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Old Time Radio History

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It was not until after the Titanic catastrophe in 1912 that radio for mass communication came into vogue, inspired first by the work of amateur (or "ham") radio operators. Radio was especially important during World War I as it was vital for air and naval operations. World War I brought about major developments in radio, superseding the Morse code of the wireless telegraph with the vocal communication of the wireless telephone, through advancements in vacuum tube technology and the introduction of the transceiver.

After the war, numerous radio stations were born in the United States and set the standard for later radio programs. The first radio news program was broadcast on August 31, 1920 on the station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan; owned by the Detroit News, the station covered local election results. This was followed in 1920 with the first commercial radio station in the United States, KDKA, being established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The first regular entertainment programs were broadcast in 1922, and on March 10, Variety carried the front page headline: "Radio Sweeping Country: 1,000,000 Sets in Use."[4] A highlight of this time was the first Rose Bowl being broadcast on January 1, 1923 on the Los Angeles station KHJ

Types of programs

During the Golden Age of Radio, radio featured genres and formats popular in other forms of American entertainment—adventure, comedy, drama, horror, mystery, musical variety, romance, thrillers—along with classical music concerts, big band remotes, farm reports, news and commentary, panel discussions, quiz shows (beginning with Professor Quiz), sidewalk interviews (on Vox Pop), broadcasts, talent shows and weather forecasts.

In the late 1920s, the sponsored musical feature was the most popular program format. Commercial messages were regarded as intrusive, so these shows usually displayed the sponsor's name in the title, as evidenced by such programs as The A&P Gypsies, Acousticon Hour, Champion Spark Plug Hour, The Clicquot Club Eskimos, The Flit Soldiers, The Fox Fur Trappers, The Goodrich Zippers, The Ingram Shavers, The Ipana Troubadors, The Planters Pickers, The Silvertown Cord Orchestra (featuring the Silver Masked Tenor), The Sylvania Foresters, The Yeast Foamers, King Biscuit Time (with Sonny Boy Williamson), The Health and Happiness Radio Show (with Hank Williams)and the Light Crust Doughboys (with Bob Wills and Milton Brown). During the 1930s and 1940s, the leading orchestras were heard often through big band remotes, and NBC's Monitor continued such remotes well in the 1950s by broadcasting live music from New York City jazz clubs to rural America.

Classical music programs on the air included The Voice of Firestone and The Bell Telephone Hour. Texaco sponsored the  Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts; the broadcasts, now sponsored by the Toll Brothers, continue to this day around the world, and are one of the few examples of live classical music still broadcast on radio. One of the most notable of all classical music radio programs of the Golden Age of Radio featured the celebrated Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, which had been created especially for him. At that time, nearly all classical musicians and critics considered Toscanini the greatest living maestro. There were also popular songwriters featured on radio, such as George Gershwin, who in addition to appearing as a guest, also had his own program in 1934.

Country music also enjoyed popularity. National Barn Dance, begun on Chicago's WLS-AM in 1924, was picked up by NBC Radio in 1933. In 1925, WSM Barn Dance went on the air from Nashville. It was renamed the Grand Ole Opry in 1927 and NBC carried portions from 1944 to 1956. NBC also aired The Red Foley Show from 1951–1961, and ABC Radio carried Ozark Jubilee from 1953 to 1961.

Top comedy talents surfed the airwaves for many years: Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Victor Borge, Fanny Brice, Billie Burke, Bob Burns, Judy Canova, Jimmy Durante, Phil Harris, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Jean Shepherd, Red Skelton and Ed Wynn. More laughter was generated on such shows as Abbott and Costello, Amos 'n' Andy, Burns and Allen, Easy Aces, Ethel and Albert, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Goldbergs, The Great Gildersleeve, The Halls of Ivy (which featured screen star Ronald Colman and his wife Benita Hume), Meet Corliss Archer, Meet Millie, and Our Miss Brooks.

Radio comedy ran the gamut from the small town humor of Lum and Abner, Herb Shriner and Minnie Pearl to the dialect characterizations of Mel Blanc and the caustic sarcasm of Henry Morgan. Gags galore were delivered weekly on Stop Me If You've Heard This One and Can You Top This?, [1] panel programs devoted to the art of telling jokes. Quiz shows were lampooned on It Pays to Be Ignorant, and other memorable parodies were presented by such satirists as Spike Jones, Stoopnagle and Budd, Stan Freberg and Bob and Ray. British comedy reached American shores in a major assault when NBC carried The Goon Show in the mid-1950s.

Some shows originated as stage productions: Clifford Goldsmith's play What a Life was reworked into NBC's popular, long-run The Aldrich Family (1939–1953) with the familiar catchphrases "Henry! Henry Aldrich!," followed by Henry's answer, "Coming, Mother!" Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit, You Can't Take It with You (1936), became a weekly situation comedy heard on Mutual (1944) with Everett Sloane and later on NBC (1951) with Walter Brennan.

