There is something immensely comforting for me about old-time radio. During the heyday of American narrative audio broadcasts (approximately 1930-1960), millions tuned in to a wide variety of programs, hundreds of shows ranging from soap operas to science fiction. At present, the massive influx of podcasts has revived interest in audial work, and even the creation of new narrative radio series. For myself and a few fellow fanatics, the old shows are still something we enjoy on a regular basis.
My dad got me hooked on that great first wave of radio programs. I remember working out in the garage with him one weekend in Denver, when I was around the age of 12. He twisted the dial of a battered old Bakelite radio, searching for the sound of sports. Suddenly, he found something different and turned it up. It was Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. The 15-minute juvenile adventure serial was cheesy and ludicrous — and I was hooked immediately.
The local old-time radio show was curated, produced, and hosted locally by the affable and relaxed writer John Dunning. I would follow him around the dial from station to station as his program evolved. Once a week, depending on how much time the station gave him — he was usually blessed with two- to three-hour slots, which gave him plenty of time to schedule a nice variety of shows — he would entrance me. He played every important show (as long as the sound quality held up), and many lesser-known gems, and filled in the context for each show with a comprehensive exactitude that is codified in his immense and deeply enjoyable reference work about the period, On the Air.
What’s the appeal? First and foremost is the idea of compelling the listening audience to collaborate by implementing its imagination. With film and television, the visual is codified and defines how we remember and think about the performance. In radio, you are free (in fact required) to flesh out the story in your imagination. This leeway, this necessity to make the brain work, is exhilarating. When one prominent show came on the air, the announcer proclaimed, “Tired of the everyday grind? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? We offer you Escape! Designed to free you from the four walls of today . . .” If you give yourself over the process, it’s mighty mind-expanding.
Next, versatility on the cheap. A handful of sound effects, some appropriate music, and solid performances take the listener anywhere you want. You can go to the moon, or sail to a treasure island. You can inhabit the mind of a murderer, or that of a precocious child. It is easier to move into the place of characters via audio than in any other medium.
Then there’s the nostalgia factor. Growing up, I was marinated in the mainstream culture of decades earlier, which turned me into a person of the 1930s. There is something about traveling back in time, into earlier (and, you might say, more primitive) modes of entertainment, which both takes me out of myself and grounds me. Despite the Great Depression and World War II, my parents’ childhood world was a stable one. I identify these old shows with that feeling.
Part of this legacy consists of some very inappropriate racial stereotypes. One of the most popular comedies on the air, Amos ‘n’ Andy, featured white men pretending to be black. The show is well-written, but it leans on and reinforces popular prejudices, rendering it unlistenable today. On the sitcom Fibber McGee and Molly, their Black maid Beulah was played by a white man, Marlin Hurt. Even on the tolerant Jack Benny show, the clever servant Rochester (Eddie Anderson) initially referenced attributes such as a penchant for razors, dice, and gin. There are Asian stereotypes in many shows, most notably Terry and the Pirates and Have Gun, Will Travel. Even Life with Luigi trafficked in obnoxious ethnic types. Replays of these broadcasts require warnings and contextualization. When it came to racial equality in that era, radio was just as behind as everything else.
Finally, the warm glow of sound issuing from the speaker surrounds me and lifts me up. The simple comfort of the human voice, speaking seemingly only to you, confers contentment.
So where do you begin? My list of recommendations follows, grouped by genre. How to find them? It takes a bit of sleuthing to dig up these shows, but the digital revolution has made it much easier. I utilize primarily the Internet Archive’s Old Time Radio pages, as well as the excellent RadioEchoes, which carries classic British as well as American radio. YouTube is also a valuable source.
Vic and Sade
The ultimate use of radio in the comedy format can be found in this series of 15-minute freestanding sketches that took in the “the small house halfway up in the next block” in an anonymous small Midwestern town. For the bulk of the show, it was populated by only three characters: Victor Gook, his wife Sade, and their son Rush. Through their incidental conversations, the listener got to hear about the most bizarre and surreal collection of people (Fred Stembottom, Y.Y. Flirch, et al), places (The Tiny Petite Pheasant Feather Tea Shoppe, the Bright Kentucky Hotel) and events put out in any medium. The show was enormously popular during its run from 1932 to 1945. From simple premises such as “40 Pounds of Golf Clubs” and “Grandpa Snyder’s Christmas Cards” came complicated curlicues of contorted nonsense. Most importantly, the players sounded like regular folks, comfortable in their own skins and absorbed in the minutiae and absurdities of everyday life.
