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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: When Radio Was King

By Tom Morrow

During the thirties and forties there was nothing more powerful in communications than radio, both for information and entertainment.

Radio was a medium where fading movie stars could find refuge; where unknown actors could find a job; and stage performers could earn enough until their next big break. At one time, the legendary Orson Wells starred on three separate programs, (one was “The Shadow), rushing back and forth to the various studios in an ambulance with screaming siren in order to navigate the New York City traffic.

Unlike today, where much of the television entertainment is produced and controlled by production companies in Hollywood, most of the thirties and forties radio programs were produced in New York City.

It’s hard to put a figure on just which genre was the most popular. Radios during the thirties and the forties primarily were tuned to myriad of comedy and mystery programs. And, for the kids there were a number of serial programs that ensured youngsters were home by 4:30 p.m. to listen to “Straight Arrow,” “Sky King,” “The Lone Ranger,” and “Little Orphan Annie,” to name but a few. Getting kids in front of the radio in the late afternoon made sure we were home for dinner (supper in the Mid-West).

Monday through Friday daytimes were dedicated primarily to housewives. Throughout the day the serialized lives of “Stella Dallas,” “Lorenzo Jones,” “One Man’s Family,” “Ma Perkins,” “Front Page Farrell,” and dozens more kept wives company while they did their ironing, sewing, and prepared for the evening meal.

Two things essential for the American home during evenings of the thirties and forties was the radio and the evening newspaper. Dad would come home and after the evening meal he would sit down to his paper while listening to the evening news presented by commentators such as Morgan Beatty, H.B. Kaltenbourne, and Gabriel Heater. Afterward, the family would gather around the radio to listen to evening programming. Kaltenbourne would begin his program by declaring the mood of the broadcast by saying: “Ah, friends, there’s grave (good) news tonight!”

Two genres dominated the evening radio entertainment: comedy/musical shows and mystery/drama. These programs were among the most popular in history and a few survived over to television in the late forties and into the fifties. “Fibber McGee & Molly” was one of the stalwarts of evening comedy, as was “The Fred Allen Show,” “Jack Benny,” “Bob Hope,” “Al Jolson,” “Henry Aldrich,” “The Great Gildersleeve,” “Baby Snooks,” (with Fanny Brice), “Lum & Abner,” “Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy.” Probably the most popular program of the week was the “Amos ‘n’ Andy Show.” It was so popular movie theaters would stop their films and amplify the program throughout the auditorium so patrons would miss hearing the latest episode. Ironically, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” were two white guys posing as African-Americans in comedic situations. Present-day that show would probably end up in civil court with myriad of lawsuits.

For mysteries and drama, during the thirties, forties and well into the fifties, shows came and went with a few lasting all the way through the golden years of radio and onto television. “Damon Runyon Theater,” The Lux Radio Theater,” Orson Wells’ “Mercury Theater” (where he frightened the nation with his infamous “War of the Worlds” on Halloween), “Johnny Dollar,” “Sam Spade,” “The Shadow,” “Phillip Marlowe,” “The FBI in Peace & War,” “The Falcon,” “Gangbusters,” were among the dozens of crime-fighting presentations.

There were a few game shows such as “Doctor I.Q.,” “Truth or Consequences,” “People Are Funny.”

Radio transformed the nation. President Franklin Roosevelt was the first chief executive to take advantage of the medium. Knowing how most families across America would be around their radios in the evening, FDR held regular “Fireside Chats” with the nation. He’d go directly into the homes with his message, rather than trust newspapers to properly deliver the information.
This short space is designed to whet the appetite of readers wanting history on this wonderful period in our history. Libraries and the Internet have myriad of books on this subject.


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