Other shows were adapted from comic strips, such as Blondie, Dick Tracy, Gasoline Alley, The Gumps, Li'l Abner, Little Orphan Annie, Popeye the Sailor, Red Ryder, Reg'lar Fellers, Terry and the Pirates and Tillie the Toiler. Bob Montana's redheaded teen of comic strips and comic books was heard on radio's Archie Andrews from 1943 to 1953. The Timid Soul was a 1941–1942 comedy based on cartoonist H. T. Webster's famed Casper Milquetoast character, and Robert L. Ripley's Believe It or Not! was adapted to several different radio formats during the 1930s and 1940s.

The first soap opera, Clara, Lu, and Em was introduced in 1930 on Chicago's WGN-AM. When daytime serials began in the early 1930s, they became known as soap operas because many were sponsored by soap products and detergents. The line-up of late afternoon adventure serials included Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, The Cisco Kid, Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, Captain Midnight, and The Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters. Badges, rings, decoding devices and other radio premiums offered on these adventure shows were often allied with a sponsor's product, requiring the young listeners to mail in a box top from a breakfast cereal or other proof of purchase.

Outstanding radio dramas were presented on such programs as 26 by Corwin, NBC Short Story, Arch Oboler's Plays, Quiet, Please, and CBS Radio Workshop. Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre on the Air and Campbell Playhouse were considered by many critics to be the finest radio drama anthologies ever presented. They usually starred Welles in the leading role, along with celebrity guest stars such as Margaret Sullavan or Helen Hayes, in adaptations from literature, Broadway, and/or films. They included such titles as Liliom, Oliver Twist (a title now feared lost), A Tale of Two Cities, Lost Horizon, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It was on Mercury Theatre that Welles presented his celebrated-but-infamous adaptation of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, formatted to sound like a breaking news program. Theatre Guild on the Air presented adaptations of classical and Broadway plays. Their Shakespeare adaptations included a one-hour Macbeth starring Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson, and a ninety-minute Hamlet, starring John Gielgud.[5] Many of these programs still survive.

During the 1940s, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, famous for playing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in films, repeated their characterizations on radio in both original stories and in episodes directly adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. None of the episodes in which Rathbone and Bruce starred in on the radio program were filmed with the two actors as Holmes and Watson, so radio became the only medium in which audiences were able to experience Rathbone and Bruce appearing in some of the more famous Holmes stories, such as "The Speckled Band". There were also several dramatizations of Sherlock Holmes stories on radio without Rathbone and Bruce.

During the latter part of his career, celebrated actor John Barrymore starred in a radio program, Streamlined Shakespeare, which featured him in a series of one-hour adaptations of Shakespeare plays, many of which Barrymore never appeared in either on stage or in films, such as Twelfth Night (in which he played both Malvolio and Sir Toby Belch), and Macbeth.

Lux Radio Theater and The Screen Guild Theater presented adaptations of Hollywood movies, performed before a live audience, usually with cast members from the original films. Suspense, Escape, The Mysterious Traveler and Inner Sanctum Mysteries were popular thriller anthology series. Leading writers who created original material for radio included Norman Corwin, Carlton E. Morse, David Goodis, Archibald MacLeish, Arthur Miller, Arch Oboler, Wyllis Cooper, Rod Serling, Jay Bennett, and Irwin Shaw.

History of professional radio recordings in the United States

Radio stations

In the beginning of the Golden Age, American radio network programs were presented almost exclusively live, as the national networks prohibited the airing of recorded programs until the late 1940s, due to the poor audio quality of programs broadcast from the early shellac or acetate grammophone discs, which were the only practical recording medium. As a result, prime-time shows would be performed twice, once for each coast. However, some programs were recorded as they were being broadcast, for syndication or for advertisers to have their own copy. When the networks became more open to airing recorded programs, in the 1950s, recordings became more common.

The RCA 44BX microphone had two live faces and two dead ones. Thus actors could face each other and react. An actor could give the effect of leaving the room by simply moving his head toward the dead face of the microphone. The scripts were paperclipped together, and pages were dropped to the carpeted floor after use. Sometimes when reassembling a script to use it for the next time zone, some pages would be out of order or missing entirely.

Recording was done using a cutting lathe and acetate discs. Typically, the track started at the inside of the disc and ran to the outside, as the spoil from the cutting head had to be kept out of the cutting head's path. It was easiest to use a brush and pile it up in the middle. Some lathes used a vacuum to pick up the spoil as it was cut from the surface of the blank disc. The vacuum came from a water aspirator. Programs were cut using 16 inch discs, which was the most common disc size for transcriptions.

