The Death of Old Time Radio

Posted by Eric Brightwell, September 30, 2008 12:25am | Post a Comment


On this day (September 30) in 1962 CBS radio broadcast the final episodes of Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and the Golden Age of Radio came to a close. 



Radio Drama (also frequently referred to as Old Time Radio or OTR) really began in the 1920s. Before that, there was audio theater which consisted of plays performed for radio broadcast. It wasn't until August 3, 1922 at the Schenectady, New York station WGY that the in-house actors, The WGY Players, broadcast a performance that augmented the drama with music and sound effects, creating a vivid aural tapestry. The result was a worldwide explosion in what was an instantly popular new art form. Within months there were radio dramas being produced across the USA, as well as in Canada, Ceylon, France, Germany, India, Japanand the UK.


In 1934, the anthology series Lights Out debuted and exploited many of radio's unique qualities to massive success. The program was penned by Wyllis Cooper and aired at midnight. Cooper employed stream of conscious monologues, multiple first-person narrators and internal monologues which were at odds with the characters' spoken dialog. It's most often remembered, however, for its gruesome and explicit sound effects which attempted to suggest joints being ripped from sockets, skin being eviscerated, heads being decapitated and other depictions of violence that would still be pushing the envelope, even on modern cable television programs.


Radio drama's most well-known moment came in 1938 when Orson Welles on the Mercury Theater of the Air broadcast War of the Worlds. Virtually everyone has heard tales about the mass panic that supposedly ensued. It turns out that this supposed reaction may've been invented by newspapers who were threatened by the radio news' growing dominance. Since there are no verifiable reports of nationwide panic, it seems that newspapers were attempting to create a moral panic to save their own skins. Indeed, how likely is it that a people used to  both radio dramas and the instantly recognizable voice of  radio drama mainstay Orson Welles would, for some reason, think that he was acting as a newsman covering a Martian invasion? If Kelsey Grammar was on TV reporting that Earth was being attacked by another planet, would you assume it was real and panic? If your answer is yes, then you are a dullard.



Radio drama began to lose ground in the 1950s for several reasons. Mainly, television (though around for some time) exploded in popularity and, with the novelty of a visual aspect, stole the dramatic thunder from radio (and film too), partially by dumbing down the writing and toning down the violence to broaden its audience. Many radio dramas attempted to make the transfer to television in order to survive. Often this necessitated re-casting key roles because, whilst a voice actor might've sounded the part, they didn't look it.

At the same time, music radio began to make a comeback. Forced by the 1940s writers strike to look elsewhere for music (rather than pay pop songwriters more), music radio popularized previously marginalized music forms like Hillbilly and Rhythm & Blues which grew in popularity and merged into Rock 'n' Roll. The dissemination of this electrifying new development in music was aided by a new recording format, the 45 rpm single. Now families could rock out or veg out on their own and radio rapidly lost ground before going the way of silent film and magic lantern shows.

In some countries, radio drama is still produced-- mainly, Canada, England and Eire. Domestically, Prairie Home Companion contributes to the art form with its "The Lives of the Cowboys" and "Guy Noir, Private Eye" sketches.


My own interest in radio drama began when I was five or six. My dad had a record containing several episodes of the Lone Ranger which were fascinating to me as an alternative to television, books and video games. My interest was revived when I moved to Chino and was turned on to The Whistler by my friend Josh, which used to be broadcast on AM 1260 KNX until they stopped in 2003, ending a three decade run. With modern radio consisting mostly of an endless series of advertisements, my preference for old time radio drama grows, aided by Amoeba's large selection on various formats and internet radio, provided by the following:


is the best outlet old time radio broadcasts. The audio quality, so often lacking in most OTR sources, is almost always great. They also favor the actual date of original broadcast when possible, which gives the programming a timely feel, as the stories and announcements often refer to particular seasons, holidays or observances.

ACB Treasure Trove is run by the American Council for the Blind. I suppose it makes perfect sense that the blind would like radio drama. In fact, the Treasure Trove is ACBs most popular radio service. The TLC at Antioch is somewhat lacking, with programs occasionally cut off right at the climax to make room for an unnecessary public service announcement. But they schedule programing around genres, which is nice, and the incidental music is insanely corny and amazing.

MPIR brags that it's "Your #1 station for old time radio." Sadly, its my #3. The audio quality is frequently indecipherable, the shows begin at random times (making it incredibly annoying when attempting to catch a program) and it is primarily marketed as being a chance to "listen to dead people" --an embarrassingly crude and tacky attempt to get listeners, if you ask me.



