High drama on the radioCha Seong-pil, a taxi driver, plies the Seoul streets during the graveyard shift, 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., each day. He likes his job, but at times he feels like an outcast driving in the dead of night while most of the capital sleeps.
“The only friend I’ve got is this radio,” Mr. Cha says while maneuvering his cab in Sinchon, northwest Seoul. “When I hear stuff over the radio, I feel connected.”
At 11 p.m. on this recent Sunday, Mr. Cha tunes his dashboard radio to “KBS Stage,” a regular drama on 97.3 FM. Videos and television killed off radio theater. But not all of it.
“Radio is not in control anymore,” Mr. Cha says, “but it’s still here.”
Perhaps a dozen radio dramas remain on Korea’s air -waves, 10 of which belong to the state-run KBS Radio. MBC Radio has one. SBS has none.
For the dedicated people who put on Korea’s surviving radio dramas, the work is their connection.
9 a.m. Feb. 26 / A practice room for radio actors at KBS studios in Seoul.
At least 20 radio actors squeeze into a small room on the fifth floor of KBS Hall, their heads bent over sheets of paper. It’s stuffy in this tight space, but that’s considered normal for a reading session of “KBS Stage.”
This week’s drama, titled “Who You Can Be,” is a sob story of a father committing suicide for the sake of his family. The 43-minute long show airs at 11:10 p.m. each Sunday.
Taping was set to begin at 10 a.m., but a half hour later producer Lee Young-ro is still not satisfied with the quality of the rehearsal. Losing his temper, he flails at the voice actors. “Look kid, you sound too run-of-the-mill here,” he growls at Im Ju-hyun, who has the lead role. Red-faced, Mr. Lee goes on, “We’re not going to record this drama until you guys are perfect.”
As the voice actors perform, Mr. Lee’s hands move about animatedly. At one point, the tall, hefty producer raises a clenched right hand to emphasize a part. Then he points his right index finger in the air to show the proper timing. When he wants to break the rehearsal, he pounds on the desk or taps his fingertips.
Based on these showy gestures, Mr. Lee bears some semblance to conductor Zubin Mehta on stage with a swallow-tailed tuxedo. On this night, Mr. Lee is dressed in a gray sweatshirt and plain cotton pants.
Most radio actors in the room wear similarly homey outfits. Radio dramas’ recording studios are almost like home for such actors. After all, you don’t have to be sensitive about your clothes when you’re at home. Choi Heul, the veteran radio actor whose KBS career began in 1961, is the most formally attired with a long sleeve shirt and polyester pants, touched off with floral-pattern suspenders.
Mr. Lee does not generate a relaxed atmosphere, however. He rails at his troops, offering gestures to demonstrate how they should act. Though his voice does not much sound like the young daughter of the sacrificial father in the drama, he spares no effort to show how it’s done.
After at least three script readings, the reader of the final soliloquy, Ms. Im, breaks into tears. Apparently she’s grown quite attached to her character. With her final words said, a perspiring Mr. Lee wraps up the practice run. “All right, folks, time to roll. See you all in the studio in 15 minutes.”
12 p.m. / Radio Studio 32-1, KBS
Before the tape starts rolling, Mr. Lee must straighten out some business with the engineers and sound effects producers. Ahn In-sik, a sound effects man, is not in a good mood. There is a scene in which family members get together for coffee on a rainy day. Mr. Ahn is uncomfortable with how things are progressing.
“The sound of opening a door should be different for different types of houses ― whether it’s an apartment or a plain house with a yard,” he says. “The script does not say anything about this.”
Mr. Lee answers, “It’s the house of an old couple, so it should be an old-fashioned traditional building with a yard, I guess.”
“But we don’t have any sounds for a traditional front gate opening,” says Mr. Ahn.
“Well, in that case let’s just say it’s an apartment house with a plain iron sliding door,” says Mr. Lee.
Yet another mini-emergency arises only two minutes before recording begins. Mr. Lee realizes that at one juncture, a character plays the harmonica. Mr. Ahn stares blankly at Mr. Lee, so the producer calls out “Does anybody play the harmonica?”
Lee Mi-hyang, who plays a bit role, rescues the crew after she says in low tones, “I can play a little bit, sir.” On the spot, she performs a few bars of a Korean children’s ditty.
“Please tell the writer to be more specific about sound effect parts,” says Mr. Ahn before stepping into the studio.
