Reading Radio

20160612_161312I read The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio by John Dunning. It took me a full month, but I read the whole thing, from the A&P Gypsies to Ziegfield Follies of the Air.

Do I recommend it? Oh, honey, once I started it, I didn’t stop talking about it.

I judge a nonfiction book by whether I would enjoy being stuck at a dinner table with the writer. It’s a pretty rigorous test, really. Dunning passes. He’s obviously a passionate radio enthusiast, but for the most part he keeps his passion in check and gives a fairly even-handed description of each show. I would happily spend an afternoon with him.

The book was published in 1998—which is a lot longer ago than I think it is—so originally it must have been a wistful stroll through a lost era. Me? I live in the world of the internet. The first thing I googled was the opening entry, A & P Gypsies. And there it was for me to listen to. After that, I kept my phone in hand as I read. I listened to snatches of Gracie Allen and George Burns, Jimmy Durante, a soap opera called Mary Noble, Backstage Wife, a spoof quiz show called It Pays to Be Ignorant. I looked up singer Kate Smith (who originally had exclusive rights to the song God Bless America), found another soap opera theme called Poor Butterfly, and listened to Herb Morrison’s heartbreaking real-time broadcast when the Hindenburg exploded.

Now, it’s true, I like nonfiction, and I like encyclopedic formats. (Two of my favorite books, now badly tattered from frequent browsing, are The Baby Name Wizard by Laura Wattenberg; and The Oxford Book of Humourous Prose edited by John Muir. Both consist of entries and illuminating commentary.) So you might wonder if this is really a book for you. Well, wonder no longer! I created a handy-dandy quiz that will tell you whether this is something you should try out.


1. “Old-time radio” means to me:
A. Back when there was no internet so you had to listen to whatever the station decided to play.

B. That’s when there were some actual shows, like Fibber McGee and Molly, The Lone Ranger, and The Shadow, right?

C. The great days of Jack Benny’s trumped-up feud with Fred Allen, the years-long drama One Man’s Family, and back when all the world loved Jessica Dragonette.

D. That was the golden era of writer/reporter Norman Corwin and playwrite Arch Oboler.

2. If I were to choose to listen to a radio show, it would be:
A. Music and news. That’s radio, right?

B. They had soap operas back then. They were probably less trashy than they are now.

C. The variety shows would be my thing—comedy acts, interviews, guest singers, and music from the show’s in-house band.

D. I’d have to find as much of CBS Workshop as I could, which featured original plays and innovative radio techniques.

3. What would I not be able to hear on radio at that time?
A. Swearing, sex, or violence. It was a purer time.

B. Women in any kind of serious capacity. It was a man’s world.

C. Something gritty like today’s crime shows.

D. Science fiction, except for a couple of exceptions; and fantasy, except as “make-believe” for children. Both genres were considered juvenile fare.

4. What was a controversial transition in radio?
A. Allowing black performers to have a voice

B. Shows devoted to blatant anti-fascist/anti-Nazi propaganda

C. Allowing commercials on radio

D. Going from live performances to “transcribed” performances—that is, the shows were recorded ahead of time and then distributed to the networks.

If you answered…

Mostly A:
Radio was once much more than the same twenty-six songs, commercials, and news in an endless cycle. There’s a vast world of drama, comedy, and music behind you. It’s very much a white world; nearly all the black characters were played by white men (even black female characters). But some writers voiced their concern over race relations and the plight of blacks in America even as early as the 1920s.

You are right that you won’t hear any swearing or outright mention of sex; but the innuendos are always coming. (Read that how you like.) Among the horror and detective drama, there’s plenty of violence. It’s not that people were exactly purer then, so much as there was a sharp divide between acceptable public behavior vs. private behavior. Radio maintained strict public behavior.

One way to understand who we are today is to find out where we came from. Radio was the life of the nation during the Depression, World War Two, labor riots, Prohibition, agricultural expansion, and the onset of Golden Hollywood. What happened then, what they talked about, and how they dealt with their issues is surprisingly informative when we look at our own world today.

Conclusion: You should read this book.

Mostly B:
You know a little about that bygone era. But there’s a lot more out there!

Men did outnumber women significantly (it’s frustrating to read the lists of important figures that are mostly male, knowing that females hardly had a chance); but some women held their own as performers or writers (not reporters, though). Soap operas were definitely a thing; they were born on radio. One network dropped one in mid-season, and outraged fans flooded the network with letters. They also wrote the big trade journal of the time, Radio Guide, and there was some interest in forming a listeners’ “code of rights” that would compel the networks to finish the shows they began.

