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Radio Obsessive Profile #4: Seattle Radio Theatre Founder Feliks Banel

Seattle Radio Theatre's 2008 Peformance of "The Bishop's Wife"

Seattle Radio Theatre's 2008 Performance

Radio passion takes a variety of forms. Some people love the artifacts and become avid collectors of vintage equipment, promotional materials, and publications. Some are scholars, meticulously curating radio’s history. And others seek out present-day radio gems in order to remind people that radio is still relevant.

Seattle Radio Theatre founder Feliks Banel’s enthusiasm for radio spans across several of these categories.

While he was the deputy director of the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle (MOHAI) he started a tradition of live holiday radio plays. Over the years these radio dramas have included performances of both original and vintage scripts. Last week the 2009 production featured a live performance of It’s a Wonderful Life (you can listen to the podcast here or take a look at a video of that performance here).

It’s exciting to see that Seattle Radio Theatre is keeping live radio drama alive. According to the program notes for this year’s production,

“As far as Seattle Radio Theatre producers can tell, we are the only regularly-scheduled live radio drama in the United States (if you consider once a year ‘regular’). While there are many groups recording radio programs in-studio and ‘live to tape’ before a live audience, Seattle Radio Theatre is the only one that has done it every year live on the radio before a live audience for what will be a eighth year in 2009.”

In addition to his work with Seattle Radio Theatre, Feliks also writes about radio for his blog I Still Love Radio and for the website In his email interview with me he talks not only about radio drama and his own radio past; but also shares with me his insights about the role that radio has played in Christmas traditions in America, with “shared holiday moments” facilitated over the airwaves. I love this idea and it reminds me of the fun I had last Christmas Eve watching the WGN Yule Log while listening to their accompanying soundtrack of classic radio dramas.

Thanks to Feliks Banel for taking the time to chat with me by email about his love for radio. Although he was a bit nervous about the “Radio Obsessive” label, I hope that he embraces this honor, as he’s doing important work to help keep radio alive.

Jennifer Waits: Why are you so passionate about radio?

Feliks Banel: As a listener, radio is a great medium. It’s portable, and local stations (with the right level of staffing) have the ability to mix local and national programming according to what’s most appropriate for a given situation, whether local news or events, or national news or events. It’s also practical, in that you can wash dishes or drive or get other tasks done while you listen, without diminishing your concentration (as is required when watching TV). Radio can be as unobtrusive as you need it to be, turned up loud or on in the background, at midday or in the dark.

As a producer, radio is inexpensive to create. Broadcast quality mics and recorders are just a tiny fraction of what similar video equipment would cost, and editing is much simpler and cheaper. Also, anyone with a telephone anywhere in the world is within reach of any radio producer/reporter with a few inexpensive pieces of equipment. It’s a very different situation for TV producers, who must be in the same room with their interviewees (or connected via satellite to a studio), and who must have thousands of dollars of camera and lighting and editing equipment on hand to produce even a simple broadcast quality video interview.

I also think I was trained to love radio. I was born in 1968, but I grew up with older parents who were definitely of the radio generation. My Polish father was four when Lindberg crossed the Atlantic, and he had memories of listening to radio news about the event with his parents in their home in his native Poland. He also told me of hearing early morning transmissions in Russian from Moscow of text for rural editions of Pravda (radio was used by the Pravda editors like an audible teletype).

As a young man in the Polish Home Army (organized resistance to the Nazis and the Soviets), he learned of the D-Day landings by way of a radio captured earlier that morning from a German weather station that his unit had overran. That he could be hundreds of miles away from London and get this very good news out in the woods somewhere, surrounded by Nazis and Soviets, was pretty amazing.

My mother grew up in 1930s and 1940s London, listening with her family to many of the classic BBC programs from that era, including It’s That Man Again, In Town Tonight, Bandwaggon, Monday Night at Seven and J.B. Priestley’s Sunday night “Postscripts.” I heard about all that stuff as I was growing up, and have gone on to read and listen to as many radio history books, articles and recordings as I can.

Radio was always a large part of our media diet growing up, especially 1970s commercial AM news, Top 40 and oldies. As I matured, I found FM and public radio, but still find myself listening to commercial news and talk, especially for local content during breaking news or inclement weather. I’m pretty busy and rarely watch TV (usually only documentaries on our local PBS station), but I always listen to radio several hours a day.

