Radio drama, National Public Radio, 1984.
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Bradbury on Bradbury 13
When the series began, Ray Bradbury took part in a special NPR press conference. Click here to hear his opening remarks about the series.
Bradbury 13 was a half-hour radio drama series, produced by Mike McDonough. Bradbury provided an opening voice-over, and Paul Frees introduced each episode.
Bradbury was very pleased with this series - and rightly so, as it features some of the best media adaptations of his work ever produced. The star of the series was really the sound design. Mike McDonough went on to become a sound designer/editor for films, and Bradbury 13 is sometimes as lavish as a Hollywood movie. The series won at least three awards: a Peabody and a two Gold Cindy awards. Music was by Greg Hansen, who went to a successful career as a composer and record producer, and Roger Hoffman.
McDonough says, "the most fun I have ever had was producing Bradbury 13. Ray gave me total carte blanche on the stories I chose. I read The Martian Chronicles in high school, and loved that period of Ray's writing, the period of the late 1950s and early 1960s. I loved those stories. I collected a lot of his anthologies, and just started reading. I chose stories that I felt I could mould into half hour radio dramas, stories that had interesting possibilities for sound."
The series manages to both re-create the feel of classic OTR (old-time radio), and yet feel fresh and modern, especially when heard in stereo. Yet, surprisingly, McDonough claims not have ever heard any radio drama prior to his making this series: "I grew up on TV and film, not radio. I met Ray in Los Angeles when I was a teenager at the Whittier Public Library where he came to speak once. I was always interested in sound, and a friend of mine liked acting, so just for fun we adapted some of his short stories in "audio dramas" and sent him the tapes. He loved them, and became a sort of mentor, always encouraging me to do more."
McDonough's first efforts were low- or no-budget productions, just for fun - early versions of "Kaleidoscope", "The Fox and the Forest" and "The Man" - while he was a student at Brigham Young University in Utah. He used acting students and faculty, and "stolen" Bernard Herrman music taken from soundtrack albums. Thanks to his part-time job at the University recording studio, McDonough had access to recording and mixing facilities after hours. Several years later, he secured a grant from National Public Radio and those early productions were re-made with professional production values.
McDonough had always admired Herrman's music since he first saw Journey To The Center Of The Earth. "I loved all of his scores. He was brilliant. His music was like a living, breathing entity that raised the film to a whole new level. His scores were eerie, yet beautiful at the same time. He as the master of suspense, and could use an orchestra like on one else. The only film adaptation of Ray's that was any good was Fahrenheit 451, and of course that was a Herrman score as well. When I decided to do the radio series, I had Herrman's music going through my head the whole time.
The music used in the series - inspired by Herrman, but all of it original - is one of the key factors giving it that film-soundtrack quality. McDonough assembled a small orchestra together from university students and faculty. The music was recorded and mixed onto 16-track 2-inch tape. McDonough recalls, "I asked Roger Hoffman and Greg Hansen to write me a library of music I could use on the show. A series of themes, bridges, transitions, etc. In a few cases, as in 'The Veldt' and the end of 'The Ravine', I asked them to score music just for those episodes. Since we recorded on a multi-track tape recorder, I was able to do several different mixes of each cue, some with just percussion, some with just strings. This gave me more choices of music cues and let me stretch the music even further. In fact, I could take just the beginning, middle, or end of a piece of music and mix a whole new bumper cue from it."
Another distinctive feature of the sound design comes from McDonough's determination to create all the sound effects from scratch, and not rely on sound effects libraries. "I wanted to keep a totally organic feel to everything. I insisted on recording and creating all original sound effects for the show. Every puff of wind, rocket ship, gun shot, ricochet, door open, was a new and original sound I recorded and manipulated in the studio." And no synthesisers were used - well, "except for a little bit in the sound of the time machine in 'A Sound of Thunder'."
