An Interview with James Lee: That Old Time Radio Show

Dec 6, 2012 by

Dr. James Lee is an adjunct professor in the Department of Communication at Eastern New Mexico University, and he has served as the active News and Public Affairs Director for KENW/KMTH-FM since 2000.

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

Dr. Lee is an adjunct professor in the Department of Communication at Eastern New Mexico University, and he has served as the active News and Public Affairs Director for KENW/KMTH-FM since 2000. Throughout his career he has worked in live theater and movies, and has well over forty years of professional experience in television and radio broadcasting. Dr. Lee grew up in Lansing, Michigan, where he lived up until the 1960s. His career in broadcasting started at KTRF in Thief River Falls, Minnesota (near Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada), in 1967. Since that time he has worked as a disc jockey and on-air personality, commercial copywriter and voice performer, and actor in network television (including made-for-TV movies and miniseries).

Dr. Lee has worked for several distinguished filmmakers, including Elia Kazan, Martin Scorcese, Peter Bogdanovich, and Norman Jewison. He has appeared in the films New York, New York; Coming Home; You Light Up My Life; and The Last Tycoon, among others. He has also done stunt doubling for Tony Curtis, and was Milton Berle’s stand-in. In addition to his work in motion pictures, Dr. Lee studied screenwriting with Academy Award-winning screenwriter Sheridan Gibney, and studied acting at the People-Venice Workshop with James Whitmore and Ricardo Montalban. Dr. Lee has authored three nationally syndicated radio plays for Heartbeat Theatre in Hollywood, and he is also a produced, published, and award-winning playwright. As an educator he has taught courses in acting, public speaking, media management, interpersonal communication, broadcast talent, English composition, American literature, English composition and research, and creative writing at several schools, including the University of Utah, National University, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Clovis Community College. Dr. Lee lives in Portales with his two dogs and three cats

1)      Jim, first of all, can you give us your exact title and what courses you teach?

 My titles are adjunct professor of communications at Eastern New Mexico University and news and public affairs director for KENW/KMTH-FM (Public Radio for Eastern New Mexico and West Texas).  I am also a member of the advisory board at Roswell Community Little Theatre.  Previously I have taught English composition, acting, and American literature.  Now I teach radio and television announcing, writing for mass media, public speaking, foundational writing in mass communication, media management, and interpersonal communication.  There are other courses as well that I eagerly anticipate.

2)      Now, a little background on your experiences- can you provide a summary?

It is difficult to summarize over a half century of experience, but here is a try at it.  My involvement in theater began in sixth grade back around 1956.  This evolved from acting to script-writing, directing, and producing over the decades.  I started in broadcasting in 1967 at KTRF Radio in northern Minnesota about 100 miles south of Winnipeg, Manitoba.  I wrote three nationally syndicated radio dramas for C.P. MacGreggor Studios in Hollywood.  I appeared in films and network television in Los Angeles, including working with filmmakers Elia Kazan, Martin Scorcese, and Peter Bogdanovich.  I also did stunt doubling for Tony Curtis and spent a memorable three weeks as Milton Berle’s stand-in.  I am a produced and published playwright and founder of the Metropolitan Theatre Guild, Inc. in Los Angeles.  I completed the three-year professional training program in theater at Los Angeles City College.  At California State University, Los Angeles, I earned a B.A. in theatre arts with an English minor and an M.A. in theatre history and dramatic literature, theory and criticism.  I completed my Ph.D. in theatre with an emphasis in playwriting at the University of Utah and completed the distance learning program (LL.B. degree) from Blackstone School of Law in Chicago.  My favorite professional activity is teaching in higher education.

3)    This past semester, you encouraged some of your student to participate in an “old time radio drama” – do I have the term or name correct?

I prefer to think of it as “new time radio,” even though radio drama has never really died out.  It just wears a different costume.  For example, many radio commercials are like short versions of radio dramas.

4)    Many of our older readers will remember the days when folk sat by the radio and listened to presidents, and sports events. What impact do you think that had on the family?

Before television, radio had a huge effect because, other than newsreels and print media, that’s all we had for news.  It was also the only form of mass media other than print coming into our homes.  Some may think that something was missing because it was audio with no video, but I disagree.  We created our own video.  We were part of the show, participants instead of observers.  TV took that away from us.  Radio drama stimulates the imagination; that’s why it is called theater of the mind—which is, incidentally, what we call the radio drama program at Eastern New Mexico University.  Radio drama is magic while TV is manipulative hypnosis.  I spent my early childhood with radio.  I saw my first TV when I was about eight years old.  Maybe that was my cultural Pearl Harbor.

5)    Now, reading a drama involves voice- passion, emotion, clarity of speech, and tone. How do you go about teaching these skills to your students?

This is an interesting question.  Radio drama, like anything in the arts, needs a passion before the practical learning begins.  A good teacher will first prod the student to find and embrace the passion for the creative process if it is not already present.  Then we start on the “nuts and bolts.”  For the most part, all that can be taught in this craft is technique.  The rest comes with the passion and what we generically call “talent.”  When teaching technique, though, we need to bring it out rather than superimposing it, such as using subtext with actors rather than mimicking the appearance of emotion or thought.  If this sounds tricky, it’s because it is tricky.

6)    I can still recall “ The War of The Worlds “ and I recall the frenzy that ensued. What did Orson Wells do that brought the attention of the listener to the idea that we were being invaded.

It was basically an audio docudrama.  It was this quasi-journalistic verisimilitude that created the illusion of immediacy that captured imagination of the audience.  Add to this the fact that many of the listeners tuned in a little late and heard the simulated panic of the performers out of context.  It was Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” on steroids.  Hey, that’s kinda cool, ain’t it?

7)    One of your “ radio dramas “ has just been produced- and you wrote it. Where did the idea come from?

It started with a monologue in a scene book I was writing for acting students.  Then it went to a short story published in El Portal.  When I proposed including radio drama in the student radio activities, communication department chairperson Dr. Patti Dobson said I should come up with something creepy for Halloween that was free of any copyright restrictions.  So I adapted the story into a radio script.  It’s called “Tick Tick.”

   8) Is this particular drama on line or available?

Yes, it is available on the Eastern New Mexico University web site (www.enmu.edu) on the houndbytes link.  Anyone with internet access may listen to the show free of charge.  It can also be accessed at fine-arts.enmu.edu/?page_id=57 (click on the “Tick Tick” link).

9)    Why is this venue of such importance to you?

It is an integral part of American culture.  It is also an inroad to imagination unavailable any other way.  Sometimes something old can truly be something new.

10)   What do you have planned for the future?

Hey, at my age I shouldn’t even make plans for the weekend.  That being said, I want to continue teaching and creating.  Each day is an adventure, just as each smile from discovery gives us a reason to greet a new day.  At the moment I’m trying to decide whether to spend next weekend writing a Spenserian sonnet taking a trip on my Harley.

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