Interview:Marshal Younger (June 2001)

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Interview with Marshal Younger

June 20, 2001
Can you give a little background about yourself? Do you work on "Adventures in Odyssey" full time? What other (if any) projects do you work on?

I grew up in Willoughby, Ohio, and went to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and then Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. My wife Stephanie and I currently live in Colorado Springs, CO with my three daughters: Bryn, 9, Paityn, 7, and Kristyn, 4. Yes, I work full-time on Odyssey, but I always have freelance work on the side. I have written eight books, four of them related to Odyssey and four that make up the Kidsboro series, due to be published in a couple of years or so. I've written 12 episodes of Dorsey Production's "Just South of Normal", which is also a radio drama. I'm currently working on a screenplay called "A Greater Yes", which is scheduled to begin filming in September. I've also written dozens of sketches and stage plays for Concordia Publishing, the National Drama Service and several Christian sketch teams.

What go you interested in writing/directing/producing radio dramas?

I don't think I ever got interested in writing radio drama so much as I've always been interested in writing period. I never really thought that I could make a living writing, and when this opportunity came up at Focus, I went for it just on the basis that it was a writing job, not because it had anything to do with radio drama. I'm not even sure I had even heard more than a handful of radio dramas in my life up to that point. Since then, though, I've fallen in love with the medium. I love how the imagination is so much a part of the process. I think it involves the listener more than most other forms of media.

How long have you been a writer/producer for "Adventures in Odyssey"?

I have been writing for the show since 1992. I came on staff in 1993, and became co-producer in 2001.

How did you become involved in the series?

I first became involved with AIO when I wrote a radio drama for a class that I was taking at Regent. The producer of the show sent it to Focus on the Family, where Odyssey producer Paul McCusker listened to it. He decided that he liked the script, so he contacted me and asked me to write a few freelance scripts. I did, and then I was hired on full-time about a year or so later.

How many shows have you written/produced/taken part in?

I've written about 100 episodes, directed about 50 and been the producer for about 40.

Do you ever have a part in the show itself-as a character?

My claim to fame is that I played young Jack in The Triangle. I've also been Officer Burke, Man #2 and Guy #3 or whatever character I end up playing because we don't want to pay a real actor to do it for us.

Do you work strictly on the audio programs or the videos and books as well?

I have written one of the videos (Race to Freedom, which is coming out this month), and one of the Odyssey mystery novels, The Case of the Mysterious Message.

Where do you come up with some of the ideas for you storylines?

My daughters are giving me more and more material as time goes by, but of course they don't particularly care for that. But mainly I go at story ideas from three different angles:

1) Character: I think about all of our characters and I try to think what might be the worst situation that particular character could get him/herself in. Case in point: in the episode #396: “Poor Loser”, Eugene keeps losing to Bernard at chess. Of course, this drives him nuts because he considers chess a game of intellectuality, which he prides himself in. Bernard is his foil that teases him about his social awkwardness, and this gives Bernard a lot of ammunition. Therefore, this challenges the character and also makes for a funny conflict.

2) Situation: Sometimes I take real life situations, I think of types of things that kids deal with a lot, and I plug our characters into it. This is where you get shows like #476: “Relatively Annoying” where Alex has to spend a week at his grandparents' house, and his grandparents are quite hard to live with.

3) Theme: I see what lessons are out there, especially ones that are relevant and important to kids, and I see if I can shape a story teaching that lesson. This is where shows like #412: “A Lesson From Mike” come from, which is about making friends with the friendless - a theme that has special meaning to me personally.

Do you also come up with ideas for storylines from your own experiences growing up?

Not too many actually. I suppose I had an uneventful childhood.

How much interaction do you have with the cast?

We go to California about 5 or 6 times a year, and I usually go out to direct episodes. At the studio where we record the voices, I am either directing the actors or I am watching someone else direct. When I am not directing, I usually take that time to talk with the actors and get caught up on their lives. The production team and the acting team have a great relationship. We really are a family.

How many cast members are there?

Too many to count. We have a core group of about 6, then we have all sorts of kids and adults who play supporting roles.

Has there been a cast change that resulted in a voice change for a particular character?

The biggest one, as you may know, was that we had to replace the voice of the original Whit. The actor who played Whit from 1987-1994 was Hal Smith, who died in 1994. We found Paul Herlinger in 1996, and have used him ever since. [NOTE: since this interview, Paul has passed away, and Andre Stojka is the third voice for Whit] There are very few people who have actually noticed the difference. Also, there have been three Mary Barclays since the beginning. And two George Barclays. Those are the only ones that I can remember.

How has "Adventure in Odyssey's" success influenced its development?

Because I believe we have established a core audience, we have felt more free to try new ideas. We have done some unique things, some of which worked and some of which didn't. But because we have a loyal fan base, we didn't fear everybody getting sick of our experiment and leaving the show. Because we have been able to take chances, we have found some great stuff that works, and it has enabled the show to carry on for more than fifteen years. Believe me, we have to take chances or there would be no way to come up with unique ideas after the 500+ shows we've done since 1988.

What are some of the “new ideas” that you have tried that have turned out to be successful? Any that were not successful or mistakes?

