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Old-time radio

From Academic Kids

Old-Time Radio (OTR) and the Golden Age of Radio are phrases used to refer to radio programs mainly broadcast during the 1920s through the late 1950s. The end of the OTR era is often marked by the final CBS broadcasts of Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar on September 30, 1962.

The audio theatre art form was invented prior to radio, developing in the 1880s and 1890s on early wax recordings. The first examples were recordings of vaudeville sketches, sometimes modified for the medium, but original audio pieces were being created well before Reginald Fessenden first broadcast sound over the radio on Christmas Eve, 1906. Although very little radio comedy-drama currently airs on American radio, it continues at full strength on British and Irish stations, and to a lesser degree in Canada. Regular broadcasts of radio plays are also heard in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. In the United States, vintage shows and new audio productions are accessible more on recordings rather than over the air.

Before the expansion of television in the early 1950s, radio was the most popular home entertainment system across the United States. With the rise of the movie industry, America's appetite for mass entertainment grew. As with films, early radio shows reflected vaudeville origins with cornpone gags and ethnic humor interspersed between song numbers. As the medium matured, sophistication increased. During the 1930s radio featured genres and formats popular in other forms of American entertainment -- adventure, comedy, drama, horror, mystery, musical variety, romance, thrillers -- along with classical music concerts, dance band remotes, farm reports, news and commentary, panel discussions, quiz shows, sidewalk interviews, sports broadcasts, talent shows and weather forecasts.

Top comedy talents surfed the airwaves for many years: Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Victor Borge, Fanny Brice. Bob Burns, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Red Skelton and Ed Wynn. More laughter was generated by such shows as Abbott and Costello, Amos 'n' Andy, Burns and Allen, Ethel and Albert, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeve and The Halls of Ivy. Radio comedy ran the gamut from the country humor of Lum and Abner and Minnie Pearl to the dialect characterizations of Mel Blanc and the caustic sarcasm of Henry Morgan. Gags galore were delivered weekly on Stop Me If You've Heard This One and Can You Top This? (http://www.radiohof.org/musicvariety/canyoutopthis.html), panel programs devoted to the art of telling jokes. Quiz shows were lampooned on It Pays to Be Ignorant, and other memorable parodies were presented by such satirists as Spike Jones, Stoopnagle and Budd, Stan Freberg and Bob and Ray.

Some shows originated as stage productions: Clifford Goldsmith's play What a Life was reworked into NBC's popular, long-run The Aldrich Family (1939-1953) with the familiar catchphrase, "Coming, Mother!" Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit, You Can't Take It with You (1936), became a weekly situation comedy heard on Mutual (1944) with Everett Sloane and later on NBC (1951) with Walter Brennan.

Other shows were adapted from comic strips, such as Blondie, The Gumps, Li'l Abner, Little Orphan Annie, Popeye the Sailor, Red Ryder, Reg'lar Fellers, Terry and the Pirates and Tillie the Toiler. Bob Montana's redheaded teen of comic strips and comic books was heard on radio's Archie Andrews from 1943 to 1953. The Timid Soul was a 1941-1942 comedy based on cartoonist H.T. Webster's famed Casper Milquetoast character.

The Lux Radio Theater offered adaptations of Hollywood movies, performed before a live audience, often with cast members from the original films. Suspense, Escape, The Mysterious Traveler and Inner Sanctum Mysteries were popular thriller anthology series. Leading writers who created original material for radio included Norman Corwin, Archibald MacLeish, Arthur Miller, Arch Oboler, Rod Serling and Irwin Shaw.

Most American radio network programs were presented live, and they were often re-performed for listeners in Western time zones. Network policy did not permit the broadcast of recorded programming during most of the OTR era. For a variety of reasons, however, many programs were recorded as they were broadcast. In some cases, the recording was made at the point of origination, usually network studios in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. In other cases, it was made at an affiliate station. For example, a program originating at CBS in New York might be recorded off the network circuit at WJSV in Washington. A relatively few surviving programs were recorded off the air (airchecks), usually at a recording studio, since home recording equipment was uncommon during the OTR era. Before magnetic tape came into use in the early 1950s, the format was normally 16-inch diameter "transcription disks" (aka ETs, for "electrical transcription"). Most of the OTR programs in circulation among collectors – whether on tape, CD or MP3 – originated with these ETs.

During part of the OTR era, the Armed Forces Radio Service (later Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) obtained copies of network radio entertainment programming for distribution to AFRS radio stations serving U.S. troops overseas. Those programs were edited to delete commercials, and disks were pressed for shipment to stations. Many OTR shows have survived only in the edited AFRS version; some exist in both original and AFRS formats.

A relatively small number of surviving series were recorded for syndication. These programs were typically distributed to stations on transcription disk, and stations would air these at their convenience. Like syndicated television programming today, different stations played the programs at different days and times.

Vintage radio is fondly remembered for quite a few trademark sounds, phrases and events: the headlines after The War of the Worlds was dramatized on Orson Welles' Mercury Theater on the Air; the creaking-door sound effect which framed each episode of Inner Sanctum Mysteries; the clipped speech of Jack Webb and the theme music on Dragnet; the "Hi-Yo, Silver!" call of the Lone Ranger; the cackle of The Shadow: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows..."

Selected vintage radio programs


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