In old-fashioned radio drama, the listener’s imagination is as critical as the performers’ talents in making a program come to life. Practitioners call it the “theater of the mind.”
WMSE — the radio station of the Milwaukee School of Engineering — recently embraced the theater of the mind by bringing back to the airwaves one of the most imaginative radio series ever produced.
Mindwebs — which ran 1976–84 on the former WHA public radio station, now WERN, in Madison — introduced radio audiences to the short stories of Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur C. Clarke and other science fiction authors.
The half-hour episodes were produced, directed and performed by WHA personality Michael Hanson, occasionally with the help of other on-air talent.
The broadcasts aired statewide, and episodes of Mindwebs have become the Holy Grail for old-time radio-drama aficionados, according to WMSE station manager Tom Crawford.
“I first heard the program in the 1970s and 1980s and became a fan and collector of sci-fi genre programs,” Crawford says. “I always thought it would be great if we could bring Mindwebs to WMSE.”
WMSE colleague Matt Kolata — who goes by the name “Darkman” and has an even more voracious appetite for radio dramas than Crawford — agreed.
Kolata set about tracking down Hanson and securing rights to re-broadcast the series.
In addition, some of the original tapes needed technical cleanup, which the station provides before airing, so Hanson’s mellifluous baritone voice rings as clearly as possible.
WMSE broadcast the first Mindwebs episode, a reading of the Bradbury classic “The Foghorn,” at midnight Oct. 28. The series received its formal launch Nov. 18 with the Thomas Disch short story “Descending.”
The station plans to air all 169 episodes, which includes 188 stories written by 135 different authors, Kolata says. It is being broadcast weekly on Saturdays at midnight.
“Michael Hanson is pure class and an example for today’s younger DJs on how to do it right,” Kolata says. “We are so happy to be bringing him back to radio and honored to now count him as one of the WMSE team.”
Labor of love
Hanson, 77 this month, couldn’t be happier about the revival of what for him had always been a labor of love.
A Stoughton native, Hanson had been a WHA intern while pursuing degrees in sociology and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1960s. He also was a voracious reader of what he refers to as “speculative fiction,” a broader definition of the sci-fi genre that reaches beyond the standard robots-and-spaceships realm.
Hanson had completed everything for his Ph.D other than his dissertation when a full-time position at WHA opened up in 1969. He abandoned his academic pursuits and joined the station staff.
“The name ‘Mindwebs’ may have taken longer to come up with than some of the episodes did to produce,” remembers Hanson, who may be better known to audiences for his long-running jazz program that aired on WERN Fridays and Saturdays at 11 p.m. “These were all produced on reel-to-reel tapes with editing done by razor blade. Modern technology would have sped up the process.”
With the station’s blessing, Hanson pursued the series mostly by himself, drawing on his talents as an announcer, producer and musician — he is a drummer who still leads the Michael Hanson Jazz Group in Madison — to create the proper dramatic environment.
Listen to “The Foghorn” and you will hear Hanson as the reader, as well as a different voice for another character. Background music selections include “Sunrise” from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, a segment from Samuel Barber’s haunting Adagio for Strings, incidental music from composer Bernard Herrmann’s score for the 1959 film Journey to the Center of the Earth, and the requisite amount of electronica.
“We probably overdid the (Karlheinz) Stockhausen and Tangerine Dream a little bit,” Hanson remembers. “We also had a lot of jazz.”
Hanson would choose the stories from among the “thousands” that he had read, ranging from dramatic to humorous, from thought-provoking to socially conscious.
“Aside from however prescient, fortunate or good I was at choosing stories, I always looked for those that had a broad meaning to a lot of different people in a lot of different ways,” Hanson says. “Some of those stories have been with us in different guises for as long as we’ve been on the planet, and I think they will have an equally strong impact on today’s listeners.”
Hanson is pleased that WMSE has chosen to carry on his original mission and would like to see as many listeners as possible exposed to Mindwebs and the works of his favorite — and most prescient — speculative fiction authors.
“I never made a penny off any of these episodes, and I hope no one else does either,” he adds.