“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Thus, with one of the best-known opening sentences in all English literature, begins George Orwell’s 1984, the novel that even 67 years after its publication remains perhaps the most oft-referenced vision of totalitarianism’s takeover of the modern Western world. Its fable-like power has, in fact, only intensified over the decades, which have seen it adapted into various forms for film, television, the stage (David Bowie even dreamed of putting on a 1984 musical), and, most often, the radio.
In recent years we’ve featured radio productions of 1984 from 1949, 1953, and 1965. On their program From the Vault, the Pacifica Radio network has just finished bringing out of the archives their own 1975 broadcast of the novel as read by morning-show host Charles Morgan.
Neither an all-out radio drama nor a straight-ahead audiobook-style reading, Pacifica’s 1984 uses sound effects and voice acting (some contributed by June Foray, of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame) to tell the story of Winston Smith and his inner and outer struggle with the repressive, all-seeing, language-distorting government of the superstate of Oceania (and the city of Airstrip One, formerly known as England) that surrounds him.
It makes sense that Pacifica would put the whole of Orwell’s dire novelistic warning on the airwaves. Founded just after World War II by a group of former conscientious objectors, its first station, KPFA in Berkeley, California, began broadcasting in the year of 1984‘s publication. As it grew over subsequent decades, the listener-funded Pacifica radio network gained a reputation for both its political engagement and its unconventional uses of the medium. (The Firesign Theater, the troupe that arguably perfected the art of the dense, multi-layered studio comedy album, got their start at Pacifica’s Los Angeles station KPFK.) Every era, it seems, produces its own 1984, and this one sounds as resonant in the 21st century — a time even Orwell dared not imagine — as it must have in the 1970s.
You can hear Part 1 of Pacifica’s 1984 at the top of the post, then follow these links to all ten parts on their Soundcloud page: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.