Mind’s Eye Theatre (East) and Mind’s Eye Theatre (West)

When the subject is audio drama, the “theater of the mind” frequently comes up. No wonder, then, that the name Mind’s Eye was used for two very different Silver Age production groups. To help discern between the two, we’re appending (East) and (West), for reference use only. 

Mind’s Eye Theatre (East) aired beginning in 1966, not long after the network age of radio drama is generally agreed to have ended. New York City’s WBAI-FM, where it aired, was a major link in the alternative and then-embryonic Pacifica Radio system. In 1966, the listening figures were still strongest for AM radio, which seems inexplicable to those who have grown up with podcasts, digital radio, or the stronger signal for FM radio. AM “pop” stations dominated with Top 40 records, even if the sound quality wasn’t as nice as FM. That freed many FM stations to play innovative shows, and “album oriented rock,” where a deejay might play an entire album, such as Disraeli Gears, Atom Heart Mother,  or Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. 

WBAI, a nonprofit station, boasted a variety of voices and melodies – from Ayn Rand to one of the first airings of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”. An annual airing of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, playing for 23 hours straight, and a multiple-day reading of War and Peace by numerous actors and announcers were just two of the highlights in WBAI’s growth period.

Baird Searles was one of the reasons WBAI was so innovative: when he started Mind’s Eye, he not only encouraged adaptations of classic plays, but brought in the literary science fiction community, and accepted listeners’ suggestions and works “over the transom”. Listeners heard work by Theodore Sturgeon, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur C. Clarke, Meryvn Peake, Joanna Russ, and Don DeLillo – as well as the more classical Strindberg, Lorca, Orff, and Morley.

The most famous broadcast is Samuel Delany’s narration of his own “The Star Pit”, which he describes here, at a time when, he explains, “four-track reel-to-reel recorders were the latest thing in studio equipment.” A number of people connected with Mind’s Eye continued to innovate as artists – for instance, “The Star Pit” features Randa Haines, later a writer/director for film and television, Phoebe Wray, an actor and science fiction writer, and stage actors Jerry Matz and Walter Harris (about to debut in Hair as one of the youngest in the Tribe). Neal Conan, then only 19, worked on the production too – a long way from his later household fame on National Public Radio. 

Even after the end of Mind’s Eye as a radio drama series, Searles continued to write and review widely in the science fiction genre, authoring or coauthoring 5  nonfiction books, and to innovate through the production of some of the first “queer” radio shows. 

A recent Grammy Foundation grant has made all the remaining recordings available for streaming at the Internet Archive. (Select each episode, then scroll down the informational page to find the streaming link.) 

So what is Mind’s Eye (West)? 

This was a completely different company, led by director and producer Robert “Bob” Lewis out on the West Coast, which also produced radio adaptations of classics, for broadcast over National Public Radio, or commercial sale through cassette tapes. The most fertile period for this group appears to have been 1972, when their cassettes largely were published through a firm named Jabberwocky, up through 1982. At some point Highbridge Audio began to publish their cassettes. This work, as a whole, is out of print and generally only available through third party sellers (though some material pops up on YouTube and the like).

This Mind’s Eye is also well known for producing speculative fiction – but instead of forward-peering SF, they had fond listeners who remember hearing (and “seeing”) the fantasy of J. R. R. Tolkien, long before Peter Jackson’s first adaptation. The Hobbit came out in 1979, with many of the same actors coming back for The Lord of the Rings. (This American version was the only one available for American listeners, while another version entirely was popular with those in Britain.) One well known artist that collaborated with Mind’s Eye is audio dramatist Erik Bauersfeld, who had critically acclaimed turns as Dracula, and as Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s Metamorphosis – and who got his start – you guessed it – at a Pacifica radio station in Berkeley, California – KPFA.