get on with the story and not have to spend time describing what's going on around you.

That experience triggered the possibility of going other places: to Bali, Sumatra, Java, South and Central America, doing a little research ahead of time, but wherever I thought there would be interesting sounds. The stories were written after the fact, gathering the sounds first, which is quite different than the way you normally do it: you write a story, then look for sound effects or create your own. It was like painting with sound, and it was fun experience.

That's a method I find so fascinating. Tell me how accurate it would be to frame it like this: in a way, you're gathering sound and arranging it like music, and the dialogue is, you might say, the lyrics. Is that too far out?

No, no. You think in terms of textures and colors, even smells, to some extent, though that doesn't come through on radio very well. It's like a filmmaker going out and finding visually interesting places to shoot a film. This is a similar thing, only with sound, finding places that sound interesting, and they hopefully create an interesting visual picture in the listener's mind.

The audience, as I said, heard a clip from Jack Flanders in Dreams of the Amazon. It's a fairly rich one, although that story is, at this point, about seventeen years old, but it sounds great still. We heard a restaurant in the background, some ambient piano music, Jack talking, the waiter, the skull in the guise of a woman sitting down and removing layers to reveal the skull, a voice sounding electronically treated. How many things are going on in a Jack Flanders scene like that? How many individual components come together to make these?

It really varies tremendously, in terms of ambiance, the environment and the sound effects. Sound effects are glass, wine being poured, cigarettes being lit, footsteps, that sort of thing. The background would be the crowd and so on. In that case, there are probably so darn many levels because sometimes I'll do a crowd that will actually be three different crowds. One will be a café which I've used over and over, a little coffee shop in Tangier that I recorded. No one's speaking English; usually it's French and Arabic, but you can't really make it out. It's what they call “crowd wallah.” But it's recorded fairly close. I'll use a middle range for the middle of the room, and for the back of the room, a very “live” sort of sound which someone I know recorded in a hotel in Tunisia.

You can get a depth with these layerings; no one would know. Everyone would think, “Oh, this is a room that was recorded somewhere,” but actually, it's made up of several different, totally unrelated places, but sound-wise, they change, from a dry to a close sound: somebody at a table your elbow away that's talking, then somebody else further into the middle of the room and then somebody in the far room. Because of the reflectiveness of it, they would sound quite different. Then adding, in terms of Dreams of the Amazon that we're referring to here, all the sound effects I made, various bell peppers, ripping them apart. Probably carrots. All kinds of vegetables for her removing parts of her face.

I did wonder about that. The removal of the skin was particularly vivid.

I think I stole that idea from Arch Oboler, who did a piece for radio way back. He was a great thriller writer, a horror writer. It was somebody turning inside out, his body is turning inside out, and he did it with a wet rubber glove. I think that's what I used for her pulling her skin off.

I never would have guessed. I also never would have guessed there were quite so many layers. I work with audio myself, but of course, simple stuff, interviews. It's never something so many-layered as that room with several different tiers of sound. It's always just two people talking. I imagine it was very, very difficult to do this at the outset, in the early seventies. What did the technology allow? In the early nineties, when Dreams of the Amazon was out, obviously you could do more than I thought. But twenty years before, what was it like?

If you read recording engineers that have been around a long time, you'll hear them grumbling about “how easy the kids have it today, they can just dial up everything,” and how they had to work with tape machines, limited tracks and so on. I'm not complaining about how easy it is by comparison, but it was fun in some ways certainly more challenging.

For example, Moon Over Morocco, we had a four-track machine. I listen to some of the things we did, and I cannot figure out how the heck we did it. What we had was several other tape machines old Ampexes, floor models, two-track and we would line them all up and get them all going at the same time. We'd have layers of crowds and all kinds of things going on, and at the time, Bob Bielecki, who was our engineer he went on to work for years with the performance Laurie Anderson could get these things with one shot. He could mix fifteen minutes, nonstop. Because you couldn't stop the machines, because wherever you made the edit, the machines would never be coordinated. Plus, you'd have to cue everything back up again. I listened to it again today and said, “I cannot believe that this is a four-track.”

It reminds me of a story — I was actually going to ask you how true it is — that I remember reading about ZBS: some people from the New York State Council for the Arts came in to see if they could give you a grant. They heard Moon Over Morocco and said, “Well, this obviously isn't art.” I was thinking to myself, how could something that requires that much work not be art?

People have in their minds what art is, and… it's never been easy with the New York State Council for the Arts. I gave up on them a long time ago. The National Endowment for the Arts is much more open and receptive. They recognized radio art, but the New York State Council, they had their own vision.