Recordings of radio programs were typically made at a radio network's studios, since the expense and expertise of making a recording was usually more than a local station was capable of handling. Recordings required special equipment and trained technicians who had to monitor the recording while it was being made. Hence a network-owned station might have four or more lathes, whereas a local station often had none. However, there are some surviving recordings produced by affiliate stations.[6]

Armed Forces Radio Service

The Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) had its origins in the U.S. War Department's quest to improve troop morale. This quest began with short-wave broadcasts of educational and information programs to troops in 1940. In 1941, the War Department began issuing "Buddy Kits" (B-Kits) to departing troops, which comprised radios, 78 RPM shellac records, and electrical transcription disks of radio shows. However, with the entrance of the United States into World War II, the War Department decided that it needed to improve the quality and quantity of its offerings.

This began with the broadcasting of its own original variety programs. Command Performance was the first of these, produced for the first time on March 1, 1942. On May 26, 1942, the Armed Forces Radio Service was formally established. Originally, its programming comprised network radio shows with the commercials removed. However, it soon began producing original programming, such as Mail Call, G.I. Journal, Jubilee and G.I. Jive. At its peak in 1945, the Service produced around 20 hours of original programming each week.

After the war, the AFRS continued providing programming to troops in Europe. In addition, it also provided programming for future wars that the United States was involved in. It survives today as a component of the American Forces Network (AFN).

All of the shows aired by the AFRS during the Golden Age were recorded onto electrical transcription disks and shipped to stations, to be broadcast to troops overseas. People in the United States rarely ever heard programming from the AFRS,[7] though AFRS recordings of Golden Age network shows were occasionally broadcast on some domestic stations beginning in the 1950s.

Home radio recordings in the United States

There was some home recording of radio in the 1930s and early 1940s. Home recording at that time could typically only be performed by home disk recorders, which were only capable of storing five minutes of a radio program per side on a seven-inch record. As a result of the short durations of these records and the expense of the recorders, home recording was uncommon during this period.

The lack of suitable home recording equipment was somewhat relieved in 1947 with the introduction of home tape recorders using Scotch 100 tape.[8] However, the quality of recordings made from these devices was far below professional levels. In fact, home recording of radio programs did not become common until around 1950, when affordable reel-to-reel tape recorders were introduced to the market.[9]

Recording media

Electrical transcription disks

When radio stations first began recording programs, they recorded onto records called "electrical transcription" (ET) disks. Originally, these disks varied in both size and composition, although they were typically bare aluminium. By the mid-1930s, 16-inch aluminium-based disks coated with cellulose nitrate lacquer, known as acetates, recorded at a speed of 33 1/3 RPM, became the standard (invented in 1932 by RCA Victor). These disks were recorded using the "hill and dale" process, in contrast to the side-to-side recording method used by commercial recording studios. Disks could store fifteen minutes of a show on each side, allowing a 30-minute program to be stored on one side of two separate disks. The disks deteriorated rapidly on each playing, allowing only a few playbacks before being destroyed.

During World War II, aluminium became a necessary material for the war effort. This caused alternatives to be used for electrical transcription disks, as aluminium was hard to come by. As a result, glass became the most common material used for disks between the years 1942 and 1945[10] but they were inevitably extremely fragile.

Magnetic wire recording

In the late 1940s, wire recording became a medium for recording radio programs, since it was less expensive to make recordings with and did not have the strict time limits of electrical transcription disks. In addition, the fidelity of these recordings was comparable to the acetates of the time.

Reel-to-reel tape recording

Bing Crosby became the first major proponent of magnetic tape recording for radio, and he was the first to use it on network radio, after he did a demonstration program in 1947.[9][11] Tape had several advantages over earlier recording methods. It could achieve higher fidelity than both electrical transcription disks and magnetic wire. In addition, it could be edited easily using a process known as splicing. By 1949, the transition from live performances preserved on disk transcriptions, to performances prerecorded on magnetic tape for later broadcast, was complete for network radio programs.[12][13]

Availability of recordings

A relatively few surviving programs were recorded off the air (airchecks), usually at a recording studio, since home recording equipment was uncommon during the first couple of decades of the Golden Age. Most of the Golden Age programs in circulation among collectors – whether on tape, CD, or MP3 – originated with ETs. In addition, many Golden Age shows have survived only in edited AFRS versions, while some exist in both original and AFRS formats.


Though old-time radio dramas continued on the air throughout the 1950s even as television took hold, improvements in recordings led to the birth of the top 40 format, where records of popular songs were played on air. Top 40, which could be done feasibly from the studios of the stations themselves, quickly displaced full-service network radio, leading to the end of virtually all scripted radio dramas by 1962. Full-service stations that did not adopt either top 40 or the mellower beautiful music or MOR formats eventually developed all-news radio in the mid-1960s.

