My generation is likely the last to have memories of the time radio ruled the entertainment empire. When I arrived on the scene in 1942 talking movies were only fourteen years old and TV was still a tinkerer’s toy being played with in a few laboratories.
Radio was the medium you didn’t have to leave home to enjoy. Wherever you lived you could have music, news, commentary, sports, drama, variety, adventure, mystery, and more. You could listen to a station next door or one half way around the world. By my time the magic box called radio was omnipresent and universally affordable. The price of admission was simply listening to the frequent commercial for dish soap, shaving cream, and Chevrolet.
There was no static free FM transmissions. Everything was broadcast in AM mode and subject to all the atmospheric scratches and static discharges Mother Nature could muster up. On a good night one could listen to programs originating in New York, New Orleans, Chicago and other major American cities. If one owned a radio with short-wave capabilities, Radio Moscow, the British Broadcasting Corporation in London, or Radio Melbourne could be listened to. Far away voices with strange dialects reporting events as they unfolded thousands of miles across the world’s oceans. All this is mundane today but in the 1940s it was awe-inspiring.
Every kid my age grew up worshiping the heroes they listened to on the radio. Sargent Preston of the Yukon, Sky King, The Lone Ranger, Tom Mix, Red Ryder, Superman, and my favorite, Straight Arrow. Many of these shows went on to become television staples in the 1950s.
The adults had their favorites as well. Amos and Andy, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Edgar Bergen, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, were just a few of the comedies and variety hits of radio. Of course, many of the stars of these programs also appeared in the movies and later on TV.
Television didn’t kill radio but it forever changed its format. Radio became the media for top 40 music, sports, news and today, ever more so, commentary and talk. Long gone are the days when “The Nation’s Station” WLW in Cincinnati broadcast with 100,000 watts of power and at night could be heard in the far corners of the globe. Even with its current 50,000 watts I, on many occasions, was able to sit aboard ship in the North Atlantic or in port in Scotland and listen to the midnight broadcast of Moon River. Knowing WLW’s transmitter was just a few miles from my hometown would bring on the occasional bout of homesickness.
The people who made radio famous and were made famous by radio have either passed or are waiting for the reaper’s arrival. All those voices I can still hear in my head are just memories now. When I taught American History I would play excerpts from a sampling of Old Time Radio programs for my students just so they would know about a world they weren’t born into. Today I read that the last convention of fans of OTR was being held in a New Jersey motel. After decades of swapping recordings, hosting surviving writers, producers, announcers, and on-air personalities, it’s coming to an end. The numbers of people who remember those days or made those days a reality are simply, too few in numbers to warrant further gatherings.
It’s okay, though. As is said, “All good things come to an end.” I just thought someone should spend a few minutes reminding today’s generation that what they enjoy and spend their entertainment dime on has a history. It, like so many other things, rest on the shoulders of yesterday’s giants.