One of the common tropes among bloggers and media critics is that TV today is bloody trash, and the radio shows from the 1930s – 1950s were “quality stuff”. Look at any newspaper, magazine, or blog page and you see it all. The critics trash the primetime shows, or the new fare offered up by the networks, and then there’s a longing for the Good Old Days of The Rifleman, Johnny Dollar or the Shadow.
Over the last few years, I have done an informal survey of Old Time Radio. I’ve listened to CBS Radio Mystery Theater, Dragnet, Crypt Theater, Inner Sanctum, The Hermit, and all the other shows in between. The inescapable conclusion that I have reached is that contrary to popular opinion, the radio shows of yesteryear were actually much more horrific than the TV of today!
Frankly, that should not be surprising! Consider the fact that the first regular radio entertainment broadcasts started only in 1922. The Radio Act didn’t come along until 1927, and the Communications Act (which created the FCC) wasn’t enacted until 1934, with the “Fairness Doctrine” not made law until fifteen years later in 1949. So, essentially, radio made its own laws and operated in a form of ‘trial and error’ year after year. This meant that the entertainment needed only to have two goals: provide entertainment, and sell advertising!
From Captain Midnight to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, to hardboiled detective Philip Marlow, to the equally hard-bitten Danny Clover. Anything that could entice the listeners was open to the microphone, and commercials for Ovaltine, Wheaties, Ralston, Roma Wine, and Carter’s Little Liver Pills stepped up and offered the advertising revenue. With such funding, further shows came such as Popeye, Superman, and other figures from the comics pages such as Little Orphan Annie and even Archie. Radio was limited only by the imaginations of the listeners and the broadcasters, and so the shows not only continued but expanded in all directions. Some of them went down some very dark paths.
One of those shows was called Box 13, and dealt with a freelance detective who invited people with unspeakable troubles to write to his post office box. I listened to that show recently, and was astonished at the level of horror involved. One of the broadcasts detailed how the detective was gassed and then forced to engage in identity theft for a wealthy but insane heir. The P.I. was locked into the asylum where the real heir (recently murdered) was kept. A breakout was then arranged, with the dead man given the clothes and papers of the detective! A “shoot on sight” order was issued by the authorities.
Now, does that sound like “quality entertainment”?
Or then there was the story of the husband and wife on the top of the Empire State Building at the height of World War II. As they gaze over the city they realize that all of New York has become silent, and the electricity has gone off. After descending via the stairs to the street, they find the entire city empty of people. When their panic wears off, they come to the conclusion that God has grown sick of the war and death and “cleared off the Earth”. Only a few are left to start over.
Shades of the “Left Behind” series, or George R. Stewart’s seminal book, Earth Abides! It was actually rather scary to listen to, even seventy years later.
Or then there was the tale of the man who turned his entire house into one big deathtrap. Rooms were equipped with poison gas, pits with sharp spikes, poisoned darts, vats of acid, or suffocation chambers. When one of the intended victims asked why he was doing it, the man replied, “I’m a murderer; it’s what I do.” Banal evil, nothing more. Hardly quality fare, and something that could only be done in a film or on cable today.
One thing I will say is that the advertising from the Golden Age was a lot more tasteful. Rather than the inane comparison tests used today, the usual fare consisted of an announcer plainly praising the product in question. His or her voice was polite, and did not shout. Advertisers today, please take note!
So, the Golden Age of radio is no different than the pleasant reminiscing for the Good Old Days which I covered in a prior blog. Were the shows back then good, yes? But they were just as treacherous and filled with danger as the shows of today.
Perhaps in another fifty years, the shows of today will be called the Golden Age of Cable, and another generation of oldsters will pleasantly reminisce about Mad Men and Game of Thrones!