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The glory days of radio

Guide to classic radio is full of fascinating trivia and backstage intrigue

Created date

March 22nd, 2018

Decades ago, before podcasts and smartphones, before cable TV and streaming services, entire families would gather around the big radio cabinet in the living room and listen.   

Some evenings, they tuned into NBC to hear ventriloquist Edgar Bergen trade barbs with his “dummies” Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, and Effie Klinker on The Chase and Sanborn Hour, later known as The Charlie McCarthy Show. It was the most popular radio program in the mid-1930s.

Other nights, people laughed at the exploits of two middle-aged vagabonds, Fibber McGee and Molly on The Johnson Wax Program.

Listeners hung on every newly discovered clue in The Shadow. They rooted for detective Dick Tracy to bring a cavalcade of colorful villains to justice. They marveled at the powers of Superman and danced to the latest popular songs on Your Hit Parade.

A new coffee table book by Carl Amari and Martin Grams, Jr., The Top 100 Classic Radio Shows (Portable Press, 2017), explores all the hits from the bygone era when radio ruled the airwaves. As the introduction states, “That magical little wooden box seemed to create a new world of music, talk, comedy, and drama—out of thin air. During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, radio had a revolutionary impact on American society.”

Carl Amari is the host and producer of the nationally syndicated radio shows Hollywood 360 and The WGN Radio Theatre. His coauthor, Martin Grams, Jr., is also an avid radio fan as well as a noted media historian and author of over 30 books.

As the introduction explains, “Through archives, personal interviews, and papers of those involved with programming during the golden age of radio, this book is the culmination of three decades of hard work, long trips, thousands of hours of scanning photographs, and licensing the broadcasts.”

With the turn of each page, readers find unique insights and background information for 100 classic radio programs.

As a bonus, the book comes with three compact discs featuring classics like The Eddie Cantor Show, Dimension X, Gunsmoke, Our Miss Brooks, Suspense, and The Cavalcade of America. In addition, the book provides links to 75 more shows you can download for free.

Serious business

Radio programs weren’t all fun and games. Some like Big Town sought to tackle important social issues. Big Town focused on Steve Wilson, an idealistic newspaper editor and his society editor sidekick, Lorelei. When the program started in 1937, film star Edward G. Robinson played Steve, with Clare Trevor playing Lorelei.

The program took on some tough issues of the day including political corruption, racial injustice, and juvenile delinquency. As the book recounts, when an episode dealing with child abuse was in the works, CBS censors vetoed a scene depicting a child being beaten. Lever Brothers, the program’s sponsor overruled the network censors and the scene was broadcast as intended. It was the first time in broadcast history that a sponsor reversed the network censors’ call.

Big Town was enormously popular, drawing an audience of 10 million to 20 million listeners over its 15-year run on radio. It later became a television program, inspired four feature films, and spawned a comic book series in the 1950s.

Commercials

There’s a reason why an entire generation automatically associates Ovaltine with Little Orphan Annie. During the height of the Great Depression, it took real effort to get cash-strapped parents to buy something as unnecessary as chocolate flavoring for milk, so Ovaltine, sponsor of the Little Orphan Annie radio program, pulled out all the stops. In fact, scripts for the program were written by advertising agency staff.

According to The Top 100 Classic Radio Shows, “no radio program in history devoted more airtime to sponsor copy than Little Orphan Annie—as much as 7 minutes for every 15-minute broadcast” was spent pushing Ovaltine.

The show was broadcast in the afternoon, so children raced home from school so they wouldn’t miss Annie’s latest adventure. The time spent hawking Ovaltine paid off when children started begging their parents to buy Ovaltine.

Once the company started offering premiums like special cups, secret decoder rings, and badges, Ovaltine sales grew even more.

Legacy

By the 1960s, the biggest stars and programs moved from radio to television. Father Knows Best, Our Miss Brooks, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza were TV shows that started as radio programs.

Not surprisingly, some classic radio stars had a dim view of the new medium. Wry comic Fred Allen joined the exodus to television but wasn’t shy about expressing his disdain. “Television,” he said, “is a device that permits people who haven’t anything to do to watch people who can’t do anything.”

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