All those cryptic buzzes and beeps your engineer has been hearing over the years may be coming from a mysterious source.
Maybe it’s the “Phantom Power.”
That’s the amusing scenario being proposed by an audio play called “Phantom Power: A Brief History of the Ghost in Our Machines,” which will be performed live online on Oct. 29 during the AES Fall 2020 Show. Group-produced by the HEAR Now Festival, Soundbooth Theater and SueMedia Productions, this original audio play was created to celebrate Radio@100, the 100th anniversary of commercial radio broadcasting in the U.S.
The backstory: Exactly 100 years ago — on Nov. 2, 1920 — an audio engineer was trying to get the very first commercial broadcast on air. Somehow, his work ended up pulling him into the machine itself and he found himself trapped forever in the radio waves. This engineer, nicknamed Phantom Power, spends the next 100 years fighting off the ghosts that live in the machines — and all those cryptic buzzes and beeps — and trying to get free.
When the play’s story begins, it’s the year 2020. It’s Halloween. And strange things are beginning to happen at the fictional radio station WDMB.
The ghostly hero, Phantom Power, begins to make his presence known at WDMB. A few days shy of the 100th anniversary of commercial radio broadcasting, the ghosts that live in the machines — that only Phantom Power can defeat — begin to appear. The morning show team at WDMB, who have since March 2020 been quarantining together at the studios while continuing to broadcast, begin to reminisce. They ruminate about broadcast history and previous technology, and in doing so acknowledge all the accomplishments that have come before them — of the engineers, DJs and producers that have curated and cared for radio over the last 100 years.
The idea for this production came about when producer Sue Zizza of SueMedia Productions was asked by AES Broadcast Chair David Bialik to create a special event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of commercial radio. Zizza has been producing special educational and performance events for the AES Broadcast Track, which has been a staple at the AES annual convention, since 1997.
After an email exchange with Ralph Scott, the public relations chair for the HEAR Now Festival, the team brought in audio playwright Butch D’Ambrosio to create a play that looks back on commercial radio’s rich history. This is familiar territory for D’Ambrosio” At last year’s AES show, D’Ambrosio wrote “An Intimate Evening with Tesla and Twain,” an audio performance about Nicola Tesla and Mark Twain.
This year’s production differs from other live audio productions in part because it creates the impression that the audience is together in the same room, Zizza said. “Working with Soundbooth Theater has made this production feel as if we are together in the theater or studio,” she said. “This past June, when HEAR Now went virtual and took the festival completely online, we found that Soundbooth had been experimenting with live performance and had found ways to minimize latency issues that can defeat many ‘zoom performance’ events.”
The production features cast members Jeff Hays, founder of Soundbooth Theater, as well as actors Gary Francis Furlong, Annie Ellicott and Laurie Catherine Winkel. Soundbooth’s Ahmed Mahmoud will be engineering the live performance using a variety of software including StreamYard and Steam Deck. David Shinn of SueMedia Productions is the event’s technical director, who will ensure the performance’s web stream will be accessible to AES attendees. HEAR Now intern Rory Stevenson has created the prerecorded sound effects.
By honoring radio’s past, Zizza said, today’s radio professionals can be a better shepherd in the future.
“We should appreciate those who came before, their inventions, and the time they invested to give us the ability to reach each other over the airwaves,” she said. “If we continue to honor the past, we will get to create the future and the next 100 years of broadcasting, wherever that leads.”
Those interested in listening in to “Phantom Power” can register for the AES event here.