Golden age of radio, from Orson Welles and FDR to ‘Serial’

On. Oct. 30, 1938, America was rocked by shocking news: Aliens had been spotted crash-landing outside Grover’s Mill, NJ Additional sightings were soon made across the Northeast, including reports of Martians unleashing poisonous gas on Manhattan and burning onlookers alive with ray guns . Periodically, the breathless news reports would be reduced to static.

Listeners reacted in real time; many of them flooded the streets wearing gas masks and wet towels over their faces. Stores were raided, bridges and expressways were inundated with traffic, and pregnant women reportedly went into early labor.

Of course, the alien invasion never actually happened. The news bulletins were part of a live Halloween program, a young producer and a cast of talented actors were presenting over the radio. The producer was 23-year-old Orson Welles, and the name of the episode was “War of the Worlds.” The HG Wells-adapted story had been produced for radio as part of Welles’s regular Sunday night broadcast, “The Mercury Theater on the Air” — a program that had hitherto been largely ignored, as it was up against a wildly popular variety show starring comedians Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

Only this Sunday was different, as millions of Americans who had tuned in to listen to Bergen and McCarthy changed their dials when the duo introduced a guest opera singer. “No one was in the mood for opera that night, and much of the country stumbled onto Welles’s broadcast by mistake, not knowing the news bulletins they heard were part of a radio drama,” explained Carl Amari, a syndicated radio host and the founder. of Radio Spirits, a large distributor of classic radio programs.

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The resulting panic prompted a Federal Communications Commission investigation, changed the way studios used “news flash” bulletins on fictional radio programs, and launched the film career of the previously undiscovered Welles. Shortly afterward, Welles landed an unprecedented movie contract, and two years later he gave the world “Citizen Kane.”

“Something like that could only happen during the golden age of radio,” said Murray Horwitz, a Tony Award-winning playwright and the host and co-producer of NPR’s “The Big Broadcast.” He added, “The ’30s through mid-’50s are the one time when the whole nation gathered together and listened to the same programs every night. People believed the news and shared in a collective experience like never before or since.”

Until now, that is. The audience numbers might not quite match those of the mid-20th century, but with more Americans than ever listening to audiobooks and podcasts, audio-only formats have made a massive comeback in recent years, suggesting we might be entering a second golden age of radio — or at least audio.

Podcasts such as “Serial,” “The Daily,” “The Shrink Next Door” and “This American Life” have “revitalized audio storytelling,” said Susy Schultz, a radio historian and the former executive director at the Museum of Broadcast Communications — in addition to being very lucrative for some of their creators.

And podcasts and audiobooks are only the beginning. Immersive audio-only works of fiction like “The Sandman” and true-crime dramas such as “Killing Hollywood: The Cotton Club Murder,” have proven compelling enough to entice stars back to the forgotten medium. Nick Jonas lent his voice to him last year to Apple’s “Calls,” while Kate Winslet, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Lee Curtis and Meryl Streep have all read iconic roles for Audible.

Actor John Lithgow, who recently narrated Audible Original “The Guilty,” said, “Audio dramas today are reviving the great golden age of the ’30s and ’40s, when radio was right up there with movies as an essential entertainment.”

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But in today’s splintered media environment, it’s hard to wrap our minds around just how dominant the leading radio shows were three-quarters of a century ago. By 1940, the Census Bureau estimates, 82.8 percent of American households owned a radio, many of which tuned into the same programs day and night.

Evenings were family affairs, when parents and children gathered around the radio to listen to the latest episode of “Suspense,” “Lux Radio Theater,” “Sherlock Holmes” or the comedy of Bob Hope. Many women kept their afternoons open for their favorite soap operas, and children raced home from school to see if Dick Tracy had gotten his man from him.

“The percentage of Americans who listened to almost any radio program of the time is vastly greater than anything the country is watching on Netflix today,” said Jim Carlton, interim director of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

“The progression of modern American entertainment all came about through radio,” said Neil Grauer, a radio historian and writer based in Baltimore. Radio paved the way for sketch comedy shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” evening talk programs such as “The Tonight Show,” modern soap operas and sports broadcasts. It also ushered in countless technological advancements, government oversight divisions such as the FCC, and some of today’s major media organizations. Many of the most beloved television shows of the 1950s through the 1980s began on radio, such as “Perry Mason,” “Whose Line Is It Anyway,” “Gunsmoke,” “Adventures of Superman” and “I Love Lucy.”

“Before radio, if you wanted entertainment you had to go to a local dance, a vaudeville house, the movie theater or gather around a player piano,” Horwitz said. “After radio, everyone was able to be entertained within the walls of their own home.”

Audiences tuned in not just for entertainment, but to connect with their favorite stars. “Anybody who was anybody was on the radio,” Amari said. The list includes Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Judy Garland, Cary Grant, Gene Kelly and Shirley Temple. It was a different time, when actors weren’t chasing individual paydays but worked on salary.

“Everyone in the business was under contract with a studio,” Amari explained. Because pay was salaried, actors would be “loaned out” to radio shows between movies to promote their work and build star power.

Radio was, after all, where the people were. “You have to remember that the 1930s was dominated by the Great Depression and that radio was a cheap form of entertainment when people couldn’t afford to go out,” Schultz said.

When Americans weren’t catching up with movie stars, they were listening to the president guide them through trying times. “It is difficult to overstate the impact Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘Fireside Chats’ had on the American public,” said David Childs, a professor of history and social studies at Northern Kentucky University. Childs said that 58 percent of the country listened to the president’s messages about World War II.

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But just as “shock jocks” and controversial podcasters have been blamed for spreading hate and misinformation in recent years, Roosevelt had to compete with his share of bad actors. Father Charles Coughlin, with about 30 million listeners, frequently blamed Jews for Nazi violence until networks made him tone down his rhetoric. Famous aviator Charles Lindbergh also used the medium to dish out antisemitic commentary and denouncements of the president and the war.

As radio audiences grew, advertisers paid attention. “Anywhere there’s a large audience, advertisers follow,” Schultz said. Indeed, despite the Depression, advertisers kept increasing their spending on the medium, according to the Library of Congress. “Many radio shows in the 1930s were in fact produced by ad agencies who put together their own radio production departments,” said Susan Douglas, a media professor at the University of Michigan and the author of “Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination. ”

Until the technology to prerecord broadcasts was developed and perfected in the mid-1950s, most programs had to broadcast live. That resulted in countless on-air mispronunciations, sound effect mishaps and fits of laughter, in addition to profanities and innuendos that would have otherwise been edited out during the more prudish era. For instance, actress Mae West ran afoul of the FCC when, while doing a bit on a comedy show opposite a ventriloquist dummy, she explained in her rich, hallmark voice of her: “Come on home with me, honey. I’ll let you play in my wood pile.”

Scripted or unscripted, listeners were swept away. “People’s imaginations run wild when they’re relying on only one of the five senses,” Carlton said. “Listening is more stimulating and immersive than a book because there are sound effects and music in addition to words and the audience is filling in every blank mentally.” Paradoxically, I added, “it’s the most visual of all the mediums.”

Daryl Austin is a journalist based in Utah. His work by him has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, National Geographic and Bloomberg News.

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