This article is dedicated to my parents who introduced me to a number of great things in my formative years including the golden age of radio.
OTR stands for “Old Time Radio” and that has been the universally accepted, all-encompassing moniker for the golden age of radio recordings that have survived and I have always felt like that term was a little too hobbyist sounding (though most of these shows exist b/c of the love and devotion of hobbyists) and somewhat undermined the importance of these recordings. Old time radio sounds like something you buy at the Cracker Barrel gift shop. I prefer classic radio. A very minor peeve, anyway..
I was born long after radio’s golden age (late 20’s to late 50’s- the majority of scripted comedies/dramas were gone by 1962) but I was exposed to radio shows very early on in life and I have been hooked ever since. At about age 4/5 my mother would have me sit down in front of our stereo console and listen to a kids show from the 50’s called Big John and Sparky (a show which, coincidentally, was originally produced/broadcast from my hometown of Cincinnati on WSAI) If you visit this site about the show you will see that it was revived for a while in the 70’s which explains how my mother was able to tune it in for me; something I wondered about but didn’t investigate until I started writing this. Right around the same time, my mother also helped me send away for a Superman radio show record that was an offer on Corn Flakes cereal boxes. I really loved that record and wore it out. It was exciting and kind of scary. It had a mysterious villain called the wolf.
There were 4 serialized episodes on this record and they centered around a plot to destroy passenger trains. One train, at the last minute, was sent down the wrong set of tracks and plunged into a hidden lake; a mental image that horrified my very young and very impressionable mind. Funny thing is, that incident was only mentioned in a conversation between two characters; it wasn’t dramatized and yet it still affected me! There was a lot of train terminology used in the dialogue and I remember trying to understand words like trestle and phrases like “riding the blinds”. You can hear one of the episodes from that record here.
There was a revival period for classic radio in the early to mid 70’s that resulted in radio stations across the country re-running these classic programs. Probably the coolest thing to come out of that revival was veteran radio show producer Himan Brown’s CBS Radio Mystery Theater which was a newly produced, nationally syndicated show in the classic radio tradition. It was very successful and ran for 9 years! My father would occasionally have this on in the car or at home and, for the most part, it scared me to death.
The single biggest culprit of my fears was the first 90 seconds of each program. The opening of the show, with its creaky door and menacing music, was eerie and most effective. It didn’t matter what the story was; the opening convinced me I was going to have nightmares that night. You can check out a full episode here.
Sometime in the early 80’s my father started getting audio cassettes of classic radio shows from a company called Adventures in Cassettes (later absorbed by Radio Spirits who are pretty much the only legit company selling these shows now-more on them later). My Dad shared these with me (thanks Dad!) and it was during this time that I really became familiar with The Shadow, Suspense, Jack Benny, etc. Some of the shows were pretty forgettable to downright awful (Baby Snooks) while the really good stuff instantly won me over (Fibber Mcgee & Molly, The Great Gildersleeve). At the time of my discovery of these shows I was always drawn to anything that had scary/eerie elements (Lights Out, Hall of Fantasy), sci-fi (the still-fantastic X Minus One) or detective stuff (The Saint). My father had an episode of The Shadow that was unusually scary titled “The Nursery Rhyme Murders”. I was genuinely freaked out when I listened to it and had nightmares. I never forgot it. I listened to it again in the car yesterday as I was mulling over what to write about and the darn thing still creeps me out. You can listen to it here.
The mid to late 80’s was also a boon for classic radio fans in Cincinnati (and on public radio stations in most of the bigger cities across the U.S.) as WVXU ran quite a few shows on a regular basis. It was during this period that I also began recording my favorites on to cassette; a few of which survive today as keepsakes. Being a little older, I started to have a deeper appreciation for shows Like The Jack Benny Program and Fibber McGee & Molly both of which contained whip-smart writing and were rich in characters. It also was the time that I became obsessed with X Minus One,
a sci-fi show that aired on NBC in the late 50’s and was distinguished by it’s writing; most episodes were adaptations of stories penned by the giants of sci-fi (Bradbury, Heinlein, Sturgeon, etc.).
