Playing it by ear

Friday, January 29, 1999


Staff Writer


Hearing, says Larry Weiner, is believing. None of the creaking-door, breaking-glass sound effects of yesteryear for the cutting-edge radio dramas of his Radio Repertory Company of America.

Ahem -- "audio movies."

"The term 'radio drama' mispositions us as a kind of old-fashioned radio show where you hear the sound-effects man clomping along to create footsteps," says Weiner, whose 10-year-old company is helping to revive the long-neglected art of the radio play.

He's venturing into new territory with "The Flight of the Bumble Bee," a two-hour original science-fiction drama that combines state-of-the-art computer audio effects with a DeMille-size cast (40 actors -- count 'em).

Among them is Marina Sirtis from TV's "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and who can currently be seen in the big-screen "Star Trek: Insurrection."

"We've never done anything this ambitious," says Weiner, a Saddle Brook resident who helms the business with Bob Arsena of Little Ferry and Angelo Panetta of Elmwood Park, where their studio is located.

Radio drama, once a mainstay of the airwaves, all but vanished in the wake of the 1950s TV revolution.

In recent years, however, a number of high-profile visionaries have tried to bring it back -- including Leonard Nimoy, whose Alien Voices company has been redoing old radio war horses like Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds," and George Lucas, whose Lucasfilm did a seven-hour radio adaptation of "Star Wars" in the early 1980s. But RRCA is doing them one better, Weiner says.


"Leonard Nimoy and George Lucas are doing similar things, but they're not doing original material," he says. "On the technical side, no one is taking the care with the foley [sound effects artist] sounds -- the little incidental sound effects you hear in a movie. We were so meticulous in the reproduction of sound. No one is doing that. We think it's a much richer audio experience. It also helps place [listeners] in the scene a lot better."

"The Flight of the Bumble Bee" is an epic space adventure about the rousing exploits of alcoholic ex-starship Capt. Kurk Manly (Richard Fish) as he battles intergalactic bad guys and his own personal demons in winning the love of space bureaucrat Nancy Coy (Sirtis).

If it all sounds a wee bit tongue-in-cheek, that's typical of RRCA, whose previous productions include "Garson Krebs, Private Eye," a detective spoof which ran on National Public Radio in 1995 and 1996; a spinoff series "The Brooke Sisters," and the horror-comedy "The Stealer of Souls."

"I've always had an affinity for comedy," Weiner says.

Even so, "The Flight of the Bumble Bee" is also a genuine audio epic in the "Star Wars" tradition. Even the price tag -- $10,000 -- is, for them, epic.

"It has space battles, romance, intrigue, spying, a lot of action," says Weiner, who spent the last year in the studio overseeing the project and is the show's creative director and writer.

"It's written in a very visual way," says Weiner. "It's funny, but when people hear it, the first thing they tell you is that they can see it -- in their heads."

The show is under consideration by National Public Radio, which would air it in four half-hour segments. But whether or not NPR, with its 500 affiliate stations nationwide, chooses to pick it up, Weiner and company have other fish to fry.

Barnes & Noble bookstore, for starters, will begin to carry the tapes in February or March.

The real market for radio drama in the future will not be the broadcast media but the exploding audio books market, Weiner believes.

"The books-on-tape market is a multibillion-dollar-a-year market," Weiner says. "We also know that there are people going to movies every week."

Hence, "audio movies" -- a term designed to attract twentysomethings more than old-time radio fans.

Since Weiner and his colleagues were originally in the advertising business (Radio Repertory Company of America started as a producer of broadcast commercials), they know a thing or two about marketing.

"With 'Garson Krebs,' we targeted it to the old-time radio lover," he says. "Then, when we tried to get the tapes into bookstores, the buyer from Barnes & Noble said, 'Why do we want radio dramas that no one's ever heard of when we've got all this great older stuff?' So we've given up on the old-radio listener, and we're actually going for the 25-plus market."

Part of the upcoming bonanza for radio drama, Weiner believes, will be CD Radio -- a newfangled subscription service that will allow people to download their choice of audio programs using a tiny silver-dollar-sized satellite dish in their car. CD Radio is expected to be introduced toward the end of the year.

"There will be a need for more audio programming as this technology becomes available to everybody," he says. "It's like cable TV. When cable grew and developed, there was all of a sudden this tremendous need for programming. The same thing is going to happen on the radio side."


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