When somebody hears a ZBS show and has that same kind of confused reaction, I wonder what they're reacting to. One of the things I find most fascinating and most fun about ZBS programs is that, in the original material, there's this pervasive humor, even in, say, the dire situations Jack Flanders gets himself into. Is humor a thing people respond badly to when they go seeking art?

Ah, that's a good question, though it's a maze I don't think I want to start wandering down into. I'm not sure. Plus, it changes: we have new technology, the internet, all these other things going on. Even the way people respond to what they consider art and what they don't consider art really varies. I think I'll stay silent on that.

Probably a good move. Issues of what is and what is not art, I don't know if they can ever be resolved. But issues of humor, now — humor, I would guess, is extremely important to you, judging by hearing ZBS shows.

Lopez4 Yeah, definitely. In The Fourth Tower of Inverness, there are all these little bits of wisdom taken from Sufi sayings and so on and so forth, many, many little bits of wisdom that are like dynamite. At the time, I wanted to present it in a way that did just the opposite of weighing it down. Sometimes somebody will have some serious spiritual bit that they take from wherever, and they lay it down as something serious, like, “Pay attention. This is good for you.” What we did was take it and throw it away, meaning, you say to the actor, “Don't underline it. Do just the opposite. Throw it away.”

Some of these little bits were so potent. Also, too, little bits from Ram Dass, who's a spiritual leader. We used some of his things, which were put in something called the “Wurlitzer of Wisdom”. He has a great sense of humor, and he presents many of these ancient spiritual insights with great humor. It's important that, if you want to get a message across to someone, do the opposite of sticking their head into it. Instead, take it, throw it into the air and see if they want to catch it or not. We'd get letters from people saying, “I like the adventure. I don't know what these other things were being said, but I like the adventure.” The object was to have both: actually say something, but keep the momentum going, keep the adventure going.

It is quite amusing. I wasn't around for the sixties, and I talk to people who weren't around for the sixties and missed out on the culture of that time, who listen to ZBS and who hear remnants they identify with what they know about sixties culture: Eastern wisdom, that sort of thing. They always say — and it's what I said at first too — that what ZBS productions blessedly lack is an overseriousness about it. Some of us have parents who were very serious about a lot of the things a ZBS Jack Flanders show might try to get across lightly. The seriousness kind of killed it for them.

Definitely. Today it's even worse. Back then people were just being exposed. There wasn't much literature out there. If you wanted to read about Buddhism, there were very few things you could find, or of any of the Eastern cultures that were other than just scholarly, if you wanted to try to find something because you were hoping that “maybe there's something there for me that could actually improve my life or the way I see things.” Starting off in the early seventies and being able to present that actually opened some fan letters. We've gotten a lot of fan letters that say, “You changed my life.” Which I have mixed feelings about; I'm hoping it's for the better. It opened the eyes up as to something other than what they thought life was. That is, that there are other views of reality and the spiritual and the mystical world. Now, as I'm drifting away from the question, give it back to me again.

Young people — I'm counting anybody who could not have lived firsthand through sixties culture, or even early seventies culture, which gets called sixties culture nowadays, as “young” — hear ZBS shows and all these elements you've put into them that take this stuff lightly but not unseriously, then look at their parents' generation, many of whom remain all too serious about it, serious in an unappealing way. Do you hear back from young people who say, “Wow, this isn't how my parents put sixties stuff at all”?

I really haven't gotten that, even though some of these things have spanned three generations, meaning someone was like six years old when their parents were playing The Fourth Tower of Inverness, and now they're playing it for their kids. Which is amazing, but I've never, as far as I can recall, had anyone pointing out the difference of their parents being sixties people and taking it seriously. I think that there was more searching back then, trying to see what there was and what was possible.

What has evolved in these last few years is, you have all these people talking about enlightenment that really have no idea, taking things rather seriously. And then, of course, there's the great tradition of where you don't take things seriously, in thinking that, “Oh, if I can understand it mentally, then I'll be able to be it.” Then they realize that our mental faculties are so limited. There's really no reason to take any of it seriously, because you'll never get anywhere if you're trying to get somewhere, that is by taking anything seriously, because we see so little of what may actually exist.

There was a Russian mystic who said that if we could see reality as it really is, we would go insane instantly. I tend to think he probably has a good point, that these veils in front of our eyes are lifted very slowly, if at all, probably all for the best. Whether this is true or not, I have no idea, but you just don't give it to people until they're ready to hear it. There is a kind of buffer that happens so that we, fortunately, don't have our minds blown by things that we really aren't ready to accept. I'm guessing here; I have no idea if that's true or not.

