WHAT CAN OLD TIME RADIO ADVENTURES TEACH US ABOUT PRESENTING OUR CASES?

Have you ever asked someone “What is your case about?” and they respond: “My client was  driving his pickup truck on I-5 near Federal Way in the middle  lane going between 60 and 65 mph when traffic ahead  slowed…” and so on. That’s how we present our cases to the jury – a narrative or chronology instead of a story. A story begins with a descriptive characterization about the essence of the case. For example, a response to this question of “It’s about a driver who was following too close and not paying attention that caused a collision with my client’s car” communicates a story in summary form that tells us everything we need to know.

What does this have to do with old time radio? When I was a youngster in grade school we didn’t have television. Radio and movies were the popular medium for entertainment. Saturday matinees at the movies were a double feature film, a continuing action serial and a cartoon. Weekdays after school there were radio adventure series on the radio. Two of my favorites were  The Adventures of Superman and The Lone Ranger.

The Adventures of Superman was first broadcast on radio in 1940, after appearing in comics in 1938. Monday through Friday every week on the Mutual Broadcasting Company the program would begin with the announcer saying:

“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!”

“Look! Up in the sky!”
“It’s a bird!”
“It’s a plane!”
“It’s Superman!”

The radio serial The Lone Ranger was first broadcast on radio in 1933 on a Detroit station and was picked up by the Mutual Broadcasting Company. The program featured the music from Rossini’s William Tell Overture. It would begin with the announcer saying:

“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty  ‘Hi-Yo Silver’…The Lone Ranger! With his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early Western United States.  Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoof-beats of the great horse Silver. The Lone Ranger rides again!”

Singer writer Jim Croce immortalized both program with his lyrics from his song You don’t Mess Around with Jim”

You don’t tug on Superman’s cape
you don’t spit into the wind
you don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger
and you don’t mess around with Jim

So, what’s the connection between these radio dramas and trials? Well, to start with, the typical old time radio play had an air time of slightly less than thirty minutes. They were often adopted from books, movies or theater and then adapted into a thirty minute broadcast which had to hold the interest of the listener. This required the writer to eliminate all the non-essential from the basic story line and focus the story. It had to keep interest and develop a sense of right from wrong in the listener. That all had to fit a program of thirty minutes which illustrates how much can be accomplished in a short period of time. This lesson of communication becomes  more important as people want  the quick answer, the short story and the headlines rather than a long narrative.

More importantly, these radio scripts employed the best of  the basic outline for story telling. Great radio scripts generally followed Joseph Campbell’s outline for a story with his  format of “the hero’s journey” For a complete explanation, my friend, Carl Bettinger, has written an excellent book on the subject of story and trial in Twelve Heroes, One Voice.  Bettinger points out that the lawyers are the mentors or guides for the heroes who are the jurors. We guide the jurors and provide them with the tools they need to confront the villain (defendant) and save the day with the right outcome for the plaintiff. This outline for story telling generally looks like this:

  1. THE HERO IN THE ORDINARY WORLD.  The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma.
  2. THE CALL FOR HELP. A crisis occurs which requires action from the hero to go on a journey.
  3. RELUCTANCE TO THE CALL.  The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the challenge, even if briefly.
  4. ASSISTANCE OF A MENTOR.  The hero comes across a wise person who gives advice and guidance for the journey.
  5. THE JOURNEY STARTS. The hero commits to leaving the ordinary world to begin a journey with unfamiliar territory and rules.
  6. THE HERO IS TESTED. The hero is tested and deals with challenges successfully instead of giving up.
  7. THE ORDEAL. The hero faces their greatest fear and challenge, but out of the confrontation comes a new courage and life.
  8. THE REWARD. The hero takes possession of the needed solution after overcoming the danger
  9. THE RESURRECTION. On the way back home, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. Overcoming this challenge his  or her conflicts  are finally resolved.
  10. THE RETURN HOME  The hero returns home with the prize where there is celebration for his or  her achievements.

These radio dramas followed good story writing essentials  like those above. These essentials also apply to how we present our cases as well. Our stories should generally include at least these elements

  1. A central premise
  2. A strong characters
  3. A “confined space” that is, within a well-established time and place
  4. A protagonist who is on some sort of quest
  5. An antagonist who is bent on stopping him or her
  6. An arch, that is everything is continually getting better or worse
  7. Conflict

When you are deciding how to structure your case presentation avoid a narrative or a chronology. Instead, follow the advice in Carl Bettinger’s book and make it a compelling story with the components needed to make it great.

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One Response to WHAT CAN OLD TIME RADIO ADVENTURES TEACH US ABOUT PRESENTING OUR CASES?

  1. Mark Swendsen says:

    And… You have the power to cloud men’s minds!

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