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Monday 15 Jul 2024

A Case for Vintage Radio
dr george pollard

Old-time Radio (OTR) is a term weakening the importance of shows aired from 1926 to 1955. Vintage Radio is le mot juste for these shows. Here’s why.

 Definition. Old-time Radio, OTR, refers to shows aired between 1926 and 1955. Typically, these shows aired on national or larger regional networks of radio affiliates, mostly NBC, CBS, Mutual, Dumont, ABC, Dominion Network of the CBC in Canada or Don Lee. Archetype examples of OTR network shows are Fibber McGee and Molly, The Lone Ranger, and Lux Radio Theater.

A handful of OTR shows aired in syndication, that is, sold radio station by radio station. The list of such shows includes Boston Blackie, Manhunt and Maple Leaf Ballroom. Small budgets constrained creativity on these shows.

The initialism, OTR, has many meanings. Journalists use OTR to note some comments are off-the-record. Beyonce and Jay-Z called their joint tour “On the Run.” Truck drivers use OTR to denote over-the-road or long-distance hauling.

Limitations. The term Old-time Radio and its initialism, OTR, need some thought. Multiple uses of the initialism can lead to confusion. On-line searches for the term and its initialism return millions of URLs, only some for radio.

Applied to radio, use of old-time diminishes the richness of radio content aired from 1926 to 1955. It downplays the influence and effects of advances in creativity and technology during these thirty years. Too simple and off base are resulting inferences that such radio content is quaint, of limited variety and inferior due to age.

Fred Allen took the subtly of satire to new heights during these years. Jack Benny developed a sophisticated sitcom format. Eddie Cantor found ways to engage studio and at-home audiences in his shows. Technology, such as microphones, kept over-the-air quality high and improving. Advances in recording technology allowed for transcribing, that is, recording shows for later airing.

Old-time implies a yearning for times passed. It lessens the import of radio, then and now. From 1926 to 1955 radio morphed into a social force. It was more than mere entertainment or television without pictures.

It is folly to equate radio, 1926 to 1955, with, say, OTF, that is, old-time fiddling. The sawdust floor of a barn dance is the arena for OTF. It stages to the sound of a two-string fiddle played by a tone-deaf octogenarian repeating the same riff, endlessly.

Use of old-time suggests dated, crude and inferior, among other descriptives. The implications of old-time suggest quaint, amateurish and limited skill. These terms apply to OTF.

For radio, these terms merit a close look. There is more to radio aired from 1926 to 1955. It was increasingly sophisticated as a technology and airing of subtle content.

Exemplars. Exploring beneath the surface of the OTR label reveals diverse, advanced and effective radio artistry. It thus deserves a fuller recognition than currently given. Three exemplars help visualise and clarify these points.

In the late 1950s, Stan Freberg created a series of promotional announcements for radio. In one, he filled Lake Superior with whipped cream. He then had the Royal Canadian Air Force fly over, dropping a red Maraschino cherry on top. ‘You can’t do that on television,’ was the end tag.

The Orson Welles creation, War of the Worlds, is another example that reveals the ability of radio to innovatively excite the imagination. On Sunday 30 October 1938, the seventieth episode of the Mercury Theater on the Air presented an adaptation of the eponymously titled novel by H G Wells. War of the Worlds began with ominous warnings of its fictional nature.

Yet, millions of listeners believed the events, as reported, were real because the presentation on radio escaped critical thinking and poked the imagination. The warnings used the template of legitimate news items. Listeners were pre-conditioned to believe what they heard was legitimate radio news.

Welles scripted War of the Worlds as a low-end musical show, ostensibly live from a hotel ballroom. It aired on CBS opposite the top-rated radio show, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, on NBC. Welles knew few listeners would hear the warnings. He was right.

Listeners tuned to NBC to hear the opening comedy of Bergen and McCarthy. When the content switched from comedy to singing, listeners switched to find out what Welles offered. Thus, the disclaimer, that the show was a fictional re-telling, went unheard by most listeners.

Welles also assumed word would get around. It did. He assumed listeners would switch to CBS to get the full story. They did. He counted on a panic, of sorts, because of the missed disclaimer. Millions of listeners obliged.

An actor portrayed a newscaster. He broke into the music, often, up-dating listeners on an invasion. He provided increasingly worrisome facts and witness interviews on the landing and attack of Martians, in New Jersey.

