Listen to the Radio
“I am the Whistler, and I know many things, for I walk by night. I know many strange tales, hidden in the hearts of men and women who have stepped into the shadows. Yes, I know the nameless terrors of which they dare not speak.” Opening of The Whistler radio program.
The Whistler was radio program, ran from May 16, 1942 until September 22, 1955, on the west-coast regional CBS radio network. It was one of many programs that ran on radio during what is called the Golden Age of radio.
Radio was the first electronic mass media in homes. Although radio began in the first decade of the 20th century, commercial broadcasting did not exist until 1920-21. KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is generally thought of as the first radio station, though WJR in Detroit, Michigan argues they were on the air a few weeks before KDKA. Whether you accept KDKA or WJR as first, commercial radio is still less than 100 years old.
Early radio was a mix of news, music, and sports. By the 1930s radio stations began broadcasting drama and comedy programs. It is difficult to determine what the first drama or comedy program was since some stations did shows locally but one of the earliest was Police Headquarters, which went on the air in 1932. By the 1940s radio was broadcasting movies, many with same cast as the motion picture. You might hear Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Katherine Hepburn, and many other stars of the day recreating their movie roles for radio.
Late 1940’s or early 1950s German multi-band radio
Well-known performers also starred in radio programs: Vincent Price as The Saint, Dick Powell as Richard Diamond, Orson Welles as The Third Man; and others.
Many early television shows came from radio. Ozzie and Harriett began on radio in 1944 and came to TV in 1952. Gunsmoke (on TV in 1955) started on radio in 1952 with William Conrad as Matt Dillon and Howard McNear (who moved on the play Floyd the Barber on the Andy Griffith Show) as Doc. The Life of Riley, Have Gun Will Travel, Dr. Kildare, and Dragnet all began on radio. A number of additional programs moved from radio to TV.
There were some programs that were templates for later TV shows. In the summer of 1950 Somebody Knows aired, asking people to help solve unsolved homicide cases and offering $5,000 for clues leading to solving the case. Many years later America’s Most Wanted ran on television.
By 1960 radio’s time as a general entertainment medium was basically over. Suspense, which began in 1942 and Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, which began in 1949, are considered to be the last radio dramas, going off the air September 30, 1962.
By the time they went off the air radio was returning to its origins of music, news, and sports. CBS did a revival of the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre which ran from 1974 to 1982 with E.G. Marshall as the host. Talk radio also became a major format in the 1980s and 90s. Other radio shows continue to be revived, in 2012 Suspense was revived.
Through the formative years of both radio and TV there was a positive and a negative. The positive was the programs were free. All you needed was a receiver and you could watch or listen all day for no cost. The downside was that choice was limited to what the antenna could pull in.
Growing up in Morgantown, WV meant TV was limited to stations out of Pittsburgh, PA for many years. Weather systems did strange things at times, once, for short period of time, we pulled in a station out of Denver, CO.
Radio was different. During the day we were limited to stations in the area, but there were many more stations available. Night was when radio got more interesting. Many small stations went off the air and 50,000 watt stations boosted their signal. I had no problem listening to WBZ Boston, WLS Chicago, KMOX St. Louis, WABC New York, and many other stations on a pocket transistor radio. It was like taking trips to faraway places.
1960s transistor and modern transistor
Late 1950-early 1960s Stereo Hi-Fi System. Spent hours doing homework listening to this
Sirius XM radio
1940s era radio
Entertainment started changing in 1975 when HBO began, followed in 1976 by TBS being broadcast by satellite. Although cable had been around since 1940’s it was primarily for people who could not get stations over the air because of where they lived. However, by the late 1970s people started paying for stations that were not local. Broadcasters learned people would pay for more stations.
Radio remained free at that time. In the 1990s people started putting together ideas for satellite radio. In 2001 two systems, Sirius and XM, began broadcasting as a subscriber service. In 2007 Sirius and XM merged into the current Sirius XM. By the end 2013 Sirius XM had 25.6 million subscribers.
With Sirius XM radio has come full circle except you pay for it. Almost everything that was on is available from music of decades past to old radio programs. Radio Classics plays shows from the 1930s up. A recent schedule had Box 13 from 1948, The Charlie McCarthy Show from 1946, Lum & Abner from 1942, Broadway is My Beat from 1953, The Lineup from 1952, Life of Riley from 1947.
I asked Greg Bell, the host of Radio Classics, if he knew the breakdown of his audience. His response, “Sirius XM does not do ratings in the traditional sense. I do know from email feedback, plus the over 12 thousand folks on Facebook that that majority of folks listening are in the 30 to 60 range, but I also heard most weeks from 20 somethings and even teens and pre-teens (usually listening with their parents and grandparents). And of course there is also a healthy number of over 60 age fans who were around when these shows first aired.”
I also asked him why radio programs have better storytelling than TV. His response, “Television quite literally grew out of radio as did the power of storytelling. The early TV shows were mostly written by former radio writers so the attention to detail and the practice of “telling instead of showing” was still quite evident. As the years went on, many of the writers grew “lazy” and relied too heavily on the visual only. That’s not to say there weren’t some wonderful examples of the pictures telling the story, but more and more the quality of the dialogue suffered.”
If you would like to hear some old radio programs you do not need a Sirius XM subscription, there is a nationally syndicated program titled When Radio Was. At their website you will find schedules and stations that carry the program. http://www.whenradiowas.com/
In addition to regular radios many people have radio like programs on their phones or computers, like iHeart Radio, and a radio in their vehicle, many with AM, FM, and Sirius XM settings.
The internet has also added to the versatility of radio. Many stations can be listened to on the web, just search the station’s call letters. Podcasts are a variation of radio. Actor, writer, and filmmaker Mark Redfield created Poe Forevermore where you can find modern radio programs with current actors. In production now is Sinbad and the Pirate Princess with Caroline Munro, Martine Beswick, and Mark Redfield. Martine and Caroline both told me they enjoy doing radio.
There is also a website, Old Time Radio, where you can listen to many old time radio shows for free, as they are now in public domain.
Radio is also mentioned often in popular music, from the title song of this article to John Denver singing “The radio reminds me of my home far away” in Country Roads to Video Killed the Radio Star to Radio by Beyonce.
There is a documentary in production about radio titled Hearing Voices. According to the producer it will be about how radio changed America and how America changed radio. Additional information on the film may be found here
Why has radio survived so well for nearly a century? Probably several major factors. Radio travels well, you can’t lug around a big screen TV but a radio can fit in your pocket. You do not have to watch a radio so you can listen to it and do other things at the same time, such as drive.
Almost anyplace you go radio is available. Let it take you to adventures, make you laugh, or entertain you. As the opening of Escape put it, “Tired of the everyday routine? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you… ESCAPE! Escape! Designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half-hour of high adventure!” All you have to do is listen to the radio.