To most people born after the 1950s, it’s hard to imagine life without that box in the living-room with the flashing pictures and sounds and the big, clear screen the size of a billiard-table, but what about life before television? While it first appeared in the 1920s, television would not become a practical reality until after WWII in the late 1940s. So, before the family gathered around the box every night to watch the news and eat dinner and watch stuff like Ed Sullivan, the Dick Van Dyke Show, Dragnet, the Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island or Bewitched, how the hell did people pass the time?
A picture showing something that would soon become as much a part of everyday life today as unwanted teenage pregnancies…television!
“Well uhh…they read books or…wrote or…um…went for walks?” someone might uncertainly suggest.
Well…yes. But they also did something else.
They listened to the radio.
“Oh come on! A bunch of opinionated jackoffs talking about world affairs or dial-in shows where the hot topic is: ’embarrassing places you fell asleep in’ can’t be THAT interesting, can it?” you might say.
What most people seem to forget these days is that before television came along, there was another, immensely popular electronic entertainment medium that existed for nearly 40 years until TV finally put it out of business in the late 1950s. That medium was radio. Not music radio, not talkback radio like we’re used to today, playing jazz, rap, rock, or ‘the Top Ten Hits of the 60s, 70s and 80s!’ or discussing funny things your pet kitten did when grandma came to visit, but actual radio serials.
That’s right. Before TV serials such as The Simpsons, House, Jeeves and Wooster, Poirot, Midsomer Murders and Two-and-a-half Men ever came on the air, radio was already producing its own serial shows. Or rather…programs, since there was nothing ‘show’ on the radio. Radio programs covered everything that TV shows would cover today. Action. Crime. Drama. Comedy. Horror. Popular Music. Anything you can think of.
The Impact of Radio.
The radio was born at the turn of the last century and mankind marvelled at the ingenuity of a man named Guglielmo Marconi, who showed everyone that wireless telecommunications was possible…if only through Morse Code at the time. Within 25 years, Marconi’s invention…wireless radio…would have revolutionised the world. Radio did great things to mankind. In 1912, it sent ships racing through frigid Atlantic waters to an ocean liner in distress. In 1937, it spread the news of a catastrophic aircraft disaster, in 1939, it announced the start of a great conflict which would consume the world…and from the mid 1920s until the mid 1950s, it would bring such classics as ‘The Shadow’, ‘Dragnet’, ‘The Abbott and Costello Show’, the ‘Jack Benny Program’ and ‘The Whistler’ into people’s living-rooms every night.
During the Great Depression and throughout World War Two, American president Franklin D. Roosevelt used the radio to broadcast his ‘fireside chats’ to the nation, a series of radio broadcasts in which the president personally explained his policies, ideas and concerns to the nation in a series of speeches which ordinary people could listen to in their homes.
The Golden Age of Radio Begins.
Marconi can’t possibly have known the impact his innovations had, but they were huge. For the first time in history, people all over a city…all over a country, could listen to the same thing at the same time, all together, and be informed or entertained by the smart, wooden-cased electronic gizmo in their living-room, which by then was called the ‘radio’.
Once practical broadcast radio, of the kind we know today, was developed in the mid 1920s, people were quick to recognise the entertainment-possibilities of a machine that could send music and voices all over the country. The radio-serial was born! Once distribution of home radio-sets was started, it was soon realised that people would want something to listen to on their new doohickies, otherwise they’d soon lose interest. So people started scripting and producing radio-serials.
The Radio Serial.
A radio-serial is a regularly-scheduled program of a specific genre, much like popular TV shows today. They’re scripted, rehearsed, broadcast, recorded and sent out all over the world at a specific time. The first radio-serials came into being shortly after the invention of the electronic microphone in 1925 and less than a year later, people were able to listen to a whole new kind of entertainment.
A Zenith ‘tombstone’-style radio, typical of the wood-cased household radios of the 1920s-1950s.
The very first shows were ones like ‘Sam’n’Henry’, written, produced and acted out by a pair of white men trying to be black, who soon became infinitely more famous for their next attempt at radio comedy, a little-known show called…um…’Amos and Andy’? The men were, of course, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. Starting in March of 1928, ‘Amos and Andy’ was one of the first hugely popular radio-shows ever created. So popular in fact that it lasted nearly 30 years on radio and when TV came along, it jumped onto the new medium like a fly on honey.
Radio serials were as varied as TV serials are today. Programs covered almost everything imaginable, from…
Comedy (Amos & Andy, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Abbott & Costello, Fibber McGee & Molly, Life with Luigi).
Action (Rocky Fortune, Richard Diamond Private Detective, The Adventures of Philip Marlowe, The Falcon).
Suspense & Thriller (The Shadow, The Whistler, the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes).
Police-procedural (Dragnet, Gang Busters).
Popular music (Grand Ole Opry, Bell Telephone Hour, and live broadcasts of popular big-bands from famous hotels).
News & Current Affairs (Hear it Now).
Movies and Literature (Lux Radio Theatre, the Mercury Theatre on the Air).
The impact of radio-serials was immense. From 1925 until 1960, people all over the world gathered around their radios to listen to their favourite programs or to the news, and sat back to laugh, gasp and giggle, groan, grind and grimace at the events unfolding in their minds as they listened to the music and words coming out of their Wurlitzers, Zeniths or Philcos. How many of these popular phrases do you recognise?