(Ahem, Firefly, anybody?)

The soap opera storylines—while less explicit than later “daytime dramas”—had all the same trashy elements of a suffering woman, philandering husband, conniving rivals, accidents, murders, psychopaths, pregnancies, death, and as always, amnesia.

Radio weathered the US’s WWII stint, so pro-Allies/anti-Axis propaganda was an accepted thing. Juvenile shows almost always featured German or Japanese villains. A couple of adult shows devoted themselves to intercepting German and Japanese propaganda, airing it to the American audience, and rebutting it. You’d surprised by what you find if you delve into the world of radio.

Conclusion: You should read this book.

Mostly C:
Hey, you know some radio! You are right, it started out uncertain about whether sponsors could advertise directly on the air. That changed by the mid-30s, when commercials became standard. Not only that, but all the shows were named for their sponsors, giving them stupid names like The Carnation Contented Hour or Rudy Vallee’s Gelatin Hour. Of course, we live in an era of “Tumblr” and Buzzfeed,” so probably we don’t have much room to talk.

Our entertainment taste has changed a lot, even from TV to these days of binge-watching shows on the internet. But we can still see how those old radio shows shaped our entertainment today, from morning shows (“The Breakfast Club” ran nearly 20 years), to “Dr. John J. Anthony’s” relationship advice, to the old variety format that is still alive in the late-night shows. The old quiz shows of radio became the big game shows of TV. One thing hasn’t changed: our fascination with crime drama. Every fifth show on radio was a detective/police/FBI drama. Some of them, like Dragnet, weren’t heavily graphic but were pretty gritty at times. One show, Gang Busters, was “the noisiest show on radio.” It even became slang, “coming on like Gang Busters.”

I looked up Jessica Dragonette to see if she was actually, you know, real. Turns out, she was a very popular singer and host in the 30s and 40s, so much that when a sponsor downgraded her show and she left, fans wrote hundreds of letters in protest. By the way, back then people wrote letters at the slightest provocation. That’s how networks knew who was a big hit—if people liked or hated a performance, in came the deluge of mail. I try to resist nostalgia for “back when times were better,” but I admit, I do miss a world where we wrote real letters.

Anyway, you’ve got a good working knowledge of old radio. You’d probably enjoy learning more.

Conclusion: You should read this book.

Mostly D:
Wow. You know your radio. But in a 745-page Encyclopedia, you’re sure to find lots of new tidbits. Dunning devotes extensive space to the big favorites like Fibber McGee and Molly, Jack Benny, and Norman Corwin. He discusses the big move from print news to radio news and gives a “roll call” of the big names in radio reporting. He covers every genre of radio from juvenile “thrillers” to religious programming.

Reading straight through was like going from an acquaintance to friendship: by the time we got to the fifth Frank and Ann Hummert soap opera, Dunning openly disdains the couple’s trite melodramatic writing, and readers grin because we know what he’s talking about.

Occasionally he’ll let slip some strong emotion, such as when he reveals that the extremely popular and well-received show Vic and Sade is hard to find in good sound nowadays: “As many as 3,000 discs were destroyed by Proctor & Gamble after World War II, an act of corporate stupidity that defies forgiveness. … All we can do at this late date is hope that the space formerly used to house those wonderful transcriptions made some indifferent corporate bureaucrat a comfortable office.”

He condensed his mountains of research into concise, entertaining descriptions of the people and shows involved. The result is bite-sized discussions in a very readable voice.

Conclusion: You should read this book.

It’s impossible to retain everything I read, and it’s due back to the library now. But that’s okay. I’ll be buying a copy, and I’ll read it many times over.

You should, too.

P.S. I listened to one vintage broadcast in its entirety, Report on the Weans. It purported to be a radio show set 6000 years from now, when archaeologists have begun unearthing the “city mounds” that are left of our civilization, and the conclusions they come to about how we lived. It’s amusing now, but at the time when it was fresh, it would have been very thought-provoking. There are also a few of the jokes that I just plain don’t get. Anybody who wants to listen and then explain the closing joke, “Milltown,” I’ll send you chocolate.


2 thoughts on “Reading Radio

    • I think podcasts are the grandchildren of radio. They don’t like to talk about what happened to the generation in between.

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