I was 10-years old when I received my first collection of vintage radio plays. Slightly confused as to what they were, I popped one of the cassettes into my tiny stereo an hour or so later and listened. I didn’t stop listening for the next six hours. It was a collection of X-Minus One, an original science fiction series that ran from 1955 to 1958 on NBC broadcast radio.
I was more taken with radio plays than I ever had been with movies or television. While I was quite an avid reader, there was something enthralling about hearing the actors with their properly trained theater voices acting out stories from another world. It forced me to use my imagination in a way that I never had before. By the time I was 13, I had begun to collect other shows, including The Shadow, Dimension X, and Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater On The Air.
From as early as 1922, Americans sat around their radio and listened to different stories unfold right in their living rooms. Every week people were thrilled with the adventures of Superman as he battled the worst villains in the world. Soldiers returning home from World War II listened as Sam Spade, a character created by Dashiell Hammett, as he solved campy murder mysteries.
As the 1950s rolled around, people listened each week to George Burns, Groucho Marx, and countless other stars act out sketches and conduct interviews live on the radio. Television was of course slowly becoming a household norm, but radio comedy and drama remained a fascinating form of entertain for nearly 10 more years.
Of all the things that people used to turn to their radios for, only news, music, sports and talk remain. Comedy, drama, science fiction and live theater are essentially dead art forms as far as radio in the United States is concerned. Along with several radio stations in other countries, the BBC in the United Kingdom still regularly produces radio dramas. Sadly, most Americans under the age of 50 have never experienced the joy of listening to a story unfold before their ears.
Of course, in the age of the internet, Xbox Live, Netflix and Blu-ray, some might ask what’s the point? Why would anyone be interested in a technologically archaic form of entertainment?
To understand Old-Time Radio is to understand a substantial part of American culture. For 40 years, broadcast radio was as much of a part of the American cultural landscape as anything could be. President Franklin Roosevelt calmed a frightened nation during his fireside chats each week. Radio was the primary source of news and sports for two generations of Americans. Instead of television sitcoms, radio plays were the family’s primary source of amusement.
Radio dramas came at a time when most actors were trained in live theater. The annunciation and projection that came out of a voice actor from back then might sound strange today, but it was exactly what was needed in order to compensate for the lack of image. Booming voices, snarky character actors and hilarious sound effects all brought the listener into another world.
Of course by the early 1960s, television sets had become affordable enough for most people. Entertainment changed, and people no longer had to conjure up scenery in their own imaginations. Soon after that came basic cable, HBO, VCRs, Nintendo, DVDs and Xbox live.
Today more Americans are turning to the internet to find their entertainment. This complete immersion of information however I believe comes with a price. Everything is presented on a silver platter. There is nothing left to imagine. Yes, the internet has made it possible to exchange ideas and thoughts with billions of people from around the world, and nothing can replace that. But I still cannot help but wonder what some people would think if they were to sit by and listen to a real radio drama.
My hope is that people would find the same wonder in an amazing part of their cultural heritage that I have. My fear is that even those who download audio books from Audible would turn their nose up, just because it’s old.
Today I have a collection of Old-Time Radio that spans four decades and hundreds of recordings. From Orson Welles’ The War of The Worlds, to the original broadcast of Who’s On First, to The Shadow and Superman, I listen to them all. I laugh along with George Burns, and still try to wrap my mind around Groucho Marx’s wit.
Today most of these recordings are available for free on iTunes. Just as a generation of kids in the 1960’s rediscovered the Blues, I hope that someday this amazing art form can be enjoyed and appreciated once again, the same way that I enjoy it still to this day.