To hold down noise, the studio’s walls are cushioned, and separated from outside by thick glass windows and a massive metal door. The actors take seats around a cluster of microphones, while the sound effects team sits in the back surrounded by odds and ends like a rice cooker, pebbles and a kitchen knife. Near the microphones are bottles of water for actors ― set on velvet cloth to minimize any background noise from lifting or laying them down.
Finally, everything is in place.
An “ON AIR” sign turns red. Numbers on a digital wall clock begin flashing. Mr. Lee, seated outside the studio with his recording equipment, gives a cue with his index finger. With the opening tune, the actors’ eyes shine and the studio turns silent.
This show will take more than 80 minutes to complete, though it runs half of that time. Ms. Im, the heroine of the day, steps to the microphone and recites the title. Jung Min-hee, another veteran radio actor seated in the rear, whispers, “I wonder if I’ll ever have lunch at a normal time?” The only audible sound in the studio other than the acting are some grumbling stomachs.
Once again, Mr. Lee hammers away at the actors. He frequently stops to give instructions through a speaker connecting the studio to the recording room.
He is especially flustered over Ms. Im, a newcomer to radio dramas. In one scene between the daughter and father, Ms. Im slips up talking to Mr. Choi.
“I’m sorry, sir, it’s all my fault,” says Mr. Im as Mr. Choi slurps a glass of water for the fifth time. At one point, Mr. Lee covers his face with his hands, then calls a stop to the recording to berate Ms. Im in private. Dozens of times more Mr. Lee interrupts the flow at any sign of imperfection. Then Mr. Choi, becoming edgy from hunger, raises an objection.
“I don’t like the title, it’s too long,” he says. “I’ve been doing radio dramas for more than four decades, and this may be the longest title. It should be changed right now to ‘Pollack.’”
No one dares argue. Finally, Mr. Lee calms him down, insisting they had used the same title before. Mr. Choi nods, and the recording continues.
At half past one, the actors stop.
“Good job, guys,” Mr. Lee says through the microphone. Everyone heads straight to the cafeteria.
1:40 p.m. / KBS cafeteria
Mr. Lee wears a spaced out expression. Over lunch, he apologizes to his staff and the actors for being too hard on them. But he has a good reason, he says: He loves radio.
“I used to imagine radio drama as a stepping-stone before moving on to TV dramas as a producer,” he says. “Something you should pass through once but never put down roots in.” After 10 years, however, Mr. Lee is an unabashed radiophile. “Now I don’t want to leave radio. As time goes by, I find something special about radio, which you can never discover in television.”
A passion for radio also shows in his staff members, for different reasons. A seasoned radio actress, Kim Sun-hwan relishes her anonymity. Does anybody recognize her husky-toned words? “Sometimes, people, like my dentist, notice me for my voice,” she says.
Ms. Kim has provided voice-overs for a number of TV shows, including the “Colombo” series, but her true love is radio drama. Mr. Choi, whose voice was Papa Smurf in the 1980s hit cartoon “The Smurfs,” also performed for “The Six Million Dollar Man,” agrees. “Radio dramas are more attractive than television for they are easier to relate to. Listeners have freedom to digest the dramas as they want to, while TV dramas leave no room for imagination.”
Their resonant voices lower when they talk about old times. “Until the early 1970s, radio was everything,” Mr. Choi says. “But radio isn’t like the old days.”
All hope isn’t lost, however. Mr. Lee gets feedback from listeners who may not number in the millions but whose dedication is immeasurable.
As the taxi driver Cha Seong-pil says, “The radio is my friend.”
Need shuffling footsteps? He’s your man.
For Ahn In-sik, any object is a potential tool when creating just the right sound effect.
His collection includes an old-fashioned pay phone from the 1970s, an insecticide spray, all kinds of doors, you name it. Mr. Ahn says, “Every material is precious for sound effects. For example, to make a sound of fallen leaves rustling, a group of reel tapes work just fine.” For the sound of a horse galloping, he asked a carpenter to make two cylinders out of ash tree.
During the recording session, he moves busily about the KBS studio, creating the sounds of clinking glasses, footsteps, doors opening and closing. For those sounds that he cannot easily concoct in the studio, such as ocean waves, he often goes on field trips with a tape recorder.
Mr. Ahn has a philosophy about sound effects. “No single sound on earth is identical,” he says. “Even the sound of closing a door differs when a person is happy or sad.” With advanced technology, however, the life of producing sound effects is being trivialized, Mr. Ahn feels.
“Sound is something very subtle, which should be produced with great care,” he says. “A recorded version is not 100 percent accurate. It needs the human touch.”
by Chun Su-jin