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Radio Drama's Leading Man, Still Adventuring

Tom Lopez has been creating radio dramas for more than 40 years.
Jon Kalish for NPR
Tom Lopez has been creating radio dramas for more than 40 years.

The audience for radio drama has plummeted since the advent of television. But thanks to a boom in podcasting, the format is experiencing something of a resurgence. One of the medium's greatest living practitioners is Tom Lopez.

Most radio drama producers rely exclusively on pre-recorded sound effects to set a scene, but Lopez has his own approach. His plots are inspired by sounds he has recorded around the world: monkeys in Belize, street dogs in Tangier and frogs in the Amazon to name just a few. Lopez has been using those real world recordings — what we call ambiance in radio production — for more than 40 years to create soundscapes for his fictional characters, which range from a galactic gumshoe named Ruby to shipwreck survivors washed up on an island with live dinosaurs.

Lopez, of course didn't use the sound of actual dinosaurs when he produced the audiobook version of Dinotopia. He substituted recordings he made of elephants at a zoo in India, processing the sound in a way that made them sound like dinosaurs roaring.

"I realized that the sounds I was gathering were as important as the characters," Lopez says. "It's sort of like a filmmaker finding interesting locations and saying: 'This would be an interesting place to put a scene.' So, I was recording sounds and then later I'd write a scene to take place in that particular location."

It's a technique that has inspired other practitioners of the craft.

"I think we can be very thankful for the work that he did; to show that you can use the world as part of your storytelling," says Fred Greenhalgh, a Maine-based radio drama producer who records actors in the field. "The history of radio drama is forgotten and Tom is a huge part of that history. And [he's] a real bridge to what's currently happening in audio. He's an amazing part of this cultural legacy."

Lopez is soft-spoken and sports a thick white mustache. He looks much younger than his age, which is a carefully guarded secret. Since 1970 his home base has been a 33-acre compound in rural Fort Edward, N.Y., about 20 miles northeast of Saratoga Springs. It's also the home of the ZBS Foundation, the nonprofit arts organization that distributes his work. ZBS started out as a for-profit radio commune that produced commercials to generate income. But it has since evolved into a nonprofit devoted to artist residencies and radio drama. It has a cult following.

Lopez began his radio career in the early 1960s, when razor blades were used to cut reel-to-reel tape. He produced his first radio drama as a volunteer at Pacifica Radio's Berkeley, Calif. station, KPFA. To learn how to edit, he was asked to cut out every other word in a children's story. The second word was "elephants."

"So I cut out 'elephants' and I kind of held this tape up and it was, you know, maybe a couple inches long. And this shiver went through me," he says with a shudder. "I realized instantly that most of my life would be spent working with something like this."

Lopez spent part of the 1960s in London. He would interview major rock stars, claiming to be a correspondent for a popular commercial rock station in San Francisco. But he was actually sending the interviews back to KPFA in Berkeley.

In 1968, he started doing a live show at a public radio station in Philadelphia that later became WHYY. Listeners knew him as Meatball Fulton, an alter ego he still uses in his ZBS podcast Meatball's Meatballs. As part of the show in Philadelphia, Lopez produced mock radio commercials.

But he took that skill and moved to Montreal to make real commercials. He continued in that vocation when he started the ZBS radio commune in Fort Edward. One of his clients was Warner Brothers Records.

"I don't remember anything ever being rejected by them," Lopez recalls.

He found that writing and recording 60-second spots made him a better radio producer. "You could tell a story in 60 seconds and I liked that a lot," he says. "It was good discipline. Say what you have to say and get out. You know, that kind of thing."

One of his commercial clients was Grunt Records, the label started by Jefferson Airplane. In 1972 Grunt funded his first radio drama series, The Fourth Tower of Inverness. It chronicled the metaphysical adventures of Jack Flanders. A mashup of old-school radio drama and New Age phenomena like past life regression, Sufi wisdom and Tibetan Buddhism, Fourth Tower debuted on nearly 400 radio stations. After 78 hours of audio drama, the Jack Flanders dramas continue, though Robert Lorick, the actor who portrayed Flanders for 40-plus years, passed away in January.

