In numerous interviews over the years, Orson Welles held that radio — not film, not television, not even live performance — was the most effective dramatic medium yet devised. Welles thought this the case because radio staged its action in the audience’s mind, thus it was not restricted by the artificial limits of a frame of film or the boundaries of the proscenium. Radio’s only limits were in the imagination of the listeners.
Nevertheless, American radio’s life as an entertainment venue, other than for sports broadcasts and music delivery, came to a practical end in the mid-1950s when audiences shifted their allegiance to the forest of television antennas sprouting over homes and businesses. The electronic wonder that was voices in the air that had dominated a huge section of our popular culture for three decades was dead.
Or was it?
Before addressing that question, it would be well to consider the impact radio had on audiences from the late 1920s through the early 1950s. Everybody had a radio, and everybody listened. “The Amos and Andy Show,” which often ran serialized storylines that extended over weeks, was so popular that movie theaters shut down the projectors and piped the broadcast into the theater so the movie goers would not miss anything. During the summer, when city dwellers sat out on their front stoops in hopes of a breeze to counter the stifling heat, you could pass down the block from one radio sitting in an open window to another with out missing a line of dialogue.
As a nation, we listened to the radio all the time. Morning started with news bites and then live morning shows. Then came the seemingly endless line up of soap operas such as, “Just Plain Bill,” “Mert and Marge,” The Romance of Helen Trent,” “Our Gal, Sunday,” and “One Man’s Family.” These shows often ran for decades as their trials and tribulations attracted more and more fans who tuned in daily to hear what would happen next.
Afternoons brought more of the same until about the time school children were coming home, and then the programming took aim at them. Westerns like “The Lone Ranger,” “Red Ryder” and “Tom Mix” corralled the kids, before turning them over to the adventurous lives of “Little Orphan Annie,” “Captain Midnight” and “Flash Gordon.” Of particular note was the series “Let’s Pretend,” where a troupe of child actors recreated famous fairy tales.
Comedy, mystery, adventure, crime and more brought the entire family together in front of the radio set in the evenings, with people planning their weekly activities so as not to miss the latest offering from their favorites. Even more than the movies, radio dominated the popular entertainment world for three decades.
Now, thanks to the ever expanding internet and a cadre of devoted old time radio fans who have diligently collected transcriptions over the years, “Jack Benny,” “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “The Great Gildersleeve,” “Suspense,” “Gunsmoke,”and the like are available once more. The variety and availability of this new old media is minting new fans, including ones who never heard the original broadcasts.
I came along just at the end of OTR (that’s old-time-radio), so I have a few direct memories of some of these shows. I was a dedicated listener to “Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Wranglers,” “Tom Corbet of the Space Patrol,” “No School Today with Big Jon and Sparky,” and some mystery and crime shows as well, “Mister Kean, Tracer of Lost Persons,” “The Shadow,” “Crime Busters” and “Mr. District Attorney.”
Years later, I started a modest collection of shows on cassette tape, LPs, and even a few original transcription disks from the libraries of local radio station, then I found podcasts and the internet. I subscribe (free of charge) to a podcast titled Buck Benny OTR available through Apple’s iTunes or PodO-Matic.com. Each day, the platform looks to see if any new material has been uploaded, and if so, it downloads to my computer or phone. Recently, I have switched from the iTunes platform to Overcast. It is free, and allows you to subscribe to thousands of podcasts covering just about any subject you can imagine. It is also easy to use.
But I digress. Buck Benny is the pseudonym of a devoted Jack Benny fan in Seattle. He has been producing these podcasts for a number of years while relying on public donations to defray his expenses.
He starts each show off with a short introduction, a few words about the episode and then the show. Usually he runs three or four shows (up to two hours in total) in row although they may not always be Benny shows. Sometimes he plays interviews with OTR stars or supporting players. Besides Benny, the podcaster likes “The Bing Crosby Show,” “Gunsmoke,” “Suspense” and “The Whistler.” Buck has several other podcasters who also do OTR shows that he podcasts, so that he offers a full evening of programming seven nights a week. With these programmers, I get regular episodes of “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “The Great Gildersleeve,” George Burns and Gracie Allen, Fred Allen and more.
There are dozens of OTR programs to be found over the podcasting spectrum, more are available on websites such as www.archive.org, a site offering thousands of files of audio, music, film, TV, books and more free for the looking and listening, and now, more broadcast radio stations are adding segments of OTR to their regular line up. Sirius XM, the satellite streaming service for radio has a channel dedicated to OTR classics.
If you are tired of the sameness, blandness and general weakness of today’s television and movies, why not step back through time to the days when radio ruled the airwaves. All you need is a good imagination.