Q+A: Behind the microphone with Re-Imagined Radio creator John Barber

The Vancouver-based radio program produces classic and contemporary stories for broadcast and streaming, as well as one live, on-stage performance each year.

Dim stage lighting falls upon a man in front of a black microphone.

John Barber is also the librarian and curator of The Brautigan Library.

Photo by N.E.H. Photography

There was a time when listening to classic stories on the radio was a common way to spend the evening hours with friends and family. Vancouver-based Re-Imagined Radio revives the old storytelling format with monthly broadcasts, online streaming, and listening events that impart a cinematic experience, claiming “the pictures are better inside your mind, the screen is larger, and you are the star.”

John Barber, creator and host of Re-Imagined Radio, tuned in to tell us more.

Q: What inspired you to start Re-Imagined Radio in 2013? Do you have past experience in radio?
A: I have a fair amount of past experience with radio. All volunteer, program production, hosting, etc. I drew on that experience when asked to teach a course at Washington State University Vancouver about radio storytelling in 2013. At the heart of that course was the (in)famous 1939 broadcast “The War of Worlds.” After I taught them some fundamentals of editing recorded sound(s), I asked students in my class to take any 10-minute section of the original hour-long broadcast and use it as the basis of a radio story of their own design — a prequel or sequel, a back story, or a behind the scenes account. We would then exhibit their radio stories in a small gallery space in downtown Vancouver.

Students asked, “How will people understand our stories if they are not familiar with the original “War of the Worlds” broadcast?” It was a good question and spurred me to action. I contacted Sam A. Mowry, director of The Willamette Radio Workshop in Portland, and asked if he and his partners would be willing to perform a recreation of the original “War of the Worlds” broadcast in Vancouver as the opening of my students’ radio storytelling exhibition. He agreed.

We worked out the arrangements and details and offered the first performance of Re-Imagined Radio on Oct. 30, 2013, the anniversary of the original broadcast. That performance was a great success and we decided to offer more performances of classic stories in a radio format. Re-Imagined Radio was born in that way and has continued ever since.

Q: Where are you broadcasting from?
A: We offer a premier broadcast (by that we mean the “first,” and of course, very high-quality production values) simultaneously from KXRW-FM, Vancouver, WA, and KXRY-FM, Portland, OR. After this premier broadcast, we have partner radio stations in Salem, OR, and Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, who broadcast our stories. And we offer on-demand streaming from our archival website.

Q: Can you provide some examples of story topics you have covered? What topics do you avoid?
A: Every Christmas holiday season we offer a performance of “A Radio Christmas Carol,” our radio adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. This has become a community holiday tradition and we continued it even during the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented live performances. This year, however, we return to a live performance, Wednesday evening, Dec. 21, at Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver. One performance only. Doors open at 6:00 PM. Performance starts at 7:00 featuring The Willamette Radio Workshop directed by Sam A. Mowry and carols by The Holly Jolly Singers directed by Bennett Bailey. Tickets are available online and at the door on the day of the show.

We have featured several tributes to classic radio actors, writers, and program series. We have offered episodes based on oral histories provided by the Clark County Historical Museum. We have offered episodes of little-known radio performances. For example, our January 2023 episode will be “The Wizard of Oz” starring Judy Garland. It’s a great performance and a fine adaptation of the original movie script. We have offered contemporary radio storytelling featuring writers, actors, and directors from our local area.

In all cases, we look for story, opportunities to present new information, opportunities to educate and entertain, and always to raise the bar for what our listeners might expect to hear from Re-Imagined Radio storytelling.

We avoid, as you might expect, controversy, division, disrespect, misinformation, hate, and prejudice as subjects and/or content in every episode.

A man stands at a podium on a stage while a cast of people sit behind him during a holiday performance.

John and cast at the December 2019 holiday performance of “A Christmas Carol.”

Photo by Steve Hart

Q: Do you think radio will still occupy a place within society 50 years from now? If so, what do you think its role will be?
A: Yes, I believe radio will have a place in society 50 years from now. Despite “the death of radio” as predicted by the introduction and development of television, radio still exists, arguably stronger than ever as more and more viewers are growing tired of the visual spectacle and seek to find different information and entertainment through listening.

In the future, I think radio will continue to provide information, education, and entertainment, as well as opportunities for people to enjoy more and more opportunities to create, communicate, and consume audio storytelling. I hope that increasing grassroots access to radio production and broadcast opportunities will offset the negative impacts of mass communication where content is sent from the few to the many, with no opportunity for audiences to respond or dig into the stories they are told.

Listening to the radio is something we can do while driving cars and operating other machinery. We can listen while we work, relax, exercise. We can listen in our time frame — not be confined to a program schedule. Given this perspective, I hope radio will provide ways for people to connect and work together to make this world a better place for everyone.

Q: How can community members get involved?
A: We are seeking sponsorships. We’re happy to hear from folks who have radio story scripts in hand and want to talk about production. We’re developing our contacts with voice actors and other creative types. We’d like to talk with folks who can help us crowdsource funding and promotion, especially through social media but also more traditional media. We’re looking for a community space where we can offer workshops in script writing, voice acting, Foley sound effects, audio production, and more.

Q: What project(s) are in the pipeline that you’re excited about?
A: We’re very excited about our upcoming live performance, “A Radio Christmas Carol” [this month]. We’re also excited about our upcoming radio episode, “A Radio Christmas Sampler Vol. II” which will broadcast on Dec. 19, 1:00 p.m., on KXRW-FM and KXRY-FM. This episode includes samples from Jean Shepherd reading from his “Christmas Story” and samples from “Back for Christmas,” an episode of “Suspense” starring Peter Lorre, and “Britt Ponset’s Christmas Carol,” an episode from “The Six Shooter” starring Jimmy Stewart.

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