We're finally back with another History of Radio post! This time, we're talking all about old-time radio: more commonly known as the Golden Age of Radio.
Radio is still a popular mode of mass communication today, but there was a time when it dominated world culture. Before TV and the internet, radio was the predominant electronic home entertainment medium. Not only is old-time radio a specific time period - it can also be used to describe certain pieces of radio technology, broadcast networks, and popular shows which entertained our ancestors.
While the era of old-time radio is long gone, it hasn't been forgotten. After all, if we didn't go through the Golden Age of Radio, perhaps radio wouldn't be the enduring medium it is today. So, let's get into more about old-time radio.
When Was the Golden Age of Radio?
Short answer: radio's golden age took place roughly between the early 1920s until around the 1950s, when television started to become the norm.
Long answer: the Golden Age of Radio began right after Guglielmo Marconi, who is considered the father of modern radio, conducted an experiment where he was able to transmit radio signals across the Atlantic Ocean (from St. John's, Newfoundland to Cornwall, England).
Before then, early 1900s people just saw radio as something the radio nerds, known as "hams," loved to play around with. After Marconi's achievement in 1901, people realized the practical applications of radio. Even more, they realized the field was full of so much potential. In 1906, Reginald Fessenden improved upon Marconi's work by producing a voice radio broadcast for sailors in the Atlantic on Christmas Eve. It wasn't long until AM radio was invented, and the first proper radio station, KDKA, came about in 1920. Once they were up and running, the public was hooked.
At first, radio receivers were crude, insensitive, clunky, and complicated by design. It wasn't something the layperson was meant to understand. But by the 1920s and 30s, radios became smaller, sleeker, and easier to maneuver. Superhet radios in particular rose in popularity to combat the messiness of crystal sets. The triode and regenerative circuit made amplified, vacuum tube radios widely available to consumers by the second half of the 1920s. There was an obvious advantage: several people in a home could now easily listen to their radio set at the same time. You can see how a vacuum tube radio called the Crosley worked in the video below.
In March 10, 1922 - just over 100 years ago - Variety carried the front-page headline: "Radio Sweeping Country: 1,000,000 Sets in Use." By the late 1920s, practically every family had a radio in their home.
After consumers adopted the radio and government regulation was put in place, broadcast networks were the last piece of the puzzle to make old-time radio as booming as it was. Radio needed distribution: the ability for multiple radio stations to simultaneously broadcast the same content.
This problem would be solved with the concept of a radio network. The earliest radio programs of the 1920s were largely unsponsored; radio stations were just services designed to sell radio receivers. By early 1922, AT&T announced the beginning of advertisement-supported broadcasting on its owned stations, and plans were put forth for the development of the first radio network using its telephone lines to transmit the content.
But by July 1926, AT&T abruptly exited the broadcasting field, and signed an agreement to sell its entire network operations to a group headed by the Radio Corporation of America. RCA used the assets to form the National Broadcasting Company. Four major radio networks had formed by 1934: NBC Red, NBC Blue (which would later become ABC), Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and the Mutual Broadcasting System (Mutual). Yes, the only one of those networks that died out was the last one. The rest of those networks you probably know from television!
Why were broadcast networks important to old-time radio? Well, they made individual radio stations realize they could easily share the cost of providing programs to an audience as a part of a broader network service with national appeal. Featuring programs from a network on your station gave it more credibility. Plus, radio networks were organized very well. They provided quality content with guest stars - people like comedians, singers, storytellers - that listeners wanted to hear. Broadcast networks were just like television channels...only for the ears!
Programming & Popular Shows
So, what kind of things did people listen to on their radios between the early 1920s through the 50s? Before Top 40 became all the rage, programs audiences could listen to included news broadcasts and live events, just like today. But there were also some programs not so popular today which dominated old-time radio airwaves. They included live musical features, comedy specials, soap operas, children's programming, plays, and even game shows.
Some programs were more notable than others. Between 1933 to 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the United States during evening programs called Fireside chats. Roosevelt spoke with familiarity to millions of Americans about recovery from the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II. It helped his audience persevere through tough times. Roosevelt was able to speak through all of the major broadcast networks, and the chats were among the first 50 recordings made part of the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
Another defining program of old-time radio was the 1938 "War of the Worlds" episode of the drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was directed and narrated by actor and future Citizen Kane filmmaker Orson Welles as an adaptation of H. G. Wells's 1896 novel, also titled The War of the Worlds. The episode was performed and broadcast live as a Halloween special at 8pm on Sunday, October 30, 1938, over the CBS radio network. The episode became famous for causing panic among its listeners, as some people believed aliens were actually taking over the world! Although, scholars nowadays say the hysteria wasn't as widespread as some history books claim. Still, news of the panic made it to the front page of The New York Times!
Afternoon soap operas such as Ma Perkins and The Guiding Light had a big fanbase with housewives. Children listened to the adventure series Little Orphan Annie and the science-fiction show Flash Gordon. As for the most popular radio show ever broadcast, Amos ’n’ Andy, an evening situation comedy, lasted more than 30 years. It even had a brief stint on television when the Golden Age of Radio began to fade away.
During American radio’s Golden Age, much of the programming heard by listeners was controlled by advertising agencies. They created the shows, hired the talent and staff - often booking performers directly from the old vaudeville theatre circuit - and leased airtime and studio facilities from radio networks. When you think of the "behind-the-scenes" aspects of these radio shows, many people think of actors and foley artists all standing together in one room, working on characters' dialogue and sound effects together. Below is a video from the 1930s which demonstrates how recording sessions of audio plays would go about.
There are so many more old-time radio shows and aspects we would love to talk about, but we think it's much better for you to listen to it yourself than for us to keep prattling. Check out the old time radio stations on Live365 to listen to some audio dramas, songs that would play during radio's golden age, period-inspired advertisements, and more!
- Sayles, Ron. Old-Time Radio Digest, Volume 2009, number 51.
- History of the Radio Receiver - electronicsnotes.com
- The Golden Age of American Radio - Brittanica
- Golden Age of American Radio - Brittanica
- The Myth of the War of the Worlds Panic - Slate
Check out our selection of free stations streaming old-time radio music and programs at Live365.com.
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