McDonough wrote all thirteen scripts himself, typing on a portable Smith Corona typewriter in his laundry room at home, a place where he had solitude and a small window to look at of. It took three months to develop the scripts. Each had to be twnety-eight minutes and thorty seconds in length, and the aim was to maintain as much of Bradbury's wording as possible: "That is why Ray liked my scripts so much. I kept as much of his word-smithing as possible. I also had to put a lot of his description into dialogue and sound effects to keep the shows interesting sounding, and not just a book-on-tape. I purposly avoided too much narrartion, and opted for sounds to keep the listener interested in the story and make it a more personal experience. For instance, the characters in 'A Sound of Thunder' never describe what the time machine looks like. Instead, I described it with the sounds it makes and let the listener draw a picture of it in his mind. It makes the experience more intense and personal, like reading a book."
Thirteen and out
Why thirteen episodes? McDonough says, "It was an interesting number, and I liked it. At the time thirteen was a common number of of episodes for TV and radio shows, or so I was told. Twelve was too neat and predictable, and Ray Bradbury is not predictable!"
The series was a critical success, and has remained a cult favourite. Bradbury would have welcomed more episodes, McDonough says: "He said I can do anything to any of his stories any time I want." But with a budget at the time (1984) was $120,000 for the thirteen episodes, and an apparent lack of a market for such extravagant audio production, there would be no further shows produced. "There is no commercial radio drama on the air any more, and these "audio dramas" don't fit into any marketing scenerios. The big book-on-tape companies don't like them because the production value is so high that they make their other products sound cheap by comparison. They literally don't fit in to audio CDs, movies, music, etc. The only way I would ever do them again is for the sheer fun of doing it, not to make money. I now have all the high-end audio gear that there is to do my film sound on...but I find myself too busy making a buck to have the time to do new stories."
Despite their relatively young age (twenty-two years at the time of writing), episodes of Bradbury 13 are keenly traded by fans of Old-Time Radio (OTR), who more typically exchange material from 1930s-1950s. This is testimony to the quality of the production, but it is also partly due to the rarety of the episodes. Since their original broadcast, the series has rarely been repeated. Twelve episodes were released on audio cassette by Dove Audio ("The Screaming Woman" doesn't seem to have made it for some reason), but without the Bradbury 13 designation. Unfortunately, they seem to have gone out of print now, but still sometimes turn up as "used" on Amazon.com and auction sites. McDonough is happy that the show has found a niche, but he doesn't like the idea of poor-quality MP3 copies of the show being in circulation. "I have heard some of them, and they sound terrible! I want to get rid of ripped-off MP3's that were made from old cassettes that sounded questionable to begin with." The master recordings, he says, still sound remarkably good: "I just recently played them again while transferring the sound to [a] digital [format]. I had to bake the original tapes in the oven for three hours at three hundred and fifty degrees in order to stableize the oxide enough to play them. But they still sound terriffic."
After Bradbury 13
McDonough owns both the master tapes and the copyright in the recordings, and wants to see them released in full quality, both on CD and on the web - as properly prepared MP3 files. However, he admits, "I have no marketing skills, and I'm a lousy businessman! I keep hoping someone will come along with a plan and even a bit of start up money to help me get it all going. Maybe someday..."
After Bradbury 13, McDonough produced a similar short series called The Omni Audio Experience as an experiment for the science fact/science fiction magazine Omni. Three episodes were produced for release on audio cassette: one was based on an Arthur C.Clarke story, and the other two were based on Bradbury tales. Whether the experiment was a success or not is a moot point: the magazine itself went out of business shortly afterwards.
McDonough's career has flourished since Bradbury 13. An extensive list of his credits in film and television - including a number of IMAX productions - is shown on this archived version of his website (please note that this is NOT a current site, but is a "preserved" version accessed through the Internet Archive.
Sounds of Bradbury 13
Many listeners rate the adaptation of "A Sound of Thunder" as their favourite. Although it suffers from some weakness in some of the acting, it does have some of the best sound design. And, of course, the dinosaurs look much more convincing on radio than they ever could on TV! To hear a short clip from this episode, click here.
For copyright reasons, I am unable to carry any complete episodes of the series on this site. However, to hear Paul Frees' introductions you can click on the Episodes links below. If Frees' voice sounds familiar, it's because he is one of the most popular voice artists of all time, as his credits reveal.
The Vix Audio Show (#5) carried an audio interview with Mike McDonough, and includes more clips from Bradbury 13. Vic has also posted additional material from McDonough, including an episode of Omni Sound Experience.