Cognitive Mapping and Radio Drama by Alan Beck - Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, Volume 1 Number 2, July 2000

also at


11.1 Cognitive mapping in the radio studio

Cognitive mapping, as a paradigm, is another way, through reception theory, to consider aspects of radio's dynamism and the economy rule. This latter is how radio filters out or excludes many sound events by comparison with real-life interaction.

In the process of radio drama production, cognitive mapping is also a useful, practical paradigm for sorting out the logic of sound events, their balancing and ordering. This sorting is done all the time, speedily and intuitively. It may appear trite to point out, but the fact is that some of the knottier, time-consuming problems in radio drama production are to do with the logic and ordering of sound events. At what point do you fade down the background atmos (rain) when the house door is closed? Character X moves off to the livingroom door. Where is it in the stereo picture, left or right? Above all and a constant refrain: 'Where are we in the sound picture?'.

The director, Studio Manager and technicians are constantly employed in cognitive mapping. One of their many skills is this ability to orienteer through the play script.

11.2 Linear

I am problem-solving as I navigate the play's narrative, and I am also constantly reinforced by the linear manner of broadcast, along the horizontal axis. It continuously builds up my recognition and continuously repeats information about the salient landmarks. But beyond the figure-and-ground structure of dialogue against atmos (storm, jungle, traffic, crowd, factory machinery, etc.), and because of the salience of dialogue, I still, for the most part, experience the radio representata in a linear manner, one thing after another, one thing hidden behind another, leading to this or that closure. The dialogue 'landmarks' the characters at the centre of the sound picture, in close-up or further off, and orients me at my ego-centre position.

So, providing I am averagely competent, I should not have memory problems or be disoriented with these signals and cues. This, in a sense, is the aural equivalent of the visual saccades (glances) or successive reinforcement of the landmarks: the characters are 'there' in the sound picture (microphone positions 2 or 3 for conversation, head or head-and-shoulders 'shots'), the storm at sea just outside the ship's bridge, the background TOM-TOMS (outer frame, acousmatic sound). This is strictly foreground-background, and is like the drawing room model Altman analyses for some film scenes, with 'primary attention devoted not to space but to speech' (1991, 63). Of course there are other styles of radio drama production, but this standard production is dominant.

Although the input is totally aural, my spatial cognition system, functioning well as I enjoy the play, enables me also to perceive the sound picture in all my sensory modes. So I can place the characters in their space and I can 'see' and 'smell' the sea storm, 'feel' the jungle heat and 'be in' the London Board Room. On the internalist model, which has already been referred to, aural perception is penetrated in some way by the other four modes. I switch signals: auditory to visual to olfactory etc.

11.3 Abstract geometry

In summary of this scene analysis, and making use of Gibson, the ecological psychologist (Gibson, 1950, 1979), we could describe the aural 'mise en scène' and its array of invariants as experienced only in outline. It is a territory of abstract geometry (planes and lines - outlines only) rather than of ecological geometry (surfaces and edges, substantial and textured - to be seen). I am aware that this is my opinion only and does not have backing in reception studies. Of course, the film spectator navigates the visual track via the camera and the director's editing. Rothman comments: 'The camera also represents the viewer. Does it, then, always serve two masters?' (Rothman, 1988, ix). But camera or microphone - both restrict the epistemic situation of the viewer/listener.

11.4 The radio frame

The radio 'mise en scène' does afford clear and continuously reaffirmed information about location in the sound picture or field. It has a clearly defined boundary, and it is argued elsewhere (Beck, 1998, 6) that the sound medium is able to impose this more definitely than film and TV, within a main frame and an outer frame. It communicates that there is no other way to 'view' the situation. All is gathered within the frame, whether it is double, as inner and outer, or a single frame - all other 'viewing' positions and possibilities are somehow obliterated. We are not invited outside the main or the outer frame, as we are frequently in the cinema, to direct attention to what is movement off-screen. Information-gathering and communication (Tarnay, 1997) for the listener are one.

When I reach the end of a scene and the beginning of another, a scene boundary, I am guided along the horizontal axis by the serial nature of broadcast (forward-only). In mapping, this could be described as a path intersection. Some radio play scenes offer more and richer depth cues, and more layered spacialisation. Standard production is more homogenised.

11.5 Flattening of perspective

By contrast, does the reading of the B.B.C. news, with the presenter at microphone position 3 or 2, and in a neutral acoustic, suggest a plane, that is a 2D, rather than a 3D environment? To each listener is granted his or her own interpretation: the active audience thesis (Watson and Hill, 1997, 2). There are other additional factors here in reception, not the least of which is media intertextuality, the cross-over with TV newsreading. Radio 'presence', considered above under paraproxemics, is itself the creation of an apparent interpersonal distance between the listener and the radio performer. The listeners may relate to the two-dimensional picture and do not miss the explanation of the third dimension.

In all of radio's 'mise en scènes', flattening of perspective is to be noted. This is a loss of space-in-depth, partly because of the compression of time-space-movement, but also because radio reduces the spaces between speakers or speaking characters. These spaces, to take an analogy from nineteenth-century naturalist painting, are areas of transition or areas of 'passage', linking foreground objects (for radio most often its speakers or performers) and background.

11.6 'Passage' areas & extreme close-up (ECU)

Radio makes these 'passage' areas vague or distorts them; and it masks spatial relationships and seeks to mask spatial discrepancies. In the case of the too-wearisome 'talking-heads' radio drama scene, distortion or flattening of 'passage' areas becomes intrusive to the listener, along with the seeming immobility of the characters and the dialogue. The radio sound picture disintegrates, where the extreme close-up (ECU) on talking heads is prolonged and is emphasised at the expense of the potential of the whole. The characters and the action in the scene's sound picture are no longer 'visible' as constituent elements within a Gestalt, but they fragment. Unlike photography, radio is not isomorphic in its representation.

However, as has been repeated in this article, the competent radio listener is an active listener. The logic of a radio text for each listener is to do with his or her own functional, cognitive map, providing - and here is the competence element - this map 'sounds' and 'reflects' time-space-movement appropriately.

To SECTION 12 - Final remarks

 SECTION 1 - Introduction - Way-finding  SECTION 2 - Previous discussions
 SECTION 3 - Cognitive mapping  SECTION 4 - Referentiality
 SECTION 5 - Phenomenology, Reception theory  SECTION 6 - Perspective
 SECTION 7 - Way-finding in radio drama   SECTION 8 - Problems with radio reception theory
SECTION 9 - Listener positioning   SECTION 10 - Objects in outline Gestalts
 SECTION 12 - Final remarks
 Glossary  Notes
 Works sited - bibliography Welcome Page for 'Cognitive Mapping'




Academic material on this site is Creative Commons License Alan Beck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

See more of Alan Beck's work.

To the WELCOME PAGE for Alan Beck's site.

Learn about radio drama on this site along with my book - Beck, Alan, Radio Acting, London: A & C Black ISBN 0-7136-4631-4

Available on Amazon. CLICK HERE.


Any opinions expressed in this site are the personal opinions of the owner of the site. IF YOU HAVE COMMENTS, PLEASE EMAIL TO :


World Wide view of radio and section
copied by FREE Go FTP Program