Minimal Production, Maximum Effect: Michael Hanson & MINDWEBS
By John C. Alsedek:
As a kid of the seventies, I grew up in one of the great periods for a radio drama enthusiast—I just didn't know it at the time. I was an avid fan of The CBS Radio Mystery Theater and would listen on my little transistor radio every weeknight at 9 p.m., but there were so many other shows that I didn't even know existed until decades later: Rod Serling's Zero Hour, National Public Radio’s Earplay, and Sears/Mutual Radio Theater, among others. But to me, maybe the most engaging—and most mysterious—of the bunch was Mindwebs.
Mindwebs was a radio series that aired on WHA 970 AM (the flagship station for Wisconsin Public Radio) from 1976 until 1984. Unlike its aforementioned peers, Mindwebs wasn't really a radio drama per se; episodes did include music and sometimes sound cues or additional voice actors, but they weren't plays. Rather, Mindwebs did readings of science fiction and fantasy short stories by some of the best writers in both genres. On any given week, one could end up listening to classics such as Robert Heinlein's "They," Robert Silverberg's "To the Dark Star," Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," Arthur C. Clarke's "The Nine Billion Names of God," Ray Bradbury's "The Fog Horn," or Harlan Ellison's "'Repent Harlequin!,' Said the Ticktockman."
But what really made Mindwebs work was one man: series creator and narrator Michael Hanson. Hanson did the vast majority of the readings for the show, and he did such a terrific job that the listener is never left wishing for additional voices. I remember the very first time I heard Mindwebs; it was a reading of H. P. Lovecraft’s "Beyond the Wall of Sleep," and though the audio quality of the MP3 file was pretty poor, I nonetheless found myself enthralled. Hanson had such an engaging quality to his voice, with a measured delivery that he’d subtly change up if he was doing a second character. Hanson’s performances were supplemented by eerie, dissonant electronic music, and that’s really it. That’s all Mindwebs needed.
In total, 169 half-hour episodes were produced, covering 188 short stories by 135 different authors. Mindwebs aired on WHA until the mid-1990s but has continued till the present day on WMSE 91.7 in Milwaukee (Saturdays, midnight to 12:30 a.m.). The story of how Mindwebs ended up on WMSE is a great one in its own right. It was the end result of a friendship between Hanson and an engineer ("Darkman") at WMSE. Hanson entrusted his personal master tapes of the show to Darkman, who painstakingly converted them to the highest quality digital audio; previously, the only digital copies of Mindwebs were lo-fi conversions from secondary sources such as cassette recordings of the radio broadcasts.
For its part, WMSE was thrilled to be the home of Mindwebs. “To be the caretakers of such an incredible radio series is both humbling and exciting,” said station manager Tom Crawford at the time. And the feeling was mutual, as Hanson was so thrilled to hear the show back on the air that he started making new episodes!
It would be Hanson’s last hurrah, however. Diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, Hanson put up a good fight but passed away on September 9, 2019; he was 78 years of age. WMSE posted the following message on its website:
“Thank you for the stories you gave, the music you played (note: Hanson was an accomplished jazz drummer) and the love you created along the way. We will miss your amazing ability to bring stories to life, but look forward to hearing your voice again every week as we air every single episode of your wonderful creation.”
You can catch episodes of Mindwebs here.
Speaking of gentlemen with memorable voices who have made their mark on late-night radio, we’ll be headed to the Hearts of Space with Stephen Hill next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.