CD-ROMs excel with radio

Personal Computers

November 13, 1995|By Stephen Manes

TRICK QUESTION: Among the many media at the disposal of the CD-ROM, which may be best suited to it?

Video and film become grainy and jerky when transferred to computer disks.

Photographs, maps and even text lose their crispness on the low-resolution screens of personal computers.

Art and animation expressly designed for those screens work better, but must labor under severe limitations.

The winner? Radio. The CD format, after all, was originally designed to deliver music, and although the sound cards and speakers most people use preclude true high-fidelity audio, they can deliver radio-quality sound.

And as its partisans constantly repeated in the early days of television, radio makes listeners exercise their imagination. Some canny multimedia producers have begun to figure this out.

You Don't Know Jack, a new trivia game (Berkeley Systems Inc., about $30), uses audio to give as many as three players the illusion of participating in a television game show, but it puts a post-modern spin on the quiz shows that radio made famous in the first place.

Much like the boards on "Jeopardy," the computer screen displays the questions the contestants must answer, but the big-mouthed in-your-ears host who sounds like a fugitive from a comedy club is heard but not seen.

If the user interface is not simple enough for you, you must have two left medullas, as the host might say. The first time through, the game seems like fun. The questions are clever, even if there is something of an overemphasis on sex, bodily functions, television characters and brand names.

"Gibberish questions" offers a phrase like "Cold Tang's fine" and ask you to type in the familiar phrase it rhymes with, like "Auld lang syne."

The "Jack attack" posits a category like "Sorry, I didn't catch your name," then puts a word like "Dr. Jekyll" on the screen. When a correct match appears, you must buzz in; in this case, "Mr. Hyde" is wrong, "Henry" is right.

But on repeated playing, the musical clips before each question quickly become annoying, the questions begin to seem too easy, and the humor pales. You Don't Know Jack does not record high scores and is probably too slow for loners. It might be fun at parties that have run out of conversation.

Theatre of the Imagination: Radio Stories by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre (the Voyager Co., about $25) offers an extensive glimpse into the radio career of the multitalented master of stage, screen and airwaves. A Voyager spokeswoman says it is based largely on an audio-only laser-disk production available since 1988.

The CD-ROM version offers more than five hours of historical radio broadcasts as rich and varied as Welles' career. There are also useful analyses from critics of the stature of Andrew Sarris.

What the disk most obviously lacks is a full recording of Welles' most famous radio production, "The War of the Worlds," which scared the nightlights out of many Americans on Halloween eve in 1938. The omission is partly remedied in an audio documentary that discusses that work at length and includes a few excerpts.

While audio is playing, the screen displays a transcript. You can follow along and let the program turn the "pages" for you, or you can skip ahead at your own pace.

Surprises abound, including an interview with Orson Welles and the author of the original "War of the Worlds," H. G. Wells, who somehow found themselves together in the studios of a San Antonio radio station in 1940.

Navigating through the CD-ROM can be awkward. Hopping from a transcript to program notes while you are listening to a particular selection does not always work as expected, nor do some of the click points in the text.

The transcripts display sloppy editing, mistaking the H. G. Wells title "The Shape of Things to Come" for a descriptive phrase, and implying that the expression "from here to Kalamazoo" is the title of a Noel Coward play.

Still, this title fills in fascinating details not only about Welles' career, but also about the cultural importance of radio and the way people lived and listened. "Order a trial ton from your nearest Blue Coal dealer tomorrow" is a line you are not likely to hear over today's airwaves.

And in today's age of commercialism there is something charmingly poignant in hearing the work of Orson Welles interrupted for a panegyric to Campbell's chicken soup and in listening to him pay dutiful obeisance to the aesthetic vision of its maker.

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