Old-time radio

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Old-time radio

Why it’s daunting: For a brief window in the first half of the 20th century, radio was the dominant medium in the United States. Americans loved the movies, yes, and theater hung on in big cities, while niche forms like vaudeville continued to ply their trade on the road. But radio played the role television now plays in many homes. It provided news and weather and a sense of community. It brought music into homes from ballrooms scattered across the country. And it offered political talk and other commentary designed to help the nation get through two of its most trying periods: the Great Depression and World War II.

The radio also became the first major home for weekly, episodic scripted content. Most of the forms we now associate with television were first tried out on the radio, including everything from the anthology drama series to the sitcom to the soap opera. Powerful radio networks, some of which would later become television networks, picked up the most popular shows. Many of these shows would eventually make their way to that young medium as well. The first huge hit television series, I Love Lucy, essentially blended star Lucille Ball’s earlier radio series, My Favorite Husband, with techniques borrowed from the era’s popular stage comedies.

Radio largely faded as television took its place, becoming a medium more for news, music, and talk than storytelling, but the rise of the Internet has provided a perfect place for aficionados of the medium to gather and share programs. Many radio shows are now available in their entirety online, and a simple search for “old-time radio” will reveal dozens of sites catering to those with interest in these old programs, including clearinghouse sites like OTR.net, RadioLovers.com, and the National Archive. In addition, numerous podcasts have created new versions of these sorts of programs, which can be as much fun as their inspirations. 

While the benefits of digging into the medium are legion, from developing an appreciation of our pop-culture history to understanding of the mindsets of citizens in the ’30s and ’40s, there’s one simple problem: There’s so much of it, and not all of it is good. Worse, much of the stuff that was most acclaimed and popular in its time has aged the poorest. 

Possible gateway: The Mercury Theatre On The Air

Why: Orson Welles remains a fascinating and uniquely American figure, a young wunderkind who insisted on remaking every medium he touched through sheer, brute force of personality. He worked within the restrictions of the media available to him, but also tried to sneak in coded messages. Before making the most influential film of all time, however, Welles commandeered a radio program that aimed to take the innovative and daring work of his Mercury Theatre troupe to the airwaves. The program he created wouldn’t revolutionize radio as Citizen Kane did film, but it would lead to what might have been the medium’s single most famous moment.

Welles’ dramatization of H.G. Wells’ The War Of The Worlds, cleverly reimagined as a news broadcast reporting on alien forces invading Earth, was so potent that it famously provoked hysteria from listeners who thought the planet really was under attack. In fact, the script was remade in Spanish in Ecuador in the ’40s and provoked much the same response, so vivid was Welles’ understanding of the tropes of the medium and the language reporters would use to describe atrocities. Even today, War Of The Worlds packs a punch, simply because Welles’ gift for storytelling propels the episode along. The notoriety of the broadcast led to Hollywood’s interest in Welles as a director, and it’s easy to see why. Even by modern standards, this thing moves.

The Mercury Theatre On The Air offered plenty of other terrific installments beyond War Of The Worlds, though. The program was Welles and his troupe’s chance to take on many of the classics, and they veered from Dracula to Sherlock Holmes to Heart Of Darkness. Almost every episode is compelling in its own way, and with only 22 surviving episodes, it’s easy to work through the archives. 

Welles and his troupe would shift almost immediately into The Campbell Playhouse after Mercury picked up the soup company as a new sponsor. There are more Campbell episodes, and while their quality is less consistent, most are good and many offer a taste of one of the other major sources for anthology dramas in the radio era: abbreviated versions of motion pictures turned into radio scripts.

Next steps: Other anthology shows provide a good next step for the fledgling radio fan, and there are anthology shows for almost any taste, from the more highbrow Lux Radio Theater, which adapted popular plays and films of the day and attracted most of their stars, to pulpier pursuits like Suspense or The Mysterious Traveler, a fantasy and science-fiction anthology. Anthologies offer a solid entry point for most new radio fans simply because the stories wrap up within one installment, and most of them ran for so long that there are a huge bulk of stories to choose from.

A natural next step would be the popular serials of the day, including the early days of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. Since there are so many episodes of these serials—many of them broadcast several times a week, aimed at the children’s audience—it’s usually best to pick an episode at random (ideally one with many surrounding episodes still surviving) and dive in. It’s rare to encounter a situation where you won’t know what’s going on, and the fact that many of the characters still survive to some extent in the current popular culture should help pave over any other questions.

Of the many radio dramas and soap operas worth digging into, The Shadow, which featured the voice of Welles in its early episodes, remains a standout. The hero, a proto-superhero, possesses the ability to cloud the minds of villains and infiltrate their midst, only to defeat them in typically thrilling fashion. The introduction—“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?”—still stands as a pop-culture touchstone, long after the hero it was meant to describe has faded in popularity.

As for comedy, start with Fibber McGee And Molly. The show hasn’t aged as well as others, but as one of the most popular comedies of its era, it gives a good sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the form. From there, proceed to the spinoff The Great Gildersleeve. Also worth checking out: Vic And Sade, which TV critic Jaime Weinman has praised as the equivalent of today’s single-camera comedies for radio, with “no jokey jokes, no audience laughter, and a subtle performing style.”

The Internet is also home to numerous tributes to old-time radio performed in a modern idiom. The best place to start is The Thrilling Adventure Hour, a monthly Los Angeles stage show filled with current TV and film actors and stand-up comedians. The show, which has developed a following as a podcast, is the closest thing to an actual old-time radio show being produced, complete with a cheering live audience.

From there, poke around the Internet for more interesting programs; the items discussed here are merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s available. There’s far more old-time radio than any one person could listen to in several decades, and what’s out there extends beyond scripted fare to vintage music, news, and specials. All provide a snapshot of a country struggling with its ascent to the world stage, and many feature contemporary thinkers like Will Rogers, who combined his folksy comedy with substantial political messages.

Where not to start: Though it remains one of the best-known shows of the era, Amos ’N’ Andy will be shocking to modern ears for its racist stereotypes of two black men (played by two white men). There’s an argument to be made that the program earnestly attempted to depict the sorts of struggles black people of the time faced as the population increasingly moved to Northern cities, but the caricaturing overwhelms any redeeming qualities.