It’s the only entertainment medium that went out of business.
They still write plays; TV shows are produced, movies made, songs sung, books written. Radio itself thrives for music and news, and documentaries tell stories. “Prairie Home Companion” does skits and music, but its relation to the old shows is self-conscious. An homage to the medium, not a revival. Radio storytelling went out of business in the early 60s, and despite a few attempts to bring it back, it’s stayed dead.
Imagine movies being replaced by something else, and you get the sense of the loss, the cultural shift.
Radio was the thread that ran through every part of American life. It was part of everyday life, the source of news and laughter, catch-phrases and crazes. It was the box that chattered all day on the housewife’s counter, the stories that came from the dashboard of the car, the songs in the evening that poured from the front-room set. Movies were big, but movies were a destination; radio was where you were and it was where you were going. It was intimate and personal.
It’s hard to recreate the mood that accompanied these shows. When you listen to “Suspense” you’re not sitting on the floor in the living room with Dad, the lights low, his pipe smoke perfuming the air, the first creepy delicious notes of the theme seeping from the grille. You’re not at the counter washing up the breakfast dishes while your favorite soap opera comes on. At first the medium seems quaint and dated, but after a while, after a few years of listening, it starts to jell. The voices; you know the voices. The quirks of each show - you wait for them. The style of humor - you accept it and appreciate it.
Eventually you find the first show you really, truly love. You’re hooked. And you realize this is a great moment in the internet, an unexpected and unplanned accomplishment. People used to pass around tapes of shows, trade episodes. It was a hobby confined to a few. Now it’s digitized by volunteers and uploaded free of charge at archive.org, available to all any time.
It’s remarkable how much survived. I think everyone involved with the medium back then would be stunned to see how much people still care.
This isn’t a history of the medium or an introduction or anything serious. Just shows I like, with a few clips and explanations. I am indebted to the Old Time Radio Researchers group, which has preserved this part of American heritage out of their own appreciation. They’re remarkable. They also have unfortunate taste in Mp3 art, so I’ve supplied some art you can use should you download some shows and pipe them to your mobile or your MP3 app. Shows will be added Friday.