Others: The Jack Benny Program, The Fred Allen Show, Abbott and Costello, Baby Snooks, Bob Hope, Bob and Ray, Burns and Allen, Duffy’s Tavern, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, Lum and Abner, Our Miss Brooks, Phil Harris-Alive Faye Show, The Red Skelton Show
Inner Sanctum Mysteries
The home of the infamous squeaking door, Inner Sanctum (1941-1952) led its listeners down gloomy and improbable corridors. Each week, it delivered completely over-the-top melodrama larded down with gore, it was something you wanted to listen to with the lights on. The creepy organ soundtrack and the show’s sardonic, punning host only made it better. Sometimes the plots were so absurd that you end up laughing — but it was still entertaining.
Others: Lights Out, The Whistler, Murder at Midnight, Dark Fantasy
One Man’s Family
I am not a fan of these daily/weekly weepies, but radio started the soap opera genre (so named because soap companies, trying to reach the housewife, were often sponsors of these shows), and it ran strongly on the airwaves from beginning to end of the era. Some series even successfully transferred to television. The gold standard for the long, involved, and slow-moving intertwined narratives was this show (1932-1959), scripted by the prolific and talented Carlton E. Morse, who also created the excellent serial adventure I Love a Mystery. In Family, four generations of the Barbour family lived, loved, laughed, and lost together in weekly nuggets of conversation and consternation.
Richard Diamond Private Detective
Not the first wisecracking detective but certainly one of the best (1949-1953). Former crooner Dick Powell played Diamond (his name a nod to Sam Spade), a cocky, bemused private eye who sometimes burst into song to cap an episode. He good-naturedly jousted with his pal the police lieutenant and solved crimes and other mysteries with one eyebrow cocked.
Others: Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Boston Blackie, Dragnet, Gang Busters, The Saint, The Shadow, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, Candy Matson
Escape and Suspense
You can tell from the list of other shows below that most adventure radio was geared toward kids. Escape (1947-1954) and Suspense (1942-1962) were different. They were for grown-up listeners, featured top-notch production values, and rarely proved tedious. Escape stuck mainly to adventure and action; Suspense trafficked in mystery and crime, often featuring big Hollywood names in the cast. These two shows drew talented people into their making, and remain memorable.
Others: Green Hornet, Superman, Buck Rogers, Challenge of the Yukon, Terry and the Pirates, Chandu the Magician, I Love a Mystery, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen
The Lone Ranger
The Masked Rider of the Plains was created specifically for radio, and remains its most iconic figure. He was a Texas Ranger who was left for dead by outlaws, but who survived and disguised his identity so that he could wreak havoc against badmen everywhere in the Old West. From 1933 to 1956, he fought for justice with his faithful Indian companion, Tonto. This was kid stuff, but later Western series adopted a much more mature approach, especially Gunsmoke. It’s difficult to realize now that, at least until the 1960s, the Western genre was the nation’s most popular.
Others: The Cisco Kid, Fort Laramie, Frontier Gentleman, Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch, Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Hopalong Cassidy, The Roy Rogers Show
Most quiz shows were dopey giveaways, but Information Please (1938-1948) was different. In it, listeners sent in questions in an effort to stump four brainy panelists, a team usually anchored by columnist Franklin P. Adams, sportswriter John Kieran, and pianist Oscar Levant. It was a funny, freewheeling show and for a time was wildly popular. It is still fun to listen in and play along. (Its mirror opposite It Pays to Be Ignorant lined up three comics who gloriously biffed on questions such as “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?”, getting confused, going off on tangents, and generally abusing the show’s long-suffering host Tom Howard. Of course, in You Bet Your Life, the format was given another twist as host Groucho Marx teased the contestants unmercifully.
Others: Doctor I.Q., It Pays to Be Ignorant, You Bet Your Life
Science fiction was a late comer to radio, and again was thought of primarily as kid stuff. However, many interesting ideas and sardonic observations were unfolded through the genre, and Dimension X (1950-1951) was a strong contender. It was reborn (and scripts were reused) as X Minus One (1955-1958). Both shows took some of the best work of the most skilled sci-fi writers of the day.
Others: X Minus One
Mercury Theatre on the Air
“Straight” drama was a surprisingly weak genre on radio. The need for family-friendly content meant that many topics were off-limits. The first show to demonstrate the amazing power of radio was the infamous Mercury show of Oct. 30, 1938 — Mercury’s adaptation of “The War of the Worlds.” The production was so realistic that the entire nation panicked. The series was the brainchild of Orson Welles and John Houseman, who first made a splash on the air with an epic three-and-a-half hour adaptation of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables.” The Mercury had confidence in the listener’s ability to absorb complex material, and its mature and intelligent approach made it the most engaging of dramatic offerings on the air.
Others: Columbia Workshop, Columbia Presents Corwin, Lux Radio Theatre, NBC University Theatre