There are several reasons. First, the whole genre of “old-time radio” is alien to most people under 75. The big-network sitcoms, dramas, cop shows, horror and thriller series, westerns, variety programs and so forth that defined America’s home entertainment in the 1930s and 1940s were all effectively dead by the mid 1950s (the period known as the “golden age of TV,” not coincidentally).
This means that a person born after, say, 1936 will typically react with a squinty-eyed, gaseous expression when you mention old radio shows. As if I Love Lucy1 isn’t back far enough and you’re trying to out-old them.
Secondly, a lot of people consider the idea of listening to a recording of a play featuring long-dead actors—people even their parents would not remember—to fall, on the entertainment scale, somewhere below knitting in prison.
At least knitting has a point. Tell someone you basically like to switch on TCM and then stare at a wall, and you’re asking for judgment.
However, anything that’s extinct and irrelevant will be irresistible to certain individuals.
I’m in this camp.
Loosely. I’ve never been to a convention or phoned a nursing home to talk to a bit player who still has moments of lucidity. But you will hear The Whistler, Escape or Dimension X playing in my New York apartment most evenings.2
The Cronkite box set
My introduction to old-time radio (OTR, in geek slang) was a CD box set labeled “The 60 Greatest Old-Time Radio Shows of the 20th Century Selected by Walter Cronkite.” I bought it in 2004 and played the CDs while doing mundane tasks like sorting receipts, computer work and cooking. The collection contained horror shows like Inner Sanctum and Lights Out, science fiction shows like X Minus One, comedies like The Great Gildersleeve and thrillers like Suspense.
Of course, it also had the infamous 1938 Orson Welle’s adaptation of War of the Worlds. (My mother, then four years old, spent a night shivering in a Jersey basement after that broadcast while her grandfather kept vigil for Martians with a shotgun. This Radiolab episode has good info on it.)
There was no epiphany in listening to these CDs. It wasn’t like stumbling on buried treasure. Like most Xers and Boomers, I knew radio had preceded television, but had never listened to any original radio shows in their entirety. My exposures had mostly been parodies or homages, like A Prairie Home Companion, Radio Days by Woody Allen and “The Albert Brooks Show #112” sendup on the comedian’s hard-to-find 1975 album.
The CD box set made two things apparent: the genuine radio shows were better than their hammy parodies, and they hit a sweet spot in brain distraction.
A more perfect diversion
Like most humans, I like to listen to something pleasant when doing things that only require moderate concentration. But the usual options have drawbacks.
Music often doesn’t engage my brain deeply enough; idle neurons start contemplating threats to my existence. Talk radio is too relevant; current-event intrusions piss on the ember of optimism I try to keep in my soul. Audio books require too much attention and writers have annoying voices. Finally, I cannot passively monitor television. I’m a TV junkie. I’ll watch vintage A-Team episodes, History Channel filler about mummy curses or Nazis,3 Bob Ross reruns on PBS, car crashes caught on tape, anything. Bad TV is my crack cocaine. I haven’t owned a TV since 2005, but I could relapse at any moment.
Old radio shows lack these flaws. I can keep tabs on an interesting story that has a beginning, middle and end, and can miss portions without losing the narrative thread.
As for the hokey factor, for every corny “cue the organ” moment you hear in sub-par shows (which were likely considered stupid when they first aired), there are a dozen tight, well-written programs that pack a punch 60 or 70 years after they were recorded. Especially thriller shows4 like Escape and Suspense, which use plots later stolen by TV shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.
The long-ago aspect of radio plays can be comforting. They portray universal struggles—stifling marriages, jealousy, fear of death, greed—but the distance of time makes them seem softer-edged. More manageable. It’s like talking to elderly people about life during World War II; you know they pulled through. Nostalgia dilutes. The horrors of the past have a ceiling. That can make it a safer place than the present—if you keep your visit superficial.
Here a few of my favorite episodes. Others are more notable or historically important, but I love a good yarn. There are thousands of free recordings on the Internet; see the sites I’ve listed far below (this one is about the best). I stream OTR stations on Live365.com. An $8 monthly subscription gets rid of the commercials.
A Gun for Dinosaur, X-Minus One, March 7, 1956. A sci-fi tale from a short story by L. Sprague de Camp. Alistair Duncan is effortlessly natural as the hunting guide. There’s a particular way only a pissed-off Brit can say “don’t be a bigger ass than you can help.”
