Why Old Time Radio is Worth Hearing – Again

For some who cut their audio drama “ears” on modern podcasting, or American and Canadian public radio like This American Life, and q, tuning into old time radio seems counterintuitive.  This isn’t helped by other forms of media, especially film and television, which often suggest that The Shadow was the only old time radio show – ever.  But here are five reasons to give old time radio a whirl, with a little attention paid to your personal tastes. 
 
1) The sounds beyond stereotypes
 
The stereotype of OTR, especially soap opera serials, usually is of a scratchy recording, overexcited actors hamming it up, and an organ that punctuates every twist and turn of the plot. While it’s true that some material out there does fit this mold, it’s also possible to listen to old time radio and easily avoid childrens’ shows that are usually more appreciated by their grown audience members, and hackneyed material, such as the reviled Romance of Helen Trent, and Boston Blackie (which also, still, have their fans, as do the children’s shows).  
 
Listeners who want to hear more sophisticated fare should particularly seek out the material recorded in the 1950s and later:  because television was already beginning to siphon off their audiences, more radio producers were emboldened to make thoughtful, challenging work. 
 
The folks at Kettle Falls Media suggest starting with Night Beat, the noirish tale of Randy Stone, a overnight beat reporter in Chicago; Gunsmoke, which writer Gerald Nachman points out was much more adult than on television (the marshall probably slept over at Miss Kitty’s); X Minus One, which lifted classic pulp science fiction to new heights and is available in pristine quality; both the experimental Columbia Radio Workshop and CBS Radio Workshop; You Are There, CBS’ innovative docudrama where top reporters described historical events as if they were news; CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which straddles silver age FM audio drama and old time radio, making it very accessible indeed; and the low budget and occasionally heavy-handed organ playing can’t strip away some very scary tales in The Hall of Fantasy.  Also, no public radio fan should miss Norman Corwin’s literate works.
 
2) Because they go with your favorite old movies and TV shows – and some of the newer ones.
 
If you’re a classic movies fan or love Lucy, and are not listening to old time radio, you’re missing out. Likewise, if you are a genre fan, old time radio may surprise you. 
 
After all, Bogie and Bacall made their own audio drama, Bold Venture, as did Alan Ladd with Box 13. Many of the great film stars of the day not only appeared on Lux Radio Theatre, but typically in more powerful, persuasive fare on Suspense.  
 
I Love Lucy had its genesis as My Favorite Husband, and Lucille Ball wasn’t the only person involved who made it to the television classic.  The Life of Riley, Phil Harris and Alice Faye Show,  and Our Miss Brooks are additional sitcoms to check out for Lucy fans. 
 
Police procedurals wouldn’t exist without Dragnet, which, in its original radio format, is far tighter and less “square” than on the much-parodied ’60s revival. Before The Wire, The Shield, and Law and Order – Dragnet and the feature film that inspired it, He Walked by Night, went dark places that its contemporaries like Calling All Cars and Car 54, Where Are You never did. Several episodes are uniquely chilling, to this day. 
 
Film noir? No less than Billy Wilder himself admitted that the kind of narration heard in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard was inspired by the interior thoughts first heard on crime dramas. Pat Novak for Hire, Night Beat, and Phillip Marlowe may be up your alley (pun intended).  The Whistler is a pulpy West Coast anthology that may also be of interest. 
 
Twilight Zone? Beyond the syndicated work being done by Carl Amari on a silver age revival of Twilight Zone, three anthologies are likely to be of interest to fans of speculative fiction: X Minus One, Suspense, and Escape.  
 
Gen-X and boomer fans of the Crypt Keeper on Tales from the Crypt may not recognize the call back to Inner Sanctum, which also mixed morality tales with sick humor. Sadly, the Crypt Keeper never had the Lipton Tea lady as his foil. (Yes, I’d buy that for a dollar.) The Inner Sanctum squeaky door and morality play later returned on The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, an award-winning Silver Age drama also produced by Himan Brown.  
 
3) Character-driven storytelling
 
Many Jack Benny fans today weren’t alive to hear him, every Sunday at 7 PM. His sketch comedy show, however, remains one of the most accessible ways into old time radio. No matter what situation Benny was in, the show was fundamentally character driven. Younger fans will tell you that the humor comes from gradually getting to know Benny and the rest of his cast. The jokes then write themselves – which is why his most famous joke, “Your money or your life?” still delivers after 7 decades. 
 
The long-running Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar also reached new heights in characterization and storytelling  in 1955, when Bob Bailey took over the role and appeared each weeknight, for fifteen minutes. These intelligent, exciting stories are among the best mystery-adventures old time radio has to offer. 
 
Characters were the main appeal for other shows – Our Miss Brooks, Easy Aces, Vic and Sade, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, My Friend Irma, Sam Spade,  just to name a few. 
 
4) Family-accessible — with a few exceptions
 
Radios in the golden age were beautiful and typically a focal point of the living room. By dinner time, the shows were listened to by the whole family. Those stories, even the adventures and dark fantasies, are easy to find and share with your whole family. 
 