Much of this is what I think of as an overarching ZBS sensibility. In the Jack Flanders shows, a lot of this comes through very loud and clear, not to say too strongly. I'm now thinking of the other character whom I most often associate with ZBS, Ruby the Galactic Gumshoe [clip]. Her adventures, on their surface, seem like they couldn't be more different from Jack Flanders': they're futuristic, they're even more fantastical, they're filled with invented sounds rather than collected ones. How are Ruby's shows expressive of this ZBS sensibility, if indeed I'm accurate in saying there is one?

Part of it comes out of wanting to do something quite different. Also, knowing an actress I could write for, a tough New Yorker. At the time the first Ruby was done in '77, something like that there weren't many models out there of women who could stand on their own, in terms of fiction storytelling that existed in popular media. I really wanted to present a woman who didn't need to lean on a guy that was usually the case, that they were ingenues and somebody who had certain abilities of her own and just didn't take B.S. from anybody. She could rip somebody if she had to, meaning that she could be as sassy as she wanted to be, and wisecracking and everything else. I knew the perfect actress to do that.

It was fun to get away from Jack, who's much more insightful and so on, and work with somebody who's much more action and doesn't really think that much about the consequences of doing something. She just does it because she knows that, one way or another, she can slip out of whatever the situation is.

Jack and Ruby have evolved into the twin icons of ZBS. They must be completely different in terms of how you make them, because you can't record Morocco to make a Ruby show, right?

Lopez5 It's frustrating, because I can't go and record the future. In that case, I rely much more on the music of Tim Clark, who I've worked with for many years. Tim was the first composer-in-residence in a the McLaughlin Planetarium back in the seventies. Tim learned early on how to create music; he was doing what we call new age music, “space music,” way the heck back for these planetarium shows.

He learned how to record rather elaborate music behind a spoken voice, which is totally different than someone singing, because you deal with midrange frequencies. Tim could actually create music that was really quite loud to a speaking voice, and he sometimes would filter those midrange frequencies, where our voice is, out of the music. That way, he'd be pushing up the others and it wouldn't cover the music. A lot of musicians don't understand that it's not easy to do music that stays hot against the spoken voice. You can do backgrounds, but I didn't want backgrounds.

With Ruby, they were three minutes a day and I wrote it with the idea that each one was like a little piece of music, because music on the radio was, generally speaking, about three minutes in length. The object was that the music would be every bit as important as the action and the voices. Not knowing what the heck the music would be, we worked it out together, and it was a lot of fun. I learned to write differently because Tim would say, over this three-minute thing, “Okay, where's the change?” I'd say, “The what?” He'd say, “The music can't just stay the same for three minutes, you've got to have a change every minute or something.” I said, “Oh, okay, well, we could make a change here, and here,” and then I started to write in terms of themes. The themes would change after a minute or so, so then the music could change into something else.

I send him the rough mixes “rough” meaning it'll have sound effects, environments and everything, roughly mixed and he can compose the music right to the piece. Sometimes he can subtly underline a word or make a change in a way that's rather subtle but dramatically affecting on a subconscious level, as music. It's very powerful stuff, as you know. When I'm writing, instead of people talking all the time then there's no place for music, the music is just background I let it breathe, so the music can come through.

Tim Clark's music is one of those elements I can't imagine ZBS shows without. The Ruby stuff I've heard — tell me if this is going too far — sounds a lot like musically scored poetry, almost, when the end product comes out.

That's probably what we're attempting and rarely achieve, but that is the idea, depending on the length. Some of these are a half hour, one story. I think of it as more of a complete piece, not necessarily an orchestrated piece but sort of similar. I'll send Tim notes, not in terms of what the music should be, just so he understands what's going on in case I'm not being clear about it. He's the one who really comes up with things. It's kind of like a cartoon: you have the writer, you have the artists and you have the people filling in the color.

We've gotten 50 minutes into this without mentioning much about the film noir stories you've been doing recently, the four-minutes and the two-minutes [clip]. I like these especially because, from what I've heard about them, they're emblematic of what I find so fascinating about your creative process. Is it true that, without exception, you get the titles first, and then you make these film noir stories out of the titles?

Definitely. When I wanted to do these short pieces, I wanted to do a series. How the heck to keep coming up with idea for a series of 50 self-contained little stories? I first chose something that I called 90-Second Cellphone Chillin' Theater [clip], all based essentially on Hollywood horror stories, vampires and werewolves and on and on, zombies, but with a humorous bent. It was easy to come up with titles that I thought were humorous.