“Now cut that out!”
“Oh the humanity!”
“Ladies and gentlemen, the story you’re about to hear is true…only the names have been changed, to protect the innocent”.
“Who knows what evil…lurks in the hearts of men?”
“2X2L calling CQ…2X2L calling CQ…Isn’t there anyone on the air?…Is there…anyone?”
“Yesterday…December 7th…1941…A date which will live in infamy…the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked…by the Empire of Japan”.
“I have to tell you now…that no such undertaking has been recieved, and that consequently…this country is…at war…with Germany”.
Maybe all? Five? Four? Two or three? At least one?
Great things were broadcast over the radio and many great events were brought home to ordinary people thanks to the power of the radio. If you don’t recognise any of those quotes, they were…
1. Jack Benny.
2. Herb Morrison, commenting on the crash of the airship Hindenberg in May, 1937.
3. The opening to the famous radio police-procedural show ‘Dragnet’.
4. Lou Costello.
5. The opening to the famous radio program ‘The Shadow’.
6. A line from one of the most famous radio broadcasts of all, the 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio-drama by Orson Welles.
7. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt making a speech about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, December 7th, 1941.
8. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s speech, announcing the British Declaration of War against Nazi Germany. September 3rd, 1939.
The Golden Age of Radio brought all kinds of things to people for the first times in their lives, in a startling and amazing clarity that you could never get from a newspaper or a book. The comedy of Jack Benny, the fight-scenes and shootouts in westerns, the harsh interrogations in ‘Dragnet’ or the emotional and grief-stricken report made by Herb Morrison when the airship Hindenberg crashed to the ground outside Lakehurst, NJ, in 1937.
A massive, console radio, typical of the kind seen during the 1920s and the early 1930s. Smaller, tabletop radios (see above), would soon replace these big, bulky units which were the size of filing-cabinets!
Radio serials remained popular for decades. Most episodes were done 100% live-to-air, being recorded as they were broadcast, onto transcription disks or audio-tape. A typical radio-episode lasted from 30-60 minutes and was usually rehearsed a couple of times beforehand. Any mistakes made during broadcasting could be heard all over the country! In later days, radio broadcasts could be done in front of live, sudio-audiences or at the scenes of major disasters, much like how TV camera-crews would do it today. Yeah…nothing is new. If you think it is, take a look at history.
Radio-serials often required special-effects men, to simulate the sounds of whistles, car-horns, gunshots, doors slamming, doorbells, footsteps, telephones ringing and a million other sounds. Most programs had one, two or probably three sound-effects men. Jack Webb’s program ‘Dragnet’ needed no less than five! Some generic sounds were pre-recorded and stored on playback records, but other than that, they’d all have to be done, live-to-air, right on cue. You needed incredibly good timing to be a sound-effects man! When sound-effects men working on the Jack Benny Program forgot to plug in the power-cord for the phonograph to play the audio for an old, 1926 Maxwell automobile, vocal artist Mel Blanc was forced, in the middle of a live broadcast, to jump to the microphone and improvise on the spot, vocally-produced automobile engine-noises! Jack Benny liked it so much, he made Mel do it for every episode thereafter.
It wasn’t unknown for radio shows to be interrupted for important announcements. When the Pearl Harbor attacks happened in 1941, radio-listeners all over the USA had their listening pleasure interrupted by a message that told them that the US. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was being bombed by the Japanese.
Radios remained incredibly popular even though by the late 1940s, television was beginning to peep up over the horizon. What was it like back in the 1930s and 40s to listen to the radio? Well for one thing, you had to make sure the radio was working. Most of the early radios were all battery-powered. To get the batteries working, you had to take them down to the local drugstore or car-garage to get them charged up. Once they were working and charged and put back into the radio, you turned it on. Don’t expect an immediate response…old radios worked through vacuum-tubes, and these required time to heat up and get going properly. The muffled, slightly dull tone which is synonymous with Old Time Radio was the result of the technology available at the time, and the natural muffling caused by the cloth-grilled speakers which most radios of the period had.
Once the radio was turned on, you had to know what program you wanted to hear. Much like TV guides today, newspapers published regular radio-guides, listing what shows were broadcast that day or week, what station or frequency these programs could be heard on, and the time which they were to be broadcast at. Once you knew the date and time, and your radio was charged, on and working, all you had to do was sit back in front of the set, put your feet up, close your eyes…try not ot fall asleep..and listen.
The End of an Era.
Radio’s dominance of the entertainment industry ended in the late 1950s, when television was finally being accepted as the new entertainment medium. Some shows such as Dragnet, The Jack Benny Show, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Amos & Andy and Life with Luigi transferred to television in the 1950s; Dragnet did radio AND television for nearly a decade! But in the end, television won out, and the family tradition of sitting around the wireless listening to two men saying:
- “Hey Abbott! Did you hear the news? Hitler’s just invented a brand new weapon that’ll end the war in five minutes!”
“A new weapon? What is it!?”
“A pole…with a white flag on the end of it!”
were soon to be a thing of the past. Radio vanished quickly from the public remembrance and imagination, to replaced by ‘Dancing with the Stars’, ‘Survivor’ and ‘America’s Next Top Model’ and a unique and incredible form of entertainment was lost forever.