In the United States today, radio comedy and drama get relatively little air play other than on National Public Radio, satellite and Internet radio; but they continue full strength on British and Irish stations, and to a lesser degree in Canada. Regular broadcasts of radio plays are also heard in — among other countries — Australia, Croatia, France, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden.

Vintage shows and new audio productions in America are accessible more widely from recordings or by satellite and web broadcasters, rather than over conventional AM and FM radio. There are, however, several radio theatre series still in production in the United States, usually airing on Sunday nights. These include original series such as Imagination Theatre and a radio adaptation of The Twilight Zone tv series, as well as rerun compilations such as the popular daily series When Radio Was and USA Radio Network's Golden Age of Radio Theatre. The National Audio Theatre Festival is a national organization and yearly conference keeping the audio arts - especially audio drama - alive, and continues to involve long-time voice actors and OTR veterans in its ranks. Its predecessor, the Midwest Radio Theatre Workshop, was first hosted by Jim Jordan, of "Fibber McGee and Molly" fame, and Norman Corwin continues to advise the organization.

One of the longest running radio programs celebrating this era is The Golden Days of Radio, which was hosted on the Armed Forces Radio Service for more than 20 years and overall for more than 50 years by Frank Bresee, who also played "Little Beaver" on the Red Ryder program as a child actor.

One of the very few still-running shows from the earlier era of radio is a Christian program entitled Unshackled! The weekly half hour show, produced in Chicago, Illinois by Pacific Garden Mission, has been continuously broadcast since 1950. The shows are created using techniques from the 1950s (including home-made sound effects) and is broadcast across the U.S. and around the world by thousands of radio stations.

Today, radio performers of the past appear at conventions which feature recreations of classic shows, as well as music, memorabilia and historical panels. The largest of these events is the Friends of Old Time Radio Convention, held annually in Newark, New Jersey each October. Others include REPS in Seattle (June), SPERDVAC in California, the Cincinnati OTR & Nostalgia Convention (April), and the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention (September).

Radio dramas from the golden age are sometimes recreated as live stage performances at such events. One such group, led by director Daniel Smith, has been performing recreations of old-time radio dramas at Fairfield University's Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts since the year 2000.[14][15]

The 40th anniversary of what is widely considered the end of the old time radio era (the final broadcasts of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense on September 30, 1962) was marked with a commentary on NPR's All Things Considered.[16]

A handful of radio programs from the old-time era remain in production, all from the genre of news or music: the Grand Ole Opry (1925), Music and the Spoken Word (1929), the CBS World News Roundup (1938), King Biscuit Time (1941) and the Renfro Valley Gatherin' (1943). Of those, all but the Opry maintain their original short-form length of 30 minutes or less. News and Comment (1951), a series created by Paul Harvey, continues in spirit with commentaries by Doug Limerick and The Huckabee Report, as does the Wheeling Jamboree, the current version of which is a successor to a program founded in 1933.


See also


  1. ^  "In Search of the Truth About Fessenden" Radio World Online. February 14, 2007
  2. ^  "Fessenden: World's First Broadcaster?--A Radio History Buff Finds That Evidence for the Famous Brant Rock Broadcast Is Lacking" Radio World Online. October 25, 2006
  3. ^  "Fessenden — The Next Chapter" Radio World Online. December 23, 2008
  4. ^ Sayles, Ron. Old-Time Radio Digest, Volume 2009, number 51.
  5. ^
  6. ^  Fybush, Scott. "Frequently-Asked Question". The Retrieved 2007-05-16.
  7. ^  "Armed Forces Radio Services broadcasts". Bing Crosby Internet Museum. Archived from the original on 2007-02-21. Retrieved 2007-05-16.
  8. ^  The History of Magnetic Tape
  9. ^ a  b Bensman, Marvin R.. "A History of Radio Program Collecting". Radio Archive of the University of Memphis. Retrieved 2007-05-18.
  10. ^  Beaupre, Walter J.. "Music Electrically Transcribed!". The Vintage Radio Place. Retrieved 2007-11-05.
  11. ^ "ABC Spends 100G in Shift From Wax to Tape Repeats", Billboard, Feb. 21, 1948, p. 6.
  12. ^ "NBC Drops All Wax Bans", Billboard, Jan. 29, 1949, p. 5.
  13. ^ "Webs' Tape Measure Grows", Billboard, Nov. 5, 1949, p. 5.
  14. ^  Spiegel, Jan Ellen (2007-09-09). "We Interrupt This Play for a News Bulletin on the War". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-09-09.
  15. ^  "Radio Dramas". Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts. Fairfield University. Retrieved 2008-04-18.[dead link]
  16. ^  Chimes, Art. "Last Radio Drama". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2010-01-22.


  • Blue, Howard (2002). Words at War: World War II Era Radio and the Postwar Broadcasting Industry Blacklist. Lanham, Maryland:Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-4413-3
  • Dunning, John (1998). On The Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-507678-8.

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