Different sorts of silence in radio drama

 'Dead air' - technical fault (BELOW)
 Signifying silence in dialogue (BELOW)
 Silence as signifying scene end or scene closure (BELOW)
 Silent presence (BELOW)
 Ambient silence (BELOW)

'Dead air' - technical fault
 The listener does not read the silence as signifying meaning.
 A technical mistake, the fault of the director
 EXAMPLE: too long gap in dialogue flow
 Note the pause - what is the difference? - and how to measure it in terms of the listener's response - seconds, milliseconds etc.
 When does the listener get alarmed?
 Absence of sound is 'death', hence the force of the technical term. Normality is continuous sound, a continuous flow.
 Use of silence, short breaks, frames, to define the limits and transitions between programmes. (Crisell)
 Values of continuity and fullness


 An example from radio actuality is a gap during the news, where a news tape or live relay does not come through.
Or in a live interview, where the interviewee fails to come in on cue with an answer to a question, or stumbles with a lengthy pause in the middle of an answer.
The tv equivalent is a technical failure and the screen goes dead (blue-out), or with an emergency visual.

Weiss 57 on the film sound track:
Absence of sound would signify a break in an otherwise continuous flow. It has become a major taboo of sound track construction.

Signifying silence in dialogue
Silence is an essential part of the actor's equipment. He is the man who can make the silence vibrate, who can convey the impression of several dimensions by his sensitive use of one.
If the producer is afraid of silence, he is lost.

McWhinnie, Donald, 1959, The Art of Radio, London: Faber and Faber, 126

Silence as signifying scene end or scene closure

There is a gap of 2 to 3 seconds between scenes, if there is a fade down/out, or straight cut, at the end of a scene. And this is followed by a silence, rather than a crossfade, or a straight cut into the next scene.
There will most often be a signalled closure to the end of the scene.

Note the traditional 'Archers fade' - fade down into 2 or 3 seconds silence - fade in next scene.

A scene can be given excitement by lack of signalling scene closure. This is a particular technique of playwright Minghella.The end of the scene comes as a shock.

Silent presence
Reinforced by silence, a silent, or mostly silent, character in dialogue can have a powerful presence.

It reinforces the signifying power of address by the other characters, directed to the silent one.

Cf. Anthony Minghella's 'Cigarettes and Chocolate': "The silence is beautiful. Last year it was cigarettes. The year before chocolate. But this is the best."

See Crisell 152 for "unheard" silences. (Below)

Pinter's 'A Slight Ache'
In Harold Pinter's play A Slight Ache (1959), one of the characters is the mysterious match-seller whom Edward and Flora ask into their home and to whom they open their hearts. He never speaks. Does he really exist, or have they invented him? This question is part of the play's raison d'être but is immediately and damagingly (?) resolved if the play is staged or televised.

Ambient silence

There can be a strong contrast between different acoustics, moving from a silent acoustic (not necessarily in a 'dead' rather than a 'live' studio).

Ambient silence does have a perceptible quality.

In 'The Goons', the audience are invited to listen to the sound of an empty room. ('Room tone' existed as a variety of effects on gramophone records, and on film sound tracks. The joke is that no FX gramophone effect was played. The sound technicians remained immobile, having been working frantically up to this).


We can use an approach from semiotics - what does silence signify? It always signifies.


Here are two theoretical discussions of silence by Andrew Crisell:

Crisell, Andrew, 2nd ed., 1994, Understanding Radio, New York and London: Routledge.

pages 52-3

Though it is natural for us to speak of radio as a sound medium we should remember that the absence of sound can also be heard.
It is therefore important to consider silence as a form of signification. It has both negative and positive functions which seem to be indexical. Its negative function is to signify that for the moment at least, nothing is happening on the medium: there is a void, what broadcasters sometimes refer to as 'dead air'.
In this function silence can resemble noise (that is, sounds, words and music) in acting as a framing mechanism, for it can signify the.integrity of a programme or item by making a space around it. But if the silence persists for more than a few seconds it signifies the dysfunction or

The positive function of silence is to signify that something is happening which for one reason or another cannot be expressed in noise. Because radio silence is total (unlike film and theatrical silences, which are visually filled) it can be a potent stimulus to the listener, providing a gap in the noise for his imagination to work: 'Pass me the bottle. Cheers. . . . Ah, that's better!'

But such silences or pauses can suggest not only physical actions but abstract, dramatic qualities, generate pathos or irony by confirming or countering the words which surround them.

Example of Jack Benny skit
They can also generate humour, as in a famous radio skit which featured Jack Benny, a comedian with a reputation for extreme miserliness:

The skit consists of a confrontation between Benny and a mugger on the street. Says the mugger: 'Your money or your life'. Prolonged pause: growing laughter; then applause as the audience gradually realises what Benny must be thinking, and eventually responds to the information communicated by the silence and to its comic implications. (Fink, 1981, 202)

How, then, does the listener discriminate among these various negative and positive functions of silence? His guide is clearly the context - in the first instance whether any noise frames the silence and in the second, what that noise signifies.

See Silences and the overall design



Crisell, Andrew, 2nd ed., 1994, Understanding Radio. New York and London: Routledge.

page 152

In these forms of drama silence has an important role to play since radio endows it with a peculiar potency. In what respect?

Sounds, the very essence of radio, exist in time and constantly evaporate. If they are not renewed silence imposes itself. This also occurs in the theatre and cinema but is not important since these media provide images which exist in space and which therefore endure through both sounds and silences.

In radio, however, silence is visually unfilled and therefore absolute. Much more than in the theatre or cinema it is a quality which is noticed, heard, listened to. The difference is, or used to be, well illustrated by radio programmes which preview new films by featuring unedited excerpts from their sound-tracks. To the unseeing listener the pauses in the dialogue seem pointless and interminable. Indeed, so threatening is silence to the radio medium that if it persists for more than a few seconds the listener rightly concludes that the station transmitter or her own receiver has either broken down or been switched off.

But silence on the radio does not simply consist of audible breaks in the sound-flow: there are also 'unheard' silences - for instance, the failure of a character to contribute to an unbroken
dialogue even though his presence has previously been indicated. To counter the impression that he has departed or simply evaporated he must therefore be heard, referred to or addressed anew.

In various ways, then, radio is positively besieged by silence - a silence which portends non-existence, annihilation.

These nihilistic tendencies also remind us that the relationship between word and thing in radio is rather more complex than we have assumed. We have so far assumed that however variously we may picture it, an object exists simply by being named; but we should note that its existence is unlike that of physical objects since there is a sense in which it ceases to exist as soon as the naming is concluded.

Nevertheless, this has its advantages: since radio's reality requires constant renewal, since it is susceptible to change and even annihilation, the medium is much better suited than the conventional theatre to the presentation of fluid, indeterminate worlds, especially those of absurdist drama.

As Frances Gray points out (1981, 61-2) its lack of a consistent reality is itself absurd - a fact which abounds not only in absurdist but downright comic possibilities, as we shall see in the next chapter.

But even when radio presents a world which is internally stable and consistent, there may be things within that world whose ontological status is left deliberately ambiguous - and such ambiguity may also be suggested by heard or unheard silences.






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