If you were born after the 1940s, exposing yourself to radio drama can present several enjoyable obstacles:

So many characters of radio are familiar from various other media, such as film, TV and comics like  Blondie, Dick Tracy, Gasoline Alley, the Gumps, Li'l Abner, Little Orphan Annie, Popeye the Sailor, Red Ryder, Reg'lar Fellers and Terry and the Pirates. And yet the quality and target audience can differ from medium to medium. I used to avoid Gunsmoke like the plague since I could never make it through an episode of the television series with my eyes open. Only later did I discover that the radio drama is superior in every single way to nearly every television series. The use of sound effects is truly amazing in its expert ability to conjure up vivid images and changing settings. In addition, it is infused with a realism not usually associated with classic westerns --bad guys get away sometimes and sheriff Matt Dillon's confrontations with sociopathic gunslingers owe more to hard-boiled roman noir than to the pulp westerns of Zane Grey.

One the other hand, The Lone Ranger (a western which I liked so much as a kid), is unlistenable to me as an adult. Listening to one episode, it became clear that the target audience is 6 to 10-year-old boys. The plots are thinly-veiled behavioral lessons and the Lone Ranger, not surprisingly, spells out the moral in the end.

As with television, the clues are in the advertising. Automobile-related products are all over the programs I enjoy, including Spark plugs, Auto-lite Stay Full Batteries and Signal Oil. Many of the family-oriented programs advertise the bizarre foods I was mostly exposed to by elderly women at church dinners as a kid. Velveeta, Spam, Parkay margarine and Jello are just a few of the exotic, processed wonders of a bygone culinary age. And if the ads are for decoders that you obtain by sending in cereal proof of purchases... you're listening to something for the juveniles. One of the best things about the advertising is how refreshing it is to be free of the witless irony that infects everything these days. In its place you get charmingly transparent attempts to sell you on a list of the product's benefits paired with a catchy jingle.



Kids - I doubt many kids today are tuning in to radio dramas. In the past, afternoon and early evening programming was aimed at squarely at children. Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, The Cisco Kid, Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy, Captain Midnight, the Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters, Cinnamon Bear, Jack Armstrong All-American Boy, The Mickey Mouse Theater of the Air and Space Patrol are pretty much off limits unless your inner child is begging to hear serialized adventures marketing badges, rings, decoding devices, &c. 


Suspense/Thrillers - Suspense/thrillers like The Whistler, Suspense, Escape, The Mysterious Traveler and Inner Sanctum Mysteries are usually anthologies that featured guest stars from film and guest writers. As such, they can vary a lot in quality from episode to episode although there is almost always a devilish amorality present that is undone by the conclusion without detracting from the fun.


Westerns - Series like Gunsmoke, Have Gun, Will Travel, Fort LaramieFrontier Gentleman, and Six Shooter are familiar to many from their television counterpoints which, with the exception of Have Gun, Will Travel, are almost markedly inferior to their radio versions. 

Sci-Fi - As with all Sci-Fi, it says more about the fears and dreams of the world that produced it than the future or alternate worlds it imagines. Dimension X (later X Minus One) exemplifies the adult-oriented fare which frequently employed top quality writers seemingly preoccupied with a healthy ambivalence toward technology and progress. Shows like Flash Gordon, on the other hand, are just space operas that merely relocate adventure clichés to exotic locales.


Superheros - The 1940s cranked out masked crime-fighters, from lesser-known characters like the Blue Beetle and the Whisperer to still-famous characters like Superman, the Shadow and the Green Hornet. They starred in the serialized adventures that pitted them against villains who were usually less-concerned with global domination than getting their hands on some rare diamond.

Espionage/Spy - Cold War paranoia was rampant during radio's Golden Age as evinced in the frequently (unintentionally) humorous and fear-stoking, rarely-complicated plots of Dangerous Assignment, I Was a Communist for the FBI, The Man Called 'X' and Counterspy.


Detectives - In the era that gave the world so many amazing film noirs, it was inevitable that many detective programs would flourish contemporaneously like Adventures of Sam Spade, Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Fat Man, Johnny Madero, Pier 23, The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Broadway is My Beat. Whilst incapable of approaching (in 30 minutes) the complexity of their film and literary counterparts, many have great, slang-fueled dialog and are breezily enjoyable. The McCoy starring Howard Duff sounded promising but I think the star was caught up in the McCarthy witch hunt and the show was killed.