In the late 80’s I discovered Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, a variety show straight out of the classic radio show tradition. My parents surprised me at the end of my senior year of high school by flying me to New York to see Keillor’s show at Radio City Music Hall. An amazing experience that brought my love of radio shows full circle.
In 1988, there were a number of articles, news reports, and exhibits to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938 which caused an enormous, national panic. A statue was even unveiled in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey that year; the place the Martians were supposed to have landed according to Welles’ script! On October 30th, public radio (WVXU here in Cincy) ran a terrific documentary on the events of that night. I recorded it in my bedroom and have had it ever since. I posted it on Youtube here. I really encourage you to listen to it as it gives all of the facts, as well as some hilarious anecdotes from people who experienced it first hand. It also dispels all of the rumors that have been passed down for decades (like that people were killed-when in fact no deaths occurred as a result of the broadcast -just a lot of embarrassing accidents).
Confession: From my days in high school all the way up to and including last night I listen to a classic radio show as part of my routine to go to sleep at night. It started with cassettes and now I play them with an mp3 player and earbuds. Every night. So, yes, classic radio has been a part of my daily life now for almost 30 years. Radio shows still have a huge audience which is apparent by its vast presence on the internet. It’s everywhere. The only catch is finding quality recordings. In the early days of the internet, people transferred radio shows into poor quality mp3s and those shows have been recirculated over and over. There are, however, groups out there that have taken up the challenge of creating better recordings from tapes and records and making them available. The best example would be the Old Time Radio Researchers Group who’s work is available at their site.
And this brings me back to the company Radio Spirits and the issue of public domain. From the time that radio shows disappeared from the airwaves, collectors went to radio stations (and their dumpsters) and grabbed up everything they could get their hands on. It can’t be overstated how the efforts of these early collectors are the very reason we have the amount of episodes we have today. To give you some idea of what survives, radio history expert Jay Hickerson estimates that there are probably 150,000 episodes of classic radio still out there; the shocker is that that is only about 1% of what actually aired. For the last 50 years there has been a universal assumption that all OTR is public domain. Is that the case? Yes and No. The waters are muddy.
One enthusiastic collector, a guy named Carl Amari, started a company called Radio Spirits in 1981 which sold radio shows in catalogs and later over the internet. He also played them on his college campus radio station. He played an episode of The Shadow and received a cease and cease-and-desist letter from a syndicator who controlled the rights to the program. In a move that may have been a first, he started paying royalties so that he could continue to play and sell certain programs. Moreover, he began buying exclusive rights to certain shows and started going after other sellers threatening legal action in an effort to basically monopolize the market of OTR. There are a number of articles out there on Radio Spirits and the often confusing laws involved; here is a good place to start. In spite of the fact that the internet is literally flooded with OTR, Radio Spirits made as much as $14 million in a single year (Amari claimed that a sizable chunk of that went to licensing/royalties). Collectors have criticized Amari for hurting the very people that kept these recordings alive. He also received criticism for not being forthcoming with specifics of what shows he actually owns the rights to (he has admitted that some of his shows were indeed public domain but was not clear on which ones). Then, in 2007, Amari sold his company and the Radio Spirits battles with collectors pretty much went away. For the record, though incredibly overpriced, Radio Spirits’ tapes and CDs offer some of, if not the best, sound quality out there. I have heard some of their offerings and the restoration work is sometimes astonishing.
Classic radio programs are a rich, rewarding window to our past. Some of the shows were so well written and performed that they are instantly accessible to audiences a half century later. But even the ones that suffer from being dated or having lost a great deal of their relevance are still fascinating as a record of what earlier generations embraced as entertainment. Today, new listeners to OTR will have to make a little effort and adjust to the acting styles, the antiquated words and phrases, the way that characters had to often declare what they were physically doing or seeing (how else in this medium?) so that the listener knew what was going on. But the rewards are still there. One’s imagination can be a fertile, exciting place to spend 20 or so minutes while driving at night or laying in bed; nothing but the voices and you.
Some good resources: