Tenderness in the Game Show Arena

I love to like the characters in a story.

When I listened to Roger Dowds: Millionaire Winner, by Irish producer Ronan Kelly, I immediately got into sync with the protagonist — when he felt sad, I felt sad. When he felt happy, I felt happy. The listening experience is simple when the character is likable.

With Roger Dowds, likability has everything to do with his desperate sincerity. It spills out of his mouth every time he speaks. He communicates sincerity not just through what he says, but in how he says it: the quality of his voice is a crucial element in this story. It’s a simple, soft, almost-pathetic-sounding voice with an element of pain behind it. You get that quality throughout the piece – it’s a part of who he is: like a whimper with a wounded heart. Without even seeing a picture of him, you still get an image of a hunched-over, pale-skinned body behind Roger’s voice. All in all, you kind of want to feel sorry for him… but when he smiles, you can hear it. You love that smile.

In the piece, Roger becomes a contestant on the Irish version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” This game show provides structure to hold Roger’s voice. Without this structure, you might be lulled to sleep by his easy, meek tone. After all, the piece is nearly half an hour long.

Instead, you’re on the edge of your seat. The anxiety of “Millionaire” sustains you through the length of this story. The narrative’s drama develops as the game show itself unfolds, with its pattern of Tension, Release, Tension, Release. (“Is the answer correct? …Find out after this break.”) The stakes are always building, and you want to know what happens next. While he moves forward in the game show, the story also takes you deeper into his personal life. Roger’s voice is there at every moment, tender even when the tension is at its peak; it brings you into the eye of this particular storm. It’s a genuine roller coaster, infused with meaning and purpose. By the end of this story, you’ll feel like you have a new friend.

“Roger Dowds: Millionaire Winner”
Produced in 2006 by Ronan Kelly for RTE Ireland
27 minutes
First heard on saltcast