Comedy - One of the most interesting things about radio sitcoms is how evidently formulaic and unchanged the genre has been for at least 70 years. Even in early sitcoms like The Great Gildersleeve, Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet, the Bickersons and Our Miss Brooks, a ruined/important supper with guests, hare-brained attempts to get rich, keeping up with the neighbors and men trying to teach lessons and getting schooled in the process are common conventions. They differ from TV and film comedies because physical comedy is absent, although comedies still rely heavily, as their radio forebears did, on funny voices and catchphrases. Life of Riley, for example, is freakishly similar to that Michael Rappaport show that was on a minute ago.

The other main sort of comedy in OTR is based around comedy teams and is frequently more sketch and variety-based. I find this sort of humor to be almost unrecognizable usually. When Lum and Abner plays I hear the laughter, but damn it's unpleasant. Other big shows include The Goon Show, Jack Benny, Bob and Ray (with Chris Elliot's dad!), Abbott & Costello, Amos 'n' Andy, The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, Fibber McGee & Molly and Burns and Allen.


Police Procedurals - One of my favorite genres, focusing on the ways police get their men. Back in the days when they couldn't just run Movie OS like they do on the CSI series, Tales of the Texas Rangers and Dragnet wowed with their plots drawn from actual crimes. Somebody Knows used reenactments to portray actual unsolved mysteries with the supposed hope that someone in the audience would be able to help out, just like Unsolved Mysteries and America's Most Wanted decades later.

Reality - No, reality programming is nothing new. It being unremittingly crap is, however, with the COPS-like Night Watch being absolutely amazing. Each episode follows a police recorder riding along with some cops and recording the report of a crime till an interview with the suspect (and sometimes their family) from behind bars. Any notions people have about the 1950s being mythically-innocent "good ol' days" should explode after hearing about an attempted suicide in Santa Monica, indecent exposure in Culver City or dope-dealing, robbery, vandalism and every other sort of crime you can think of. Not quite as entertaining was NBC's Confession, which is bookended with interviews from prison with actual criminals and fairly unbelievable dramatizations of the crimes that got them there.

Soap Operas - Soaps earned their name from sponsors like Procter and Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, Manhattan Soap and Lever Brothers, who targeted woman with their mid-day tales which spun never-ending plots about romance and scandal. They began in 1930 and programs like 1937's Guiding Light continue to this day! Some of my favorite titles (sounding like Felt tracks) are Aunt Jenny's Real Life Stories, John's Other Wife, Nona From Nowhere, Portia Faces Life, Painted Dreams, The Romance of Helen Trent, The Second Mrs. Burton and Today's Children. Interestingly, several of them revolve around the adventures of professional women such as Doctor Susan, Joyce Jordan, M.D. and Wendy Warren and the News. Ironically, several portray working women.

Religious Dramas - Yes, there are religious dramas. I don't know any of them, as I'm completely uninterested in hearing them.

Other genres have gone the way of silent film, rock music and magic lantern shows...


Air dramas - Ann of the Airlanes, The Air Adventures of Jimmie Allen, Captain Midnight, Speed Gibson and the International Secret Police and Smilin' Jack wowed a juvenile populace still enthralled by flight and the adventures of spunky flying aces.

Northerns - Challenge of the Yukon, Renfrew of the Royal Mounted, Blair of the Mounties and Men in Scarlet, which often had counterpoints in low budget films, exploited the adventurous lives of Canadians. Most of the conventions are similar to those of Westerns, albeit tweeked slightly. In The Silver Eagle, for example, the titular heroic mountie is aided by his trusty sidekick, the French Canadian Joe Bideaux. To write an episode of Challenge of the Yukon (re-named Sgt. Preston of the Yukon in 1951) was said to require nothing more than taking a Lone Ranger script and adding snow.


Filmmakers who came of age during radio's golden age have occasionally turned their lenses on that sepia-tinted world. It was also an occasional setting for films made at the time. Radio Days, Are You Listening?, The Big Broadcast, Mystery Broadcast,the Night that Panicked America, Radioland Murders, Prairie Home Companion, Tune In Tomorrow, Welcome Back Mr. McDonald, Breakfast in Hollywood and Up In the Air are all available on DVD and/or VHS for those interested.  

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