Can You Hear the Radio Drama?

Can You Hear the Radio Drama?

Jennifer: I noticed that you have an essay posted on your “I Still Love Radio” website in which you draw links between the rise of radio and the rise of the American Christmas in the 20th Century.

In the spirit of the season, could you give a few highlights of what you found?

Feliks: As I postulate in that piece, radio and Christmas were inextricably linked in the first half of the 20th century and each was a factor in growth and “market penetration” of the other during this time. From what’s generally held to be the first transmission of the human voice (by Reginald Fessenden on Christmas Eve 1906), up through each World War II Christmas, radio played a unique role in creating an audience for simultaneously shared holiday moments that helped build a national community (much like FDR speeches and sporting events during other times of the year).

That the first broadcast was on Christmas Eve was, I think, not a coincidence: so much more material (centuries of music, spoken word) lends itself to broadcast on that night than on any other night throughout the year. Later Christmas broadcasts (especially firsts, including the Metropolitan Opera’s premiere) took advantage of the natural state of Christmas, especially the fact that most Americans were home on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, creating perhaps the largest potential audience of any day of the year.

The war years provided some of the most poignant broadcasts, juxtaposing war zones with what’s supposed to be the most peaceful night of the year. Ed Murrow’s Christmas 1940 broadcast from London; FDR and Churchill’s joint address from Washington, DC on Christmas Eve 1941; the first civilian special broadcast of “Command Performance” on Christmas Eve 1942; an episode of the Army Air Force program “I Sustain The Wings” from Staten Island on Christmas 1943; and announcement of Glenn Miller’s disappearance on Christmas Eve 1944 are among my favorite examples of this.

Jennifer: When did you start Seattle Radio Theatre and what prompted you to create it?

Feliks: Seattle Radio Theatre began in 2000 at the Museum of History & Industry, the same year I produced the first live broadcast of Sandy Bradley’s Potluck! Holiday Reunion (also at the museum). Sandy Bradley’s Potluck! was a live variety show produced in Seattle up until the mid 1990s, and Sandy was eager to come back for an annual live show (on KBCS FM), which lasted until about two years ago…

I’m not an old-time radio fanatic, but I have enjoyed listening to radio drama for many years, and had worked with Jim French at KIRO in the early 1990s. Jim’s been producing live-to-tape radio dramas in Seattle for many years, and syndicating them under the name Imagination Theatre. I came around to wanting to do my shows live because it makes for more of a spectacle, and is more fun knowing that anything can go wrong at any minute.

Anybody can stop the tape and start over. Doing it live is a bigger adrenaline rush, and is incredibly addictive. I wrote my own 60-minute scripts the first few years as a way of scratching my screenplay itch (it was nice to not have to try to sell the scripts, and to know that they would be produced and not just sit gathering dust). It was exhausting work, which is why I was glad to discover the Lux Radio Theater scripts for old holiday movies. I also produced a number of other live remote broadcasts from the museum beginning in 2001 (on community radio KBCS FM), mainly a series of recently rediscovered musical scripts originally produced in Seattle from the early to the mid-20th century.

Again, radio is such a practical way to distribute audio material, and live radio creates a spectacle and an immediacy, as well as a means for people to participate from far away. It was a great fit for what we were doing at the museum at that time.

Jennifer: How often have you simulcast your productions over terrestrial radio?

Feliks: We’ve done the annual show as a live broadcast every year since 2002 (on KING FM from 2002-2003; on KPLU FM from 2004-2006; on KPTK AM since 2007). The first two shows were done “live to tape” for KIXI AM. When we went live in 2002, there was no going back. KPTK is great to work with, and the shows sound better on AM than they do on FM. FM is too clean and crisp for radio drama. Adding up the Seattle Radio Theatre live shows, plus Sandy Bradley’s Potluck! Holiday Reunions, plus the performances on KBCS, I’d say I’ve done close to 20 live remote productions in the past nine years.

Jennifer: What has listener response been like for Seattle Radio Theatre?

