Tonight I’ll be jamming till dawn with Jerry Stearns, host of Sound Affects: A Radio Playground, and half of the Great Northern Audio Theatre.
SCy-Fy: Jerry, podcasts are becoming very popular at the moment, but you work on audio in a completely different way.
JS: What I do is a weekly broadcast hour of modern audio theatre on community radio. (KFAI, 90.3 & 106.7 FM, Minneapolis, St. Paul, and KFAI.org). Some have asked why I don’t podcast the show. There are already others that podcast new audio theatre, such as The Sonic Society and Radio Drama Revival. Often there is overlap there, including the same new material in both podcasts. So I don’t need to be just another podcast of the same stuff.
I have several times been able to broadcast something that would never get on to someone’s podcast because the creators wouldn’t give permission to put it out there forever. My show is streamed live on the Internet, and kept in archives for only two weeks. Then it disappears.
The people at Alien Worlds let me broadcast three episodes, and that was only because it wasn’t permanently available after the show. That kind of thing happens all the time. It also lets me repeat some material after a few years, because I have a whole new audience who has never heard it. I have access to lots of music and audio art because I’m on the radio, which has agreements with ASCAP and BMI.
SCy-Fy: How do you choose what to broadcast?
JS: I listen to many hours of audio theatre and comedy, and Old Time Radio at home, in the car, at the gym. Then I pick ones that I liked and ask permission to broadcast them. I choose what I put on the air by several criteria: it is really well made, with high production values; it is really fun to listen to, with a good story and performances; it illustrates some aspect of audio production or art (like binaural recordings from ZBS.org, or the amazing musical sound at Protophonic.com); it is innovative in some way; it’s historically important (lots of OTR); or it is really good comedy or satire.
SCy-Fy: What things put you off broadcasting something?
JS: Reasons I might choose NOT to put something on the air would include bad production values (way too much bad acting and poor sound effects out there), overwritten story (you have to keep it moving), redundant (how many Monkey’s Paw or Dracula or Jekyll and Hyde can people take) or preachy. I also shy away from Fan Fiction, preferring to let those producers graduate to original stories and characters, which is not to say I haven’t aired some that was original in concept or presentation.
SCy-Fy: You give quite a lot of space to science fiction and fantasy.
JS: I play a lot of science fiction and fantasy on the show because that’s a lot of what is out there being made. It’s a perfect genre for audio – better in many ways than film or television. I’m also a fan and make a lot of that kind of story myself. I was the coordinator of the Mark Time Awards for SF Audio for 17 years, so I had access to a lot of the best of the field. Now that the Awards have passed into other hands, I still get to be a judge, so I’ll get to keep hearing what’s being made.
SCy-Fy: What are your future initiatives for the show?
JS: I keep looking for new and obscure audio theatre. There’s as much of it being made now as there was during the “golden age of radio”, I think. I like putting together a show or a series of shows the way a DJ assembles a music set. Things that are alike, or NOT alike, or play off one another. I twice did four shows in October playing different versions of the War of the Worlds, with parodies, take-offs, side-tracks and related music and sound effects.
SCy-Fy: What about plans for your own audio work?
JS: I’m doing an original full-length piece called “In the Embers” with my partner in Great Northern Audio Productions, Brian Price. We’ve written a 75-minute piece about an urban archaeologist who discovers a 1920s jazz singer living on his computer. We’ve done all the recording of actors and are assembling it with effects and original music. We’ll be doing the final mix at the ZBS studios this spring and hope to have a premier at the HEAR Now Festival in Kansas City in June. We have a couple other scripts ready to record after that, and a couple more in the imagining stages of writing.
SCy-Fy: What advice would you give anyone presenting?
JS: It’s already hard to get noticed. Do what you’d like to listen to, strive to get better at it, and do it because it gives you a voice not because you might get fame or fortune from it. That may come, but don’t expect it.
SCy-Fy: Your most useful resources?
JS: I listen to everything. I listen to Old Time Radio so I know what’s been done and what hasn’t. I listen to even terrible productions so I have something to compare good work to. I talk to the other people who make audio theater and make opportunities to work with them whenever I can. And make your own sound effects first, then look for ones from other sources.
SCy-Fy: Things that have kept you going in hard times?
JS: Doing satire – there’s always something to laugh at in a silly universe. And radio can be quite inexpensive to produce, so a small budget isn’t prohibitive.
SCy-Fy: The most popular show you’ve presented?
JS: I get so little feedback from Sound Affects it’s hard to know what people have liked hearing, though several people have asked for works like Ruby the Galactic Gumshoe from ZBS.org, and the Anne Manx series from the Radio Repertory Company of America (rrca.com).
For our own work we have gotten good response from Dialogue with Martian Trombone, which is a War of the Worlds take-off that follows the Ramon Raquello Orchestra after their gig on the Orson Welles Mercury Theater show that was supposed to give them a door into the popular music scene on radio in the 30s. Instead they were interrupted before they could finish a song and unceremoniously dropped from the show after Martians land in New Jersey.
SCy-Fy: What is one of your personal favourites?
JS: One of my favorites of ours is Drummer’s Dome, about an old hippie drummer who finally builds his dream house, a geodesic dome on a lake shore, and finds that the inside of the dome doesn’t seem to be in the same place as the outside. It’s a very gentle tale with a little love story and a great SF idea in it.
SCy-Fy: What are you looking forward to in audio theatre?
JS: Judging the New Mark Time Awards (www.marktimeawards.org) without having to do the paperwork.
SCy-Fy: Any last words?
JS: Yeah, if you are making audio theater, write smart characters not stupid ones. Don’t assume that the Old Time Radio format and style is the only way to construct a piece. And in radio you can go ANYWHERE, so strive to get beyond the one room one act and get those people moving to different places; it’ll be much more interesting to listen to.
SCy-Fy: I think this joint’s about to be raided, so we’d better wrap it up. Thanks, Jerry.
3 thoughts on “Interview with Jerry Stearns (Great Northern Audio)”
Great interview! And nice for Jerry Stearns to get some deserved attention. Running the Mark Time AWARDS I think has overshadowed a bit of his amazing work w/ Brian Price on the Mark Time Radio SHOW they did at CONvergence all those years, with perennially absurd SFF-inspired twisted live shows… Working with them I learned a lot about what goes in (and what falls off) a live show. Jerry is one of those quiet MN guys who people should shut up long enough to hear what he has to say.
Thanks! I was very happy to get Jerry’s views.