30 September 2012

The Day the Spoken Word Died

Fifty years ago tonight, the world changed forever: On this date came the end of the last two radio shows we in America consider part of the "Golden Age" of vintage radio drama and comedy. Just like vaudeville before it and silent film before that, the world saw the end of one extremely popular form of entertainment as it was replaced by another (in this case, television).

While radio broadcasts had been around for several years, commercial broadcasting did not begin until 1920. The few stations that existed during that time had little idea of what to broadcast -- music being one of the first ideas. Stations began experimenting with other subjects, broadcasting radio versions of popular plays, then original plays, finally coming up with the concept of the variety show (some music, some spoken works). Programming continued erratically for most of the decade.

With the advent of the 1930s (and the conveniently timed Depression), radio content exploded. Families unable to afford other forms of entertainment saved their scarce money and purchased a radio -- the source of otherwise free entertainment as well as much-needed news and contact with the rest of the country.

The period from roughly 1930 to roughly 1955 is considered radio's Golden Age. Literally thousands of actors from vaudeville began appearing on radio, with a not-insignificant number becoming huge stars, helping to redefine the idea of "entertainment." The power of radio was unquestionably understood the night of 30 October 1938 with the airing of the innocent (but quickly infamous) dramatization of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" by the then-scarcely-known (but quickly infamous) Orson Welles.

By then, radio was certainly ubiquitous: news, sports, weather, farm reports, music -- as well as the more famous comedies and dramas -- were everywhere. Newspapers feared for their survival owing to the reductions in revenue as advertisers moved their money to the juggernaut that was radio.

(Other countries, as well, hopped on the radio bandwagon with productions in England, France, Germany, Australia and many others.)

Radio grew up with the advent of war (Edward R. Murrow's broadcasts from war-torn Britain). Radio played two major roles in the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor: the Japanese bombers pinpointed Hawaii from far out in the ocean by latching onto the broadcasts of a Hawaii radio station; and radio brought the first news of the attack to America and the world.

Inevitably, television became the dominant entertainment medium in the home, and radio slowly faded away -- although quite a number of early television programs were versions of popular radio shows. For example, the most popular comedy on television ever, "I Love Lucy," was a variant of Lucille Ball's popular radio program "My Favorite Husband."

After the end of the Golden Age, there were attempts to bring back radio drama in America including the unsuccessful Theater Five (1964–1965), and the highly successful CBS Radio Mystery Theater (1974–1982).

While such a wealth of radio drama and comedy will never be prominent in America again, we can still enjoy the richness of radio owing to transcription disks capturing performances (to be broadcast at "this more convenient time"); and many groups and clubs that occasionally produce live-versions of vintage radio or even new scripts.

For your enjoyment, here are the final episodes of "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar" and "Suspense" that aired 50 years ago tonight:

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