Odyssey started off pretty much as a family, slice-of-life, everyday problems, kind of show, and then some of the early guys started taking chances that spun the show into a whole new direction. I'm sure there was concern at first about using the Imagination Station, since it was such a departure from the reality of the show's beginnings, but obviously that was a successful move. And doing adventure shows like #42: “The Last Great Adventure of the Summer” and The Case of the Secret Room were risks, but the action/adventure/intrigue shows are probably our fans' favorite shows now. Then we brought in "Kids Radio" to play more with fantasy and outlandish humor, and "B-TV" to do more of a variety-type show. You put all of those together, and you've got what I believe is one of the coolest things about the show - when you tune in, you never know what you're going to get. The one idea that I can point to that turned out to be not-so-successful was when we changed the program to two ten-minute episodes (and a short skit in the middle) instead of one 25-minute show (for about a year). We were trying to engage our younger audience, and indeed the younger audience is used to shorter stories, but in the process I think we alienated our core audience because they were used to the character development that the 25-minute format offered. Not that I regret trying the experiment. I think it was a great idea to try, just to see if it worked. But in the end, I don't think it did.

The "Novacom saga" covered many episodes and was very different from what AIO often sounds like. What was the fan reaction to that, and do you think you'd do that kind of thing again?

The Novacom saga received the most mixed response that I have ever seen in Odyssey. A lot of people were put off by the quick-paced, action adventure, on-going storyline. It was certainly nothing like the Odysseys of old. The themes were buried as well, not quite so obvious, and a lot of families were asking themselves at the end of the program, "What was this trying to teach me?" But one thing that we noticed after September 11th is that kids are scared. They have uncertain futures, and in some respects it looked like the enemy won in that case. But we were trying to show that good does win out in the end, and that with prayer and good people doing the right thing, that evil can be vanquished. It was a dark journey that lead to hope, and I think some people thought the dark journey was too long. Perhaps it was. Nevertheless, we received an overwhelming number of letters saying how much they loved the Novacom saga, and those albums look to be some of our top-selling ones. It will probably be a long time before we do something like that again. Right now, we're busy trying to convince our audience that we're the same old Odyssey, with clear messages and situations that kids can relate to and enjoy.

What were some of the more challenging story arcs that carried over from episode to episode?

We had a lot of problems with the Eugene and Meltsner|Katrina story arc. After we got them together, we asked the question, "Okay, what are we going to do with them now?" So we broke them up, then got them back together, then got them engaged. We fought long and hard over whether or not we should get them married. We didn't know if our core audience (8-12 year-olds) would stop relating to Eugene if he got married. Of course, our fan base was definitely pulling for it. So we finally did it.

How many writers are involved in the series?

Right now we have four writers on staff, though none of them write full-time for the show. We have Kathy Buchanan, who also writes books for Brio, John Fornof, who also writes the Ribbits movies, Nathan Hoobler, who also runs the Odyssey website, and myself. Then we have a couple of freelancers that we work with frequently, Torry Martin and Bob Hoose, the latter of which actually co-produces with me.

Can you outline a typical show from beginning (brainstorming) through the end (being aired on the radio)?

We have writer's meetings about every six months. At this week-long meeting, we talk about the overall direction of the show, where we want certain characters to go, etc., and all the writers bring their own stories to pitch. From there, we all end up with assignments. Each writer takes the ideas and outlines them (though sometimes we outline them as a team), then brings them back to the team for a read-through. There are comments and suggestions made, then the writer writes a first draft of the script. Another read-through. Then the writer writes a second and a third draft (at times more). When the script is polished, we take it with us to California and put it in front of our actors (most of the time, this is the first time the actors have seen this script), and they perform it to the director's specifications. We come back from CA and the sound designer (we currently have two on staff - Jonathan Crowe and Glenn Montjoy) takes the voice tracks and edits them so that the scenes sound as perfect as possible. (This process is very time-consuming and tedious. At times, the engineer will piece syllables of different words together to get exactly the right delivery of a line). The sound designer sends the voice tracks off to our music guy, usually John Campbell, who is brilliant. The sound designer then puts in CD sound effects and Foley, which is live sound effects (This is a fun part of the process - just last week, Jonathan Crowe put Nathan Hoobler in the trunk of his car with a tape recorder and drove around the parking lot - this to get the exact sound of someone being in the trunk of a car). Then the sounds and music are all mixed, and we have a playback with the whole team. We give notes on the next-to-final product, then the show is completed. The shows are sent via satellite to stations when it is time to air, and there you have it. All told, probably 150-200 hours of work per show.

How many episodes are typically recorded in one day?

An episode is recorded in one four-hour session, so two per day. How soon after a show is finished in the studio will it take it to be aired on the radio?

It varies, based on if our re-air schedule, etc., but for instance, right now (June 20) I'm writing a show that will be recorded in July and will air in January.

What are some of the character developments that you've seen over the years for some of the characters? Did you find the characters developing on their own, or was it a concentrated act?

It is underrated how much an actor has to do with character development. Eugene was a fairly one-dimensional character to begin with, with the team emphasizing his intellect almost exclusively. But then Will Ryan, the actor who plays Eugene, really began to put a bit more of his own personality into it, and suddenly he was a very real character who had depth and dimension. The team began to write for that character, and he developed through an effort that came from a lot of different places. We plan story arcs for characters, and that helps them develop, but it is rare when we decide "In this episode, we see that Connie's a bad cook" (which we did).

Any new developments we should expect to be seeing for Adventures in Odyssey in the future?

The Connie/Mitch saga will take some dramatic turns this fall. And Connie takes a road trip, much like Eugene and Bernard did in the Wish You Were Here! album. So there are 9 or 10 shows with Connie on the road.