Are you scrounging around for ways to entertain yourself or your family these days?
Have you ever tried listening to radio dramas?
You could say they’re a bit like podcasts.
Radio dramas produced during the so-called golden age of radio were the mass entertainment shows of their day, with network and sponsor backing, popular radio actors and audience choice awards, before the widespread adoption of television in America and elsewhere. Then video killed the radio star, or at least caused grievous bodily harm.
This blog post is about that golden age, “old time radio” or OTR – particularly American radio drama shows produced and originally aired between the 1930s and very early 1960s.
You do not need to have been alive during that time period to find these shows still enjoyable. You don’t need to be American. I wasn’t alive when these shows first aired. I am not American. I still find the shows enjoyable.
I am well aware that there were radio dramas produced in other countries, and there are radio dramas still produced today in many countries. That is wonderful. But this post is not about that.
Sometimes the audio quality of available OTR episode copies is less than ideal, although often it is quite good. Please remember that you will be listening to dramas originally recorded sixty or more years ago, and very few people at the time would have believed that their work would still be entertaining people in the 21st century. Numerous shows and episodes seem to have been lost entirely to time. What we have left we’re lucky to have.
You may also encounter content that is no longer considered socially acceptable as you delve into these historical shows. Society changes, all the time. Consider the popular social history a bonus alongside the entertainment value I hope these shows deliver for you.
I am focussing my recommendations towards the lighter and more comedy-oriented shows, given the unusual circumstances and stresses with which many of us find ourselves living with at this time. While there are several excellent horror, science fiction, and ‘thriller’ oriented shows dating from the golden age of American radio, I suspect most of you would rather not add tension to your lives today.
A quick search in your internet browser of choice will likely bring up links to downloads of the following shows.
Without further ado…
Ten Potentially Entertaining OTR Shows to sample:
The Jack Benny Programme – This sitcom (with musical and sketch interludes) was on the radio in various formats for two decades, starting in the 1930s. Jack Benny, by many accounts a progressive and generous man in ‘real’ life, came to play a vain cheapskate version of himself on the show. The comic timing of the regular cast on this show is wonderful, and the writing (and the improvisation) was often fantastic too. Sometimes, they would “recreate” popular movies – with often hilarious results. The programme transitioned to television in the early 1950s and originally ran on TV until the mid 1960s.
Lux Radio Theatre – Thinking of popular movie recreations on the radio, Lux Radio Theater became known for its hour-long condensations of popular films, often able to include original cast members. Sometimes they had other celebrities fill in for original cast members who were not available. Why did this programme make sense? Because no one could rent, borrow, PVR, or stream their favourite movies.
Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar – “the transcribed adventures of the man with the action-packed expense account – America’s fabulous freelance insurance investigator.” The day the last new episode of this show aired is often cited as the day that the golden age of radio ended. Several actors played the titular role over it’s thirteen or so years, but the best remembered episodes are those led by Bob Bailey. These were serialized stories over 15-minute daily episodes stretching a week at a time, as Dollar the insurance investigator solved some crime or other for his company, sometimes ‘travelling’ to ‘exotic’ places such as Hong Kong and South Africa. Many of the stories concluded with an itemized accounting of expenses, which allows us to hear what certain things cost back in the 1950s.
Fibber McGee and Molly – A real-life husband and wife team brought this situational comedy to the air, with ‘Fibber’ as a lazy braggart, accompanied by a reoccurring ensemble cast, running gags, and Molly the long-suffering but indulgent wife.
The Six Shooter – A western series starring James Stewart as a wandering cowhand and gunfighter. There is a rumour that Stewart refused sponsorship for the program from a cigarette company, and that is why it only ran one season. It’s a shame no other sponsor was found, because many of the episodes of this show are exciting and enthralling, with Stewart’s vocal acting style perfect for the setting. It is also an often-humorous series, although some episodes are more serious than others.
Vic and Sade – This is a strange show. Another situational comedy, this one is less obviously funny than the others – it finds humour in the strange every-day of a married couple living in a small city with their adopted son and uncle. It seems to be a love-it-or-don’t-get-it kind of show. Maybe you’ll ‘get’ it. I’m still not sure I do.
Gang Busters – Starting in the mid-1930s, this was a “true-crime” series dramatizing case files from police departments all over the US. I have always wondered how much of an influence this show had on the creation of Dragnet, the show generally considered the grand-daddy of all TV cop procedurals in America, which debuted on radio in the late 1940s. Dragnet has sometimes funny moments, but the Gang Busters episodes I’ve heard haven’t been particularly funny. Still, if you’re a fan of true crime and procedurals, you might want to check these two shows out.
Our Miss Brooks – Starring the sardonic Eve Arden as an unmarried high school teacher, this radio show would transition onto television successfully and eventually led to a movie of the same name. On the radio, Miss Brooks lives with her weird landlady (and her landlady’s cat), often unintentionally causes the overbearing high school principal trouble, and pines for the dreamy but oblivious-to-her-interest science teacher, while also struggling to educate her pupils. She can’t be a very good teacher, as it seems her class never graduates, but the character of Miss Brooks, an intelligent, educated, sympathetic working woman who generally speaks her mind, is considered to have been ground-breaking in her time.
Challenge of the Yukon (AKA Sgt. Preston of the Yukon) – Set in, yes, Canada’s Yukon, this series leaned towards a younger audience, with rather simplistic plots and characterizations. Not a western because it’s a northern, episodes follow Sgt. Preston (of the North-West Mounted) as he tracks down various criminals in the snowy north, with the help of his sidekick, the wonder dog King. Blizzards abound.
Richard Diamond, Private Detective – Yet another radio show which transitioned to television, radio’s Richard Diamond was played by multi-talented performer and film star Dick Powell, and while a detective show, episodes often veered towards outright silliness. In one episode one of Diamond’s neighbours is so thoroughly exasperated by Diamond’s musical performances, he hires a thug to stop him from singing. Another episode has Diamond tasked with guarding a seal. Other episodes are played almost straight, although most end with Powell singing.
This list is incomplete, I could go on, but these shows should serve as a decent introduction to what OTR has to offer.
Please let me know if you give any of these shows a listen, and leave a comment with your recommendations if you are already a fan of old time radio shows. Thank you.