Facts About Old Time Radio

  • Old-time radio, or the “Golden Age of radio”, refers to a period starting in the 1920s and 1930s —  when radio and movies were the dominant entertainment. It lasted until the early 1960s – when few radio dramas remained on AM stations, replaced by pop and rock n’ roll music.
  • After a renaissance in the late 1970s and 1980s, called the “Silver Age”, audio drama continues to be produced, with regional and experimental troupes performing around the country (see related factsheet).
  • Old time radio is also celebrated annually by conventions and meetings, such as SPERDVAC and the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, featuring live reenactments with actors (both new and original).
  • Most radio stations first began as a wing of a newspaper, department store or other major business. The call signs for these stations often corresponded with their business; for instance, Chicago’s WGN, owned by the Tribune, stood for “World’s Greatest Newspaper”.
  • Before the vacuum tube’s invention, most listeners used a crystal radio to “tune” in. Like today’s plasma TVs, in the 1920s, tabletop and console radios were once expensive appliances, but with the creation of bakelite and other types of plastic, radios became inexpensive and easy to add throughout the house.
  • In the 1920s, radio became so popular so quickly that most stations instituted a weekly “Silent Night”. Local stations would shut down, so that listeners could try to tune in distant stations from other cities and states. It was customary for listeners to mail a postcard to distant radio stations, noting how far away the station was carried.
  • Radio brought the news directly into listeners’ living rooms. Among the major news stories broken on radio: the Scopes monkey trial, carried live by Chicago station WGN in 1925; the Hindenburg zeppelin disaster, covered by WLS Chicago in 1937; and Edward R. Murrow’s CBS reports on the Blitz of Britain, airing in 1940.
  • Old time radio drama exists because of hobbyists and radio personnel, who rescued episodes of shows on transcription tapes and on glass or vinyl records. Some radio programs are presumed lost, primarily those from the 1930s – few programs from the 1920s were recorded.
  • Dragnet, Gunsmoke, Jack Benny, Our Miss Brooks, Guiding Light, and many other shows began on radio and moved to television. Have Gun, Will Travel  and My Little Margie are two shows that began on television and moved to radio!
  • Several performers got their start in classic radio drama, before moving on to film and television, from the Mercury Theatre’s Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, and Agnes Moorhead,  to opera’s Beverly Sills, to Don Ameche and Richard Widmark, who both started on radio in Chicago.
  • Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, was the last Golden Age drama to leave the airwaves, in 1962.

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