“Unshackled!” Tells Stories of Transformation

Flossie McNeill, director of “Unshackled!” Ministry, follows along with the script during the live taping.
On a warm Saturday afternoon, I headed to Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago for a live taping of the 65-year-old radio drama “Unshackled!”

Said to be the longest-running radio drama, the show is recorded live every Saturday. When I arrived, Flossie McNeill, director of “Unshackled!” Ministries, was busy with last-minute preparations, telling me that the week’s story (Episode No. 3,421) was 3 minutes too long in rehearsals. We peeked into the green room, where Director Timothy Gregory was going through the script with cast members, making last-minute edits. Although they receive the script three weeks before taping, rehearsal happens right before the live recording.

The story, “Jane Page Part One,” will air the week of Aug. 7 over some 3,100 stations in 148 countries. Like all “Unshackled!” episodes, it is based on the real-life experiences of an individual who has struggled and finds redemption through spirituality.

The program began in 1950 under the leadership of the mission’s then-Superintendent Harry Saulnier, who “yearned to reach the masses for Christ and earnestly prayed about the possibility of a radio program,” according to the show website. The program name is said to have been prompted by a Navy veteran who recalled, “In beginning a radio call at sea, we’d say ‘shackled’ and end with ‘unshackled.’” Saulnier, according to this account, liked the connotation that “Christ can break the fetters of sin.” The first episode told the story of Billy Sunday, a baseball player turned evangelist.

Flossie McNeill greets the audience.
Pacific Garden Mission is the home of “Unshackled!”
McNeill showed me file cabinets full of information about the subjects of the weekly programs, telling me that listeners from all over the world send in their stories in the hopes of having them dramatized. People with a story to share can download an application on the program website; they must provide personal references and a recording of their voice.

DRAWN TO SALVATION

“Unshackled!” doesn’t shy from serious topics including philandering, drugs, addiction, mental illness, abortion, suicide and gambling. The engaging episodes resemble modern soap operas and old-time radio dramas — not surprising since the production is much as it was in the olden days, with actors performing alongside live music and sound effects and in front of an audience.

Audience members filed into a large auditorium for the April 16 taping and McNeill gave introductory remarks, gearing up the crowd for the show. She promised that “the stories are absolutely captivating” and said that through the program “many listeners are drawn to salvation.” After the technical team was introduced (the engineering booth tucked behind stage right, a keyboardist positioned towards the front of stage right, the sound artist on stage left) and after we were reminded to remain quiet (“Get that one last cough in”), the show began.

In his timeless, perfect-for-radio voice, Director/Announcer/Actor Timothy Gregory launched into the show.

“How do you do? A sensitive soul is hard to find in a cruel and violent society. The young woman in our story loved people and animals, and wanted others to return her love. When they didn’t, she developed a tough exterior that led her to a life of crime and self-destruction. Then, she found freedom in the most unlikely of places, and her heart, and mind and life were ‘Unshackled!’”

Keyboardist Scott Griffin warms up before the show.
Sound/Foley Engineer Nadine Aloisio-Sorenson riffles the pages of a book during a Bible-reading scene.
Musician Scott Griffin punctuated that line with old-time organ music, emphasizing the drama that was about to unfold. I was riveted.

The performance began, but after about a minute, Gregory yelled, “Cut! We had traffic.” The cast paused until the outside noise stopped, then resumed telling the true story of Jane Page, a tale that starts in a mental hospital, then flashes back to Jane’s childhood.

Sound/Foley Engineer Nadine Aloisio-Sorenson adds sound effects, including Bible pages turning, saloon noises, cocktails, a 1930s car, horses, a gunshot and birds.

Many of the sounds that she used were on CD, but it was fun to see Aloisio-Sorenson making live sounds by flipping book pages, ripping paper and pouring a cup of water in front of a microphone.

BREAKING “BONES”

The performance concluded after about 40 minutes and was met by thunderous applause. It’s a cliff-hanger; the two-part episode’s ending was to be taped the following Saturday, but McNeill gave the audience a sneak preview.