Zero Hour, Suspense, April 5, 1955. An adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s5 short story from his 1951 collection, The Illustrated Man. Suspense performed the script four times; I prefer the second. The broadcasts received thousands of complaints from disturbed listeners. Which is silly. Your children would never have you killed. Never.
Earth Abides, Escape, November 5 and 12, 1950. The only two-episode script in Escape’s eight-year run; here’s part 2. A classic episode from one of my favorite programs. It’s a post-apocalypse survival tale from a 1949 sci-fi novel. John Dehner’s role as Ischerwood Williams makes it crackle.
Johnny Got His Gun, Arch Obler’s Plays, March 9, 1940. Dramatic one-man play starring James Cagney as a wounded World War I vet who’s lost his limbs and four of five senses; he can only perceive touch. He’s a blind and deaf grain sack in a hospital bed, and Cagney narrates his thoughts. Based on a 1938 novel. Stunning for its anti-war stance.
The Thing on the Fourble Board, Quiet Please, August 9, 1948. Widely regarded as the scariest episode of this prominent horror series. I won’t quibble. Twenty years ago, I worked with a weird guy who had a wife no one had ever seen. She was rumored to be a mail-order bride. I doubt he found her in an oil derrick, but this show makes me think of him.
New Year’s Eve with Edward G. Robinson, Amos ‘n’ Andy,6 December 31, 1943. The usually goofy sitcom took a serious turn with Robinson portraying “Prisoner 1-9-4-3,” sentenced to death for horrific global crimes. It’s a fascinating mid-war show that gives a taste of the time.
Classic radio sites
1I Love Lucy was originally a radio show called My Favorite Husband, with Lucille Ball safely married to a Caucasian bank manager. It was a sucky radio show.
2Noting that I’m single should be unnecessary.
3Why can NOVA answer the grand question it poses in every episode while similar programs on the History Channel must end with the question wholly unanswered and all original conjecture intact? The producers must joke about the inevitable last line of narration, which always goes something like, “Whether this was the work of X or Y, one thing is clear: it will be a tantalizing mystery for generations to come.”
4I’m less fond of comedy programs like The Jack Benny Show, The Burns and Allen Show, The Red Skelton Show, Fibber McGee and Molly, etc. All can be enjoyable (except for Abbott and Costello; seriously unfunny on radio) but they feel more dated than thriller and dramatic programs. Also, it might take you a few episodes to fully appreciate the inside humor. Several of these shows ran for decades (Jack Benny had a radio show from 1932 to 1955, for God’s sake), so listeners knew characters intimately. They knew, for example, that Benny’s announcer Don Wilson was a fat drunk, so situations tickling that could forego overt punch lines. Howard Stern’s show operates similarly; if you have no clue who Baba Booey is, a random episode probably won’t leave you in stitches.
5Radio shows were rapidly dying by the early 1950s, but this period did yield excellent adaptions of works by science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury and Philip Dick. I most enjoy the Bradbury adaptations, especially Mars Is Heaven, Dwellers in Silence and There Will Come Soft Rains. Listening to these shows makes Star Trek far less impressive; its template was already dusty by the early 60s.
6Amos ‘n’ Andy was a highly popular show that ran from 1929 to 1960, but its racial controversy (due to the cartoonish black dialect used by the show’s two white creators) has kept it out of many OTR compilations. The furor over the racist aspects of the show probably seems overblown to most people who are highly familiar with it—meaning, people who have listened to at least 50 episodes, not five. But a white actor using what’s been called “verbal blackface” isn’t going to fly with lots of people, obviously.
The faults and proclivities of the shows main characters (laziness, craftiness, opportunism, stupidity, cheapness, etc.) become offensive when they invoke black stereotypes, undoubtedly. But it’s worth noting that characters in other radio shows exhibited identical traits and behaviors, and characters in modern sitcoms still do.
Some scholars have argued that Amos ‘n’ Andy helped race relations by exposing many white folks to positive (or at least not overtly negative) examples of black people, the same way that Jack McFarland on Will and Grace supposedly reduced homophobia. Others have argued the opposite. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll didn’t do anything racially brave or progressive with the show’s storylines, sadly, and long exposure to the characters Andrew H. Brown and George “Kingfish” Stephens certainly didn’t soften hearts in Birmingham.
The shows are easily findable. You can form your own opinion.