Actors in the ZBS radio dramas are recorded in a studio a short walk from the old rambling farmhouse where Lopez lives. There's an old barn that Lopez has used as a soundstage and a yurt with pictures of Indian gurus inside. Ask Tom Lopez if he considers himself a spiritual person and he replies with a chuckle, "Slightly."

In additional to Lopez's productions, a variety of notable people have stopped by to work on their own projects over the years. Baba Ram Dass recorded a six-LP album at ZBS. Philip Glass worked on Einstein on the Beach there. And it was at ZBS that Laurie Anderson was introduced to the voice processing technology used in her 1981 hit "O Superman." ZBS engineer Bob Bielecki, a friend of Lopez since their Philadelphia days, built the ZBS studio and brought Anderson there.

"There were always interesting people coming through there working on projects," says Tim Clark, the ZBS composer who has been working with Lopez since the mid-1970s. Clark had worked composing soundtracks for planetarium shows in Rochester, N.Y. and Toronto. He met one of the Zeebers, as the members of the ZBS commune were known, and fell into their orbit. Clark let Lopez use his planetarium show compositions in ZBS radio dramas. Soon he was composing the planetarium soundtracks with an ear to how they would sound in Lopez's productions.

Now based in North Carolina, the composer looks back on his 40-year collaboration with Lopez. "He's amazingly calm," Clark says. "I can't remember him ever getting mad. He's a gentle soul, that's for sure."

Clark says actors love to perform in Lopez's radio dramas due to his "incredible talent for dialogue."

Manhattan-based actress Valeria Wasilewskistarted performing in ZBS radio dramas in the 1980s. "You never knew what to expect text-wise or what character you were. It was all a mystery until you got there," Wasilewski says.

One frigid winter evening, she joined other actors in the ZBS barn. Lopez was using a microphone that replicates human hearing for a scene set in a supermarket.

"We're all freezing," Wasilewski recalls, "and we're walking around with these shopping carts, following a wooden head with microphones that's on wheels for half the night. But that's Tom."

In addition to a stable of actors who also perform on television and the avant-garde theater, ZBS is sustained by its fans. At first, Lopez didn't realize how vital cassette and CD sales could be to the economic survival of ZBS.

Dreams of the Amazon is one of the many different Jack Flanders adventure stories.
Alan Okamoto / Courtesy of Tom Lopez
Courtesy of Tom Lopez
Dreams of the Amazon is one of the many different Jack Flanders adventure stories.

After The Fourth Tower of Inverness debuted, "some kid called and said he'd like to get a copy. And we said we don't sell copies," Lopez says. "So, it was like, 'Go away, kid.' And then he said the magic words: 'I'll pay anything.' So we said, 'Wait a minute kid. Come back here.' "

"Tom really has taken the patron model to quite a level," says Sue Zizza, a Long Island-based audio drama producer who has followed Lopez's work for years. "He gets fans to invest and give him a little of the production money up front. And then once the product is made, he turns around and the same group of individuals will purchase it."

Now, CDs have faded in popularity, and fans can purchase radio dramas in mp3 format from the ZBS web site. And this spring ZBS plans to launch a streaming website where subscribers can listen to all of its radio dramas.

Listener donations have been crucial to the survival of ZBS. In the late 1980s, listeners at an NPR member station in southern California provided funds for Lopez and composer Tim Clark to travel to Brazil to record jungle sounds. A few years later a wealthy ZBS fan made a six-figure donation, which Lopez says kept ZBS going for years.

The sale of film rights to ZBS radio dramas have also helped sustain operation. At this point, ZBS has only two employees, but Lopez pays the actors who perform in his productions, as well as composer Tim Clark. So, like other non-profit arts groups, ZBS sort of squeaks by. Lopez is as surprised as anyone that it's lasted this long.

"Just being here has been a series of little miracles," he says. "It's almost like there's some sort of mystical economics that science hasn't quite acknowledged or figured out yet. There's absolutely no reason I should be here."

Jon Kalish is a radio journalist based in New York City. Follow him @kalishjon.

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