It Wasn’t Talk Radio
I grew up in the ’60s. Not really so long ago, at least to me. Radio’s heyday as the main entertainment medium was long gone. Radio played music then, mostly Top 40, and mostly on the AM band. There may have been an FM band, I’m sure there was, but as kids on the playground, we only owned small handheld transistor radios that picked up AM. Even our cars came with AM as a standard feature. You wanted FM you paid more.
At the time we thought transistor radios were pretty cool technology. (This was many years before advent of the boombox, Sony Walkman, or iPod.) We could listen to our favorite Top 40 station, in my case WOKY the Mighty 92 in Milwaukee, and hear coming out of it’s tiny 2 inch speaker, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, Beach Boys, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and all the other bands of the original British Invasion.
I grew up equating radio strictly with music and DJ chatter (“Talk Radio” as it exists now wasn’t even heard of. Back then they had talk shows like “Ask Your Neighbor,” where people called in to ask a question that would, with luck, be answered by someone else who knew the answer. Absolutely riveting.). If we wanted entertainment, we turned on the television. We’d sit in front of the glowing box and watch all four stations (five if you counted Public Television) for hours. I grew up knowing only that television had “shows” and radio played music.
My parents, on the other hand, spoke of radio almost reverently. They told of how radio used to play “shows” just like television does now. My dad mentioned things like The Shadow, this mysterious character who laughed and said things like “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” He’d describe this closet of Fibber McGee’s that was crammed with all sorts of junk and whenever it was opened it would all fall out with humor results. He’d tell of being scared witless by shows like the Inner Sanctum. These horror shows were hosted by what would be the precursor to Zacherley, Elvira and Milwaukee’s own Dr. Cadaverino, and which continues today with Chicago’s Svengoolie.
But the really weird part was my parents would sit and listen to these shows, but there was no picture! They just sort of looked at the radio, I guess. This was inconceivable to me, probably as inconceivable as my own childhood without microwaves, cable TV, calculators, video games, cellphones, or computers seems to kids today. Geez, do I feel old!
“Where were the pictures?” I’d ask. “In your mind,” my dad replied. I thought he was pulling my leg.
Discovering Theater of the Mind
It wasn’t until years later, when I actually heard my first OTR broadcast, that I understood. I was listening to music on a local rock station, WZMF 98.6 FM, when they started to broadcast an episode of The Shadow. I sat listening to it almost mesmerized and when it was over, I was hooked.
Every Sunday evening I’d rush to my room, turn out the lights, turn on the radio, and listen to the theater of the mind, as I imagine my parents had 30 years previously when they were kids.
After a while, I started collecting episodes of OTR. But this was in the day of vinyl records and cassettes. Depending on the length of the program you could fit two episodes on a record, one per side. My copy of War of the Worlds is on a double album. Collecting OTR was expensive and hard to come by in those days.
Today we have the Internet and websites dedicated to Old Time Radio that allow you to listen to various episodes. You can purchase CDs filled with hundreds of MP3 recordings. Entire seasons are available on a single disc. Collecting is affordable and convenient and OTR geeks like me are more excited about their passion now then ever. All it takes is a simple Google of OTR or Old Time Radio for the fun to begin.
My intention with this series of blogs about OTR is to pass on this interest to others, to new generations. If I can just spark the interest in one of you to rediscover these wonderful tales of the imagination then I’ll have succeeded in that mission. At the moment I have four blogs prepared to post and will do so over the next several days. More blogs on OTR can be expected in the future as newly discovered radio programs inspire me. I hope you enjoy reading these as much as I enjoy writing them.
And with the current writer’s strike in Hollywood, now is the perfect time to rediscover these gems of a bygone day.