The seriousness of the information grew, as the hour progressed. An estimated five million people panicked, mostly on the Atlantic Sea coast. Radio prevailed.

War of the Worlds highlighted the effectiveness of a stirred imagination. A stirred imagination mobilized millions of listeners to panic. You cannot do that on television, to lift a phrase from Stan Freberg. Radio stirs imaginations to great heights, as Freberg and Welles confirmed.

The Shadow, a mediocre melodrama, had a twenty-five-year run on radio. The premise of the show was simple. While in India, Lamont Cranston, hero of the show, learned how to cloud minds. That is, he could make himself invisible.

Invisibility allowed Cranston to fight crime, effectively. He could ease drop on criminal planning. He could frighten them by his invisible presence. He could avoid detection.

The special power Cranston learned is akin to the Helm of Darkness. In Greek mythology, the Helm gave Hades the ability to become invisible as well as dominate the Underworld and the dead. For Hades, the Helm evoked fear as did the special power of Cranston as The Shadow.

There likely was not, says Dunning, a believable story in the entire run of The Shadow. Yet, the show attracted a large audience, up to fifteen million an episode. Listeners identified with the storytelling. Earnestness of the scripts was bait that brought listeners back, repeatedly.

The opening narration, of The Shadow, was memorable. A mellifluous voice asked, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” “The Shadow knows” was the call back, followed by a bellowing laugh. At the end of each show, a vocal tag reminded listeners that “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! Crime does not pay! The Shadow knows!”

Cranston was a wealthy hobbyist. He is known and appreciated by law enforcement agencies. Cranston used crime-fighting methods he hoped regular police would adopt, says Dunning.

Only Margo Lane, companion of Cranston, knows his identity as The Shadow. In later episodes, a police commissioner may know the identity of The Shadow. In an occasional storyline, a criminal guesses the identity, but to no good.

Cranston and Margo began, in 1938, as friends. Sometimes they solved mysteries together. They were always unchaperoned. Their relations developed from simple “darling-darling” exchanges, says Dunning, to single-cabin cruises in search of adventure.

“Cranston and Margo,” says Dunning, faced the “maddest [saddest] assortment of lunatics, sadists and ghosts.” In one episode, says Dunning, a mad scientist replaced the brain of a woman with that of a gorilla. The Shadow involved weekly adventures in and around the paranormal, which is a sandbox for the imagination.

The Shadow mongrelized pulp fiction, science fiction and fictional science. Cranston and Margo fight crime lords, strange as they may be, amid a flurry of spooky effects and supra-normal circumstances. There is a rub. ‘You cannot do that on television.’ Television only stretches the imagination to sixty-five inches, to paraphrase Stan Freberg.

Listeners visualise the characters and follow The Shadow storyline. Thus, they have a sense of understanding. This brings them back to the show week after week, year after year.

These exemplars reveal the implicit sophistication of radio aired between 1926 and 1955. These examples reveal the notion of OTR, that is, Old-time Radio, is a misnomer. These examples reveal radio of yesteryear as much more than a satisfier of a longing for a non-existent past. These examples reveal thinking of OTR as quaint or simplistic misses its essence.

Labels. Labelling early radio content as OTR suggests these shows have no modern relevance. The OTR label casts such shows as inferior, nostalgic novelties. This inhibits potential listeners, today, and deflects recognition of the quality and lasting appeal of the content.

Blanket labels, such as OTR, obscure technical and creative feats in delivering distraction. These happened decades before digital devices and the internet. Week after week, writers, actors and advertisers originated engaging episodic stories, remarkable characters and commercial earworms. Creativity was often on a shoestring budget, under live performance pressure. To classify these triumphs as simply Old-time Radio or OTR is unfair to those that advanced technology and content.

Undeservedly, the simplicity of the OTR label lumps varied performing arts together. Cast as one generic block, old, are comedy or sitcom character arcs, weekly cliffhanging adventures, anthologies, historical dramas and suspense, among others. This disrespects the rich diversity of content aired. Radio producers understood niche audience tastes and how to balance schedules. OTR suggests all shows, aired from 1926 to 1955, fell into a single bucket. This is an implicit belief that denies reality.

