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Public Radio's 'Relay Short Story' Takes Off, Runs


Call it what you will: a chain novel, a schizoid radio serial or a relay short story, as in the case of today's offering, "A Winter's Short Story."

Whatever it is, this newest form of radio theater currently being pioneered over National Public Radio may be the first authentic innovation to hit the airwaves since the dumping of Fibber McGee and Molly.

A "relay short story," written by four authors and narrated by actor Joe Spano today at 5 p.m. over National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," is a sterling example of the new audio art form. It also dispels a myth or two about the dullness of radio readings. It airs in Los Angeles over KPCC-FM (89.3), KCSN-FM (88.5) and KCRW-FM (89.9).

In 17 minutes, divided into four wacky sections, Spano (Lt. Henry Goldblum of NBC's "Hill Street Blues") proves that TV does not have a monopoly on sex, violence, decadence and amusing despair.

Authors Rita Mae Brown, Robert Ward, Jessica Hagedorn and Spalding Gray each wrote a few pages, then passed their efforts on to the next writer. The result is the sordid tale of the Lamberts and the Reingolds, cavorting and committing murder while vacationing at the beach and drinking themselves silly.

There is no redeeming social value here. If the story has a moral, it is very nearly as opaque as the solution to the mystery of who killed Mr. Reingold.

But the short-story's producers see a trend that is at least as enthralling as a trashy boudoir paperback.

"The 'Winter Short Story' is just the kind of vacation reading that helps one escape the winter doldrums," said Bill Abbott, weekend producer of "All Things Considered." "We hope listeners will grab a towel, turn on the sunlamp if they have one, imagine the sun if they don't, and lie back and enjoy."

The Reingold/Lambert epic is not the first in the genre.

Credit for creating the first "chain novel" goes to NPR's new "Weekend Edition" program, hosted by Susan Stamberg. For the last five weeks, a new chapter has been whipped up by a professional storyteller and read over the air in the final quarter hour of Stamberg's show (Sundays, 8-10 a.m. on KCSN, KPCC and KCRW).

"The public reaction to the novel has been quite wonderful," Stamberg said. "It's probably the most popular part of the show."

Though it may be radio's newest idea, it's old hat in the world of belles lettres.

Since Charles Dickens first did chapter-a-week serializations in the London press a century ago, dozens of authors--from Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe--have written make-it-up-as-you-go novels.

"I told Susan about Dickens and how many of his novels were published first in serial form," said Rod MacLeish, the National Public Radio staffer whom Stamberg credits with coming up with the idea in the first place. "The fun of it was (that) he would start publishing before he finished writing the book, and people would line up just to see what happened next."

The trick of writing a chapter for the Stamberg novel, MacLeish said, is to use what you are given and then weave some kind of surprising trap for the next author. MacLeish, a regular political and social commentator for National Public Radio, knows what he's talking about. He wrote the novel's second chapter.

The first chapter belonged to David Leavitt, author of "Family Dancing." Leavitt created a bizarre cast of characters that revolved around his prize invention: Fiona MacKenzie, a former Southern belle and beauty queen who is now a powerful right-wing crusader for puritanical morality.

Following the recitation of Leavitt's opening chapter on the first Weekend Edition, broadcast Jan. 18, Stamberg announced that Lorrie Moore, author of "Anagrams and Self Help," would write Chapter II.

But she didn't. Shortly before Sunday showtime, Moore called to tell Stamberg that she wouldn't be able to deliver Chapter II. Stamberg turned to MacLeish.

"It was extraordinary," Stamberg said. "He read Leavitt's chapter, got up and walked around a little--you know how you write a novel--and then sat down at the typewriter and wrote it in front of me in 20 minutes."

MacLeish took Leavitt's characters and turned Fiona's right-hand man, Bobby Castleton, into a woman posing as a man who had been sent secretly to infiltrate Fiona's conservative camp and assassinate her.

"It was great fun," MacLeish said. "I only wish I could always work that fast."

In Chapter III, Scott Spencer, author of "Endless Love," focused on Fiona's son, who returns home from Harvard to help his mother, only to find himself strangely attracted to Bobby.

"The idea of picking up someone else's idea and then carrying it off somewhere is the only athletics I get involved in," said author Meg Wolitzer, who wrote Chapter IV. "This chain letter for writers sounded wonderful to me because it seems communal in a way (that) writing never does. Writing is usually so solitary."

Part of the fun, Wolitzer said, is watching someone else distort your vision.

"I would neve r let another writer or editor do that to my work, but this is the one time that it is actually welcomed," Wolitzer said.

Chapter V was written by Wolitzer's mother, Hilma Wolitzer, and Chapter VI, scheduled for Sunday, was penned by Russell Banks. Even though she professes not to know what's next, Stamberg expects Fiona to survive.

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