An introduction to old-time radio and why you should listen in.
If you ever happen to have half an hour or so on your hands that you can’t figure out how to spend or are working on homework and would like to find something to sustain you, I would like to suggest that you take a trip into the world of old-time radio.
Most people are acquainted with a few especially memorable moments from radio’s golden age, like Orson Welles’ earth-shaking production of The War of the Worlds or Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” baseball skit. These programs are good introductions to old-time radio, but there is a veritable sea of information and culture swelling beneath them into which I think we should take a dive.
Old-time radio is made up of a plethora of genres and provides something for everyone. Comedies, science fiction, westerns, dramas, detective stories, fairy tales, quiz shows, movie adaptations, music programs, presidential speeches—there isn’t anything you can’t find here!
But hasn’t radio been eclipsed by television? Perhaps; but that doesn’t negate old-time radio’s own merits. Radio programs can be listened to while one performs other tasks, whereas television generally preoccupies one’s entire attention. You can listen to old radio shows while doing homework, working on various projects, or even while falling asleep. Television, on the other hand, precludes multitasking.
Some might find the idea of listening to audio entertainment from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s to be stodgy, but I think that, once one gets into them, one realizes how wonderful they are at expressing stories and at entertaining. Through old radio you can discover a by-gone era of talent and artistry, a scene which once preoccupied America’s imagination and expresses truths and history behind our culture. Wonderful performances can be listened to. You can hear Groucho Marx (the inspiration behind the children’s glasses with a schnozz, mustache, and eyebrows attached) quiz contestants in You Bet Your Life, hear Lucille Ball in a budding role in My Favorite Husband, listen to Gene Kelly tap dance, or even hear a young Ronald Reagan makes guest appearances in various programs.
A radio show, from our perspective as people living after the advent of television, comes across much like a television show, lacking only in images. Timing, sound effects, consistent casts, and running gags are techniques that create this similarity. To listen to a radio program feels very much like watching a television show with your eyes closed, albeit more entertaining, for a radio writer had to include dialogue and sound effects to keep the listener invested in the action. When a doorbell rings, for example, you will hear the character’s shoes walking to the door, or he will speak while he walks so as not to lose the listener’s attention. A television program, on the other hand, can depict a character walking to open a door without any commentary at all. The radio program must provide commentary, or else the listener will lose track of the storyline.
One might compare radio programs to the podcasts of today, but I think that to make this comparison on the simple basis that both employ sounds instead of sights is too simplistic. Podcasts are rather harder to sift through, seeing as just about anyone can produce one, whereas old-time radio consists of recordings from live radio programs, which means that, while there is a plethora of radio programs, the number is much more limited, as only one show could be broadcast through a specific station at a time. Podcasts are not hindered by time or distribution. Radio is. This means that radio producers had to be much more selective about their content and more invested in crafting shows that amused a wide variety of people.
And, whereas one is generally spoken to in podcasts, radio invites one to listen in. Radio is, I think, more akin to cracking open a storybook than it is to listening to a podcast.
If you would like to crack this storybook open, then here are a few suggestions to get you started.
Fans of crime stories might take a listen to Dragnet, whose famous catch line is, “The story you are about to hear is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” For other detective and suspense stories, try out The Shadow, The Whistler, or the aptly named Suspense.
Westerns aren’t mass-produced today, but Western radio programs exist in abundance. Try Gunsmoke or The Lone Ranger to begin.
I personally have always favored comedy. Shows like The Jack Benny Program, Burns and Allen, Our Miss Brooks, and Henry Aldrich might sound unassuming at first, but when one becomes introduced to the characters and plot schemes (dealing with a miserly radio host, a cigar-puffing husband and absent-minded wife, a mishap-inclined English teacher, and a troublemaking teenager, respectively), the shows cease to exist as appellative titles and almost take on living and breathing personas.
If you’d like to listen to a fun, well-written story of a simpler time, take a foray into old-time radio. As an old-time commercial might go, “Try one, today!”
Ryan Ford '23,