Exceptions, there are some. Lights Out is generally too scary for younger children, though teenagers may enjoy it. And though they are frequently made available to OTR fans, we do not recommend sharing the silver age drama Nightfall or Vanishing Point with either your children or your more easily terrified friends. As Neil Marsh of the Nightfall Project (and a founder of the Post Meridian Radio Players in Boston) reminds readers, don’t listen to “Welcome to Homerville”, the most famous Nightfall episode while driving. Especially at night!
 
5) Social history that seeks your understanding
 
Fatuous comparisons are often made about the past, and the people who lived in it, to score political points, or scold (“Your antiquated attitude belongs in the 1950s!”). Making base comparisons to the 1950s (or earlier) is not only a cliche, it implies that the speaker has no understanding of recent history. 
 
The bulk of available old time radio comes from three of the most challenging decades ever experienced in North America: the painful Great Depression; World War II; and the postwar boom, filled with anxieties about the then-new geopolitical order. These anxieties – and inevitable change – played out in old time radio storytelling on a regular basis. It’s delightful listening for any amateur historian. 
 
For instance, daytime radio is known to have been targeted to women who worked from home, doing their chores as mothers or housewives. Joseph Mankiewicz’ film A Letter to Three Wives famously undercuts the supposedly inane soap operas they were listening to, while also telling the tale of three sophisticated ladies volunteering on a weekend morning.  All of these wives, we learn, changed their lives dramatically not just though the man they married, but through their careers: Dora Mae Hollister (Linda Darnell) comes from a working class household that shakes when the local train passes by, with her drive for respectability fueled by the need to provide a better life for her single mother and sister; Deborah Bishop (Jeanne Crain) is a Navy veteran who came from a farming family; and then there’s Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern), who marries the boy next door, and ends up outearning his teacher’s salary through her work – as a radio scriptwriter. (Hobart Cavanaugh and Florence Bates have supporting roles as a couple who are clearly supposed to be the Hummerts).  Marriage isn’t the end-all happy ending here, and each woman represents millions of others who worked before, during and after World War II. 
 
That’s the beauty of much classic media. From Citizen Kane to One Man’s Family, the best stories of the past touch on crucial questions that will never change – for instance, who or what do I love, and what am I willing to give up for it? while also opening a window into a past world.
 
The fantasies that appeal to past audiences tell us a lot about who they were. For instance, those “inane” soap operas? (For the moment, we’ll ignore the Peabody Award won by soap Against the Storm, and other critically acclaimed gems like Pepper Young’s Family and One Man’s Family). The frequently parodied, critically loathed Romance of Helen Trent was about a widow who was “over 35” and worked for a living. Talk about seeing another world – far away from the “quarterlife” crises of 21st century America, where many people over 35 have not married yet, are only getting around to purchasing their first homes or cars, and debating the value of college educations.  
 
Getting back to the Three Wives… Women’s roles were changing a lot in the 20th century.  Women worked, before and after WWII. Housewives tuning into Portia Faces Life were enamored with her glamorous life as a lawyer. Other soap heroines were business owners (Ma Perkins, Young Widder Brown), secretaries (Della Street on Perry Mason), nurses and doctors (including Joyce Jordan, M.D. – a former medical intern who was the Meredith Grey of her time.) Author Manuela Soares explains that The Story of Mary Marlin involved Joe Marlin, a top senator who suffered from amnesia, leaving his wife Mary to take his role as a lawmaker. Soares writes, “Curiously, the show lost its audience when Senator Joe reappeared and the dutiful Mary stepped down from her Senate seat in his favor.” Even the show’s own producers didn’t seem to understand its appeal: learning about Mary’s exciting, romantic adventures as a lawmaker. 
 
Paying attention to classic media means learning more about who these people really were, and how their attitudes were changing. Classic media is not just for conservatives who prefer the “good old days”, it’s for everyone, including self-described progressives. Want to learn more about feminism and queer/LGBT people in the twentieth century? Watch a pre-code film, and read about William Haines and Patsy Kelly, who were out decades before Stonewall. Want to learn more about racial and ethnic stereotypes, as well as America’s growing acceptance of different groups? Research jazz music, follow Paul Robson’s career, and investigate Amos n’ Andy, the Mexican Spitfire films, The Goldbergs, The O’Neills, Charlie Chan (on radio, only once ever played by an Asian-American) and Life with Luigi, just for starters.  
 
Some social history angles to consider, as a further example – 
Mayor of the Town, Fibber McGee and Molly, Just Plain Bill  – small town America
The Halls of Ivy, Our Miss Brooks – college and high school education 
Night Beat, Casey: Crime Photographer – the media
Dragnet, Tales of the Texas Rangers – police work, with some episodes focused on community outreach, paperwork and witness interviews
 
If you’d prefer searing satire, try Fred Allen, Henry Morgan, or Bob and Ray.  Anthologies like The Whistler, Escape, Suspense, as well as tales like Theatre of Romance also offered a variety of thoughts about then-modern America. And listening to episodes of Information Please, while not an audio drama, offers great insight into the most admired people of the day, and the things they were concerned with. Don’t know who Dorothy Thompson or Oscar Levant are? Well, The Daily Show, Fresh Air, and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert would snap them up, if they were available today.
 
These are just a few of the possibilities that may happen when you tune in to old time radio – the audio drama of the past.
 
–Sibby Wieland