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Response to Douglas, “The Zen of Listening”

Ah, listening. We do it all the time, and unlike watching television, we can do other things while we listen. Listening tends to leave a lasting impression as well. Can you often remember what you were doing when you heard a popular song for the first time? Do certain pieces of audio bring back memories and feelings from the past? Susan J. Douglas explores what makes listening so powerful an emotion in Listening In. Douglas focuses particularly on radio, and what makes it stand out from visual communication such as television and print media.

Radio differs from TV in that, lacking visual material to accompany the audio, we need to fill in the missing visuals with our imagination. Douglas cited a study involving two groups of kids in which the first group watched TV and the second listened to radio, and found that “the children who had heard the story created much more imaginative conclusions than those who had seen the television version.” I know that my dad told me as a kid that he had to listen to all of his hometown baseball games on the radio, and he’d need to imagine how each game went. This active engagement with the material rather than sitting and watching it unfold made it a lot more exciting.

I’d very much agree with the strong emotions that sound alone can conjure, as I’m a horror story junkie. I can’t get enough scary stories in my life, and nothing is scarier than listening to an episode of the excellent Nosleep Podcast just before bed. Douglas nods at the ability of radio to creep people out, mentioning Cantril and Allport who said that

“When it comes to producing eerie and uncanny effects,” they added, “the radio has no rival.” They noted that even in the early 1930s, listeners would “enhance this distinctive quality of radio” by sitting in the dark and closing their eyes so that “their fantasies are free.”

In addition, radio is much more effective than print media because of the fact that it is a live stream of communication. Radio can be heard by everyone at exactly the same time, and it builds off of the newspaper culture in which everyone reads the same stories. Now everyone can experience the same thing at the same time.

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