After the show, I went backstage to speak with the cast. Professional actors, they had a range of experiences including theater and voice work. I was interested to hear that for them, “Unshackled!” is unique because it allows them to play a wider variety of characters than they would be able to perform on stage, since the lack of visuals allows them to expand their repertoire, playing different ages and nationalities (with a long list of accents and dialects).

The cast was made up of three men and three women, plus the male director. They told me that in this week’s episode they enjoyed pretending to be ladies in an asylum for a scene that needed background chatter.

Engineer/Editor Kim Rasmussen in the radio booth.
A portion of the “Unshackled!” audio archives
Learning about the production of “Unshackled!” provides a fascinating glimpse into radio history, too. Within the program’s basement home are displays of historic photos, awards and press clippings, as well as rooms full of archival recordings on reel-to-reel, MiniDisc, CDs and cassette tape. Many of those responsible for the production of “Unshackled!” have been involved for decades. Engineer/Editor Kim Rasmussen has been a full-time staff member since 2004, but started working on “Unshackled!” as an actor in the 1970s.

Aloisio-Sorenson has an interesting history, telling me that she is the fourth-generation Foley engineer for “Unshackled!” She recounted that her grandfather Ed Wojtal “started the sound effects for ‘Unshackled’ in the late 1950s” and was followed by her uncle Don Wojtal in 1967 and then by her father Nick Aloisio in 1972. She explained that her dad “stepped up, trained on only five shows, and was on his own for the next 39 years!”

After retiring in 2011, he trained Aloisio-Sorenson in two or three sessions and she’s been with “Unshackled!” since.

Onstage alongside Aloisio-Sorenson is her audio setup — she calls it a sound truck because it is “a moveable working machine” — consisting of two turntables for 78 rpm records, four CD players and a cart machine. When adding sounds to a production, she selects from recorded audio from a collection of four cabinets full of 78s (many of which her grandfather used), 200 CDs and more than 50 carts. Additionally, she’s equipped with a microphone for live sounds.

“I use tons of live props … and one prop has multiple uses. A stick can sound like a bone break as well as someone walking through the forest breaking tree branches.”

Sounds vary from production to production and Aloisio-Sorenson must think of creative ways to express them, ranging from notoriously difficult “bomb and artillery scenes” to footsteps in the snow (she rubs together two pieces of Styrofoam) or face slaps. She added that “body hits and face slaps are popular” and revealed that she will slap her thigh or arm and dramatizes punches by dropping her dad’s fully stuffed (with bed sheets) army duffle bag from over her head. Additionally, she likes to “bring in leaves and sticks” to use as props. “Live sounds are always better. They are much clearer and more believable.”

WHAT THE TECH?

According to Engineer/Editor Kim Rasmussen, “We use Avid’s Pro Tools 10 software to record and edit. I then make a master CD. It is distributed by mail to some stations, or we put it on an FTP site and the stations can download it from there.

“The mics we use for the actors are KSM32s produced by Shure. Our synthesizer is a Yamaha Electone HX-1. The sound cart has a number of CD players and even two turntables along with two live mics for live sound effects our Foley artist creates. The audio feeds into our MOTU 8pre interface, which distributes it to our Mac as well as our amp that feeds our headphones and the audience in the auditorium.

“I’m glad to have software [Unveil] that takes at least most of the echo out in post.”

After each week’s recording, Kim Rasmussen spends five to six days in post-production, whittling the show to 30 minutes. As part of that, he is “editing out the actors mistakes, enhancing (or adding) sound effects and leveling all the elements of the program.” He said it can be tough because the show is recorded in “a very open room,” which he likens to an airplane hangar.

Rasmussen said, “Every live episode of ‘Unshackled!’ is a balancing act technically. For our audience to clearly hear the episode, we need to sacrifice a studio quality sound in the recording.” However, the sense of the liveness of the performance is critical to the program for the enjoyment of both the live and radio audiences. Listeners from around the world, who flood the mission with calls and letters stating their engagement with the real-life stories, likely would agree.

An archive of episodes can be found online at www.unshackled.org. Historic show photos are at www.unshackled.org/photo_historic.html.



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