Lopez6 Then came the idea: “Let's do something a little longer than 90 seconds. Let's do something two-minute, and we'll call it Two-Minute Film Noir.” I was given a book of film noir posters, and looking these, I said, “Boy, I love this stuff!” We've all been exposed to it, and the nice thing is, everybody know the gangsters, the mob, the gun molls, the blah blah blah blah blah. It was easy to have all these essentially clichéd characters; with just a few words, somebody is snapped into knowing something about them. A character called Rico, he talks with a funny voice, and everybody has been exposed to that somewhere or another.

To come up with all these ideas, I needed to have themes for each of these stories, and the themes came out of having all these different titles. I think I have close to 500 titles. I would come up with the titles, and then they would gather the story. Here's one called “When Little Girls Come Out to Play”, or “Formerly, Fat Louie”, or “Miracles and Wonder Bread”, “All Good Hookers Go to Heaven”, “Don't Shoot Live Poets”, “The Big Sheep”, “Sidewalks of New York”, “A Fine Lot of Lollipops”, “Death Rides a Fast Camel” that actually came from an Arab proverb. None of these I had stories for; I'd just sit down and a story would come out without even thinking. That would happen time after time after time, so I wrote 50 of the film noirs, then another 20, and now we're adapting them for YouTube.

Is this the first foray for ZBS into the realm of the visual?

You bet. I've never done anything visual in my life. That's why the first “season,” as we call it, which is the first six of what we call the Four-Minute Film Noir, is more or less two guys sitting in a bar, talking. There's variations on that, but they're very much identical to the radio pieces. The next one gets much more visual. Some have animation, like graphic novel parts. Then we'll be getting into green-screen.

A friend of mine, I think it was Davia Nelson of The Kitchen Sisters, knew Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola had told her that he was interested in doing radio drama, but that he wanted to do it to work out the ideas for a film. So his office called me and we sent him out some stuff. I never heard anything back, but I didn't expect to; he just wanted to hear what some people were doing. I don't know if he ever did it or not, where he would do it first as a radio drama and then as a film, but I realized that that was the perfect way to work. With these little film noir pieces, I could work the dialogue out and sounds and everything, first for radio and then I'd be ready to go do a short video, based on an idea that came from him.

Getting the visual dimension as well, I would imagine that, after having worked so long in audio-only forms of entertainment and narrative, it's either got to be a fantastic new realm full of joyful possibilities or something that's kind of unpleasant after knowing what audio can do and having to work with this other dimension that maybe would feel needless.

It's the first thing you were saying, about fantastic possibilities. I think the internet is in some ways closer to radio than television or film. That sounds absolutely crazy, but I think it's because people are trying to do television or film that is in terms of people creating series, or a serial, or “webisodes,” as they call them. To me, it means that anything you can do visually can work on the internet, and what I want to do is use the elements of radio a lot of it is sounds I've recorded in Brazil, and so on but also to use qualities that are still very studio-based. I like the artificiality of shooting in a studio. We're using a local PBS television station's studio. You can create things that are somewhere with a foot in radio and a foot in the visual.

It's great fun figuring it out, because the joy is not knowing what you're doing. That was the thing with radio that was constantly difficult, in the sense that once I knew what I was doing, it wouldn't be interesting. I had to keep trying something different to keep it interesting for me. That's why this is so exciting, because I have no idea what I'm doing. I am working with an old friend who was part of ZBS in the early years, and he's directing, so it's very much a collaboration. I am working with somebody who has experience in this visual realm that I don't.

That remark about the joy of not knowing what you're doing echoes, for me, something you were talking about on a podcast: doing the early shows where you said, “I scripted a number of them, we started recording those, and they were going out to stations while I still had to script the remainder of the show and still had to make the story. I didn't know where the characters would end up.” This sounds like a working method that would freak some people out, but it really gets you fired up.

It does. There's nothing like a good deadline to keep you awake, I'll tell you. I always used to joke that, on my tombstone, it would say, “He never missed a deadline. Not even this.” Every series I've done has always been on the air while I'm still writing the last part. You've got a three-month thing, so it really keeps you awake, sometimes with very little sleep. But that's the way they used to do radio: they did it live, generally speaking, but often they were writing right up to the moment of going on live. You lose something, as you know, when you tape something. The energy is different when something is life, and that's it you can't do editing with it later. It's gone out. In a sense, that helped, having these desperate deadlines. It helped keep an edge.

All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.