Feliks: We had fewer than 100 people in the auditorium for the first production in 2000, and this year had close to 500. I always hear from several people after each year’s show about how much they enjoyed it, and how they wish we’d do more than just one show a year.

One of my favorite listener comments was from 2006, when a massive storm had left thousands without electricity for several days, including the night of our show. A man who lives about 20 miles from Seattle told me that he and his wife stoked up their woodstove, and then listened in the dark to the show on their battery powered radio.

I also hear from people who are grateful to have a program that they can listen to with their families, including young children, and from others who are thrilled that local celebrities (especially our famous TV clown JP Patches) are back on the air.

Jennifer: Have you ever worked in radio? Where?

Feliks: I was an intern and then worked part-time as an assistant editor in the newsroom at KIRO AM from 1990-1992 and loved it. I was offered a full-time job that would have meant overnight and weekend shifts, and opted instead to go into 9-5 public affairs and communications as a longterm strategy that would be more conducive to home and family. After seven years as deputy director of Seattle’s history museum, I went back into media in 2006, and have been producing TV segments and programs for the Seattle Channel (civic TV station) for the past three years.

Jennifer: What are your plans for your “I Love Radio” website?

Feliks: I toyed with going to grad school for media history and actually was accepted to the University of Washington here in Seattle for autumn 2005. But I backed out, not wanting to try and balance work, family and school (I’m not sure what I was thinking). But I still want to study and write about media, so starting a blog seemed like the best way to proceed.

I launched in June, and have spent the past six months writing timely critical pieces about contemporary radio (local and national) as well as essays about historical/pop culture topics (DDay radio coverage, books about radio, films about radio, etc.)

In September, I began freelance writing about local radio and TV for a Seattle-based non-profit journalism project called Since then, most of my writing about local radio has shifted to (I did a piece about 9/11 on NPR, a piece about Seattle classical station KING FM’s troubles, a look back at a 1980s Seattle alternative station and a profile of the new PRI president, who happens to be an attorney from Seattle, etc.) and my more national pieces have been for ISLR. My plans for 2010 are to upgrade the look of the site, and to add more audio (contemporary, historic and otherwise from my own collection and where I can find it already posted on the web).

Most local radio suffers from a lack of criticism, and national radio criticism is pretty much nonexistent. I love John Crosby’s columns from the 1940s and 1950s, and Robert John Landry’s writing about radio from the 1940s (as well as Jack Gould’s TV and radio criticism, and Michael Arlen’s TV criticism)—I’d love to have a full-time gig writing about radio and other audio entertainment. Until that happens, I’ll keep writing for Crosscut and ISLR.

Jennifer: What do you enjoy about radio today? Any favorite stations?

Feliks: What I have always enjoyed most about radio is live coverage of significant local and/or national events, whether planned in advance like a presidential speech or unanticipated like Scott Simon’s excellent coverage of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. Very rarely does the addition of video provide much enhancement to live coverage—the audio is often much more evocative (and you don’t have to sit and stare at a screen—you can get up and move around or you can see the faces of other people you’re listening with).

I’m also a big fan of live, “curated” music programs. We’re lucky to have two fabulous shows like this in the Seattle area: “The Swing Years” with Amanda Wilde on KUOW (American popular music from the 1920s to the 1950s), heard every Saturday (and hosted live by Amanda) from 7pm to 12 midnight; and “All Blues” with John Kessler, heard Saturday and Sunday nights from 6 to 12 midnight on KPLU.

The fact that Amanda and John are sitting in their respective studios, hearing the music in real-time (rather than voice-tracking) and then commenting about each tune live, gives both of these programs a decidedly human feel. Plus, as a listener, you know that Amanda and John are experiencing the same weather and same daylight or darkness as you—you feel connected.

I also like KING FM’s commercial-free HD channel (this time of year playing all classical Christmas music); community station KBCS FM, where I used to do a Christmas Eve show and where I’ve done several special programs over the years; KIRO FM, the newstalk station I worked for 20 years ago where I still have a lot of friends and where they do a consistent job covering local news and live events; and KUOW FM’s HD channel that carries BBC World Service. I also tune in KASB in my car, the station from Bellevue High School (which I wrote about for Crosscut a few months ago), because I love how “pure” it sounds.

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