For thirty influential years, until television took over living rooms, radio reigned as the dominant medium. Families and individuals relied on radio for diversion, news, the latest music and human voice connections that chase away a sense of isolation. Yet, relegating such pioneers as insignificant, old and quaint novelties risks dismissing pop culture effects that are still paying dividends.

There is an argument that suggest melodramas and comedies recycle themes, sensibilities and pacing, continually. This is mostly true. OTR is ever present in video shows, even podcasting, today. In a sense, OTR is the DNA of current entertainment content.

Too often, the building-block advances, in any area, that pave pathways to improvement end up dismissed. Breakthroughs of yesterday are de rigueur for today. Film, for example, usually minimizes the indirect contributions of radio to visual media.

Labels are important. Labels denote the shared nature of what a category includes and what it does not. Examples are women not men, married not single or coffee not tea.

Labels organise thinking. When thoughts are of pears, thoughts are not of apples. When thoughts are of a puppy, the label evokes notions of cute, playful and not house trained.

Labels make recall more efficient. The acronym, HOMES, helps recall the Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. PEMDAS is easier to recall than what it stands for: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, which is the order of algebraic operations. BID is pharmaceutical shorthand for take medication twice a day.

A new label would help mitigate shortfalls associated with OTR. A new label should note the quality and advances of radio from 1926 to 1955. Candidates for new label are worth considering.

Classic Radio. This label homages first generation radio as distinctive acts of creative and technological excellence. This is what radio did between 1926 and 1955. The overlap with classic music radio, a format that dominates local radio, today, invites confusion. Although this may be the ideal replacement label for radio aired between 1926 and 1955, the overlap with local radio, today, introduces disqualifying confusion.

Network Radio. This label points to where the content in question aired. Adopting this label would require defining network as well as content. Some content aired between 1926 and 1955 was off network, in syndication. These shows would fall from consideration, despite continuing relevance. The significant contribution of syndicated shows would go unheralded. This requirement is too much.

Golden Age Radio. This label also requires too much definition to be workable. It may also be too subjective. What is the Golden Age of radio? Golden Age Radio seems close to OTR. Some might argue the middle 1940s was the apogee of radio.

Vintage Radio. This may be an effective alternate to OTR. In 2014, during an informal chat with Laura Leibowitz, founder and president of the International Jack Benny Fan Club (IJBFC), she suggested an OTR alternative. She said, without missing a beat, Vintage Radio.

Leibowitz drew an analogy to wine. She considers the time, 1926 to 1955, of its creation. Its quality at birth. How it improved with time, creatively and technologically. That it is a treat for the senses. That it is rare.

There was no hint of only a novelty, in what Liebowitz suggested, other than that attached, analogously, to fine wine. Nor did she express yearning for a nostalgic yesteryear that never existed. There was no implication that Old-time Radio (OTR) fall out of use, only that it is an alternative label, Vintage Radio, is in the wings, ready, waiting and usable.

Le Mot Juste. Vintage Radio (VR) is a practical alternative to Old-time Radio (OTR). VR is most useful. VR is a reasonably precise term. OTR is much more limited in scope. VR is positive. Mostly, OTR is not. VR fits best.

In Sum. We embrace the work of Plato, Shakespeare and Dickens, today, for their social importance. We should embrace radio content aired from 1926 to 1955, similarly. It has social relevance, today.

The case for Vintage Radio offered is a push for re-thinking the label of Old-time Radio (OTR) and consideration of Vintage Radio (VR) as a choice for future use. There is no suggestion that existing use of the term and initialism should roll back. Rather, the aim to offer an alternative for future use.

Agree, whole or in part? Disagree, whole or in part? Express yourself. All comments welcome at VintageRadio@grubstreet.ca and in confidence unless otherwise specified.

Sources Used

John Dunning (1998), The Oxford Encyclopedia of Old-time Radio. Oxford.

Lester Friedman (2019), The History of American Broadcasting. Bloomsbury Academic.

Steven Mehlis (2022) Radio: an American story. Oxford University Press.

Roger Mehle (2018), Radio in the Digital Age. Routledge, 2018.

L Schatzki (1922) Radio textuality: essaying the voice. Johns Hopkins University Press.

The Old Time Radio Researchers Association. https://www.otrr.org/

Internet Archive: Old Time Radio. https://archive.org/details/oldtimeradio

dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.

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