Old-Time Radio (OTR) and the Golden Age of Radio refer to a period of radio programming lasting from the proliferation of radio broadcasting in the early 1920s until television's replacement of radio as the dominant home entertainment medium in the late 1950s and early 1960s. During this period, when radio was dominant and the airwaves were filled with a variety of radio formats and genres, people regularly tuned in to their favorite radio programs. In fact, according to a 1947 C. E. Hooper survey, 82 out of 100 Americans were found to be radio listeners. The end of this period coincided with music radio becoming the dominant radio form and is often marked in the United States by the final CBS broadcasts of Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar on September 30, 1962.
On Christmas Eve, 1906, Reginald Fessenden sent the first radio program broadcast, which was made up of some violin playing and passages from the bible. At least one radio researcher has questioned whether this broadcast took place, because it was not mentioned in print until many years later. Then, after the Titanic catastrophe in 1912, radio for communications went into vogue. Radio was especially important during World War I, since it was vital for air and naval operations. In fact, World War I sped the development of radio by transitioning radio communications from the morse code of the wireless telegraph to the vocal communication of the wireless telephone through advancements in vacuum tube technology and the introduction of the transceiver.
After the war, numerous radio stations were born and set the standard for later radio programs. The first radio news program was broadcast on August 31, 1920 on the station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan. This was followed in 1920 with the first commercial radio station in the United States, KDKA, being established in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1922, the first regular entertainment programs were broadcast. A highlight of this time was the first Rose Bowl being broadcast on January 1, 1923 on the Los Angeles station KHJ.
In the late 1920s, the sponsored musical feature was the most popular program format. Commercial messages were regarded as intrusive, so these shows usually displayed the sponsor's name in the title, as evidenced by such programs as The A&P Gypsies, Acousticon Hour, Champion Spark Plug Hour, The Clicquot Club Eskimos, The Flit Soldiers, The Fox Fur Trappers, The Goodrich Zippers, The Ingram Shavers, The Ipana Troubadors, The Planters Pickers, The Silvertown Cord Orchestra (featuring the Silver Masked Tenor), The Sylvania Foresters and The Yeast Foamers. During the 1930s and 1940s, the leading orchestras were heard often through big band remotes, and NBC's Monitor continued such remotes well in the 1950s by broadcasting live music from New York City jazz clubs to rural America.
Classical music programs on the air included The Voice of Firestone and The Bell Telephone Hour. The Metropolitan Opera was also featured in weekly broadcasts of complete operas, then sponsored by Texaco. The broadcasts, now sponsored by the Toll Brothers, continue to this day on NPR and are one of the few examples of live classical music still broadcast on radio. One of the most notable of all classical music radio programs of the Golden Age of Radio featured the celebrated Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra, which had been created especially for him. At that time, nearly all classical musicians and critics considered Toscanini the greatest living maestro. There were also popular songwriters featured on radio, such as George Gershwin, who in addition to appearing as a guest, also had his own program in 1934.
Top comedy talents surfed the airwaves for many years: Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Victor Borge, Fanny Brice, Billie Burke, Bob Burns, Judy Canova, Jimmy Durante, Phil Harris, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Jean Shepherd, Red Skelton and Ed Wynn. More laughter was generated on such shows as Abbott and Costello, Amos 'n' Andy, Burns and Allen, Easy Aces, Ethel and Albert, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Goldbergs, The Great Gildersleeve, The Halls of Ivy (which featured screen star Ronald Colman and his wife Benita Hume), Meet Corliss Archer, Meet Millie, and Our Miss Brooks.
Radio comedy ran the gamut from the small town humor of Lum and Abner, Herb Shriner and Minnie Pearl to the dialect characterizations of Mel Blanc and the caustic sarcasm of Henry Morgan. Gags galore were delivered weekly on Stop Me If You've Heard This One and Can You Top This?, panel programs devoted to the art of telling jokes. Quiz shows were lampooned on It Pays to Be Ignorant, and other memorable parodies were presented by such satirists as Spike Jones, Stoopnagle and Budd, Stan Freberg and Bob and Ray. British comedy reached American shores in a major assault when NBC carried The Goon Show in the mid-1950s.
Some shows originated as stage productions: Clifford Goldsmith's play What a Life was reworked into NBC's popular, long-run The Aldrich Family (1939–1953) with the familiar catchphrases "Henry! Henry Aldrich!", followed by Henry's answer, "Coming, Mother!". Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway hit, You Can't Take It with You (1936), became a weekly situation comedy heard on Mutual (1944) with Everett Sloane and later on NBC (1951) with Walter Brennan.
Other shows were adapted from comic strips, such as Blondie, Dick Tracy, Gasoline Alley, The Gumps, Li'l Abner, Little Orphan Annie, Popeye the Sailor, Red Ryder, Reg'lar Fellers, Terry and the Pirates and Tillie the Toiler. Bob Montana's redheaded teen of comic strips and comic books was heard on radio's Archie Andrews from 1943 to 1953. The Timid Soul was a 1941–1942 comedy based on cartoonist H.T. Webster's famed Casper Milquetoast character, and Robert L. Ripley's Believe It or Not! was adapted to several different radio formats during the 1930s and 1940s.
When daytime serials began in the early 1930s (the first soap opera was introduced in 1930 on Chicago's WGN-AM), they became known as soap operas because many were sponsored by soap products and detergents. The line-up of late afternoon adventure serials included Bobby Benson and the B-Bar-B Riders, The Cisco Kid, Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy, Captain Midnight, and The Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters. Badges, rings, decoding devices and other radio premiums offered on these adventure shows were often allied with a sponsor's product, requiring the young listeners to mail in a box top from a breakfast cereal or other proof of purchase.
Outstanding radio dramas were presented on such programs as 26 by Corwin, NBC Short Story, Arch Oboler's Plays, Quiet, Please, and CBS Radio Workshop. Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre on the Air and Campbell Playhouse were considered by many critics to be the finest radio drama anthologies ever presented. They usually starred Welles in the leading role, along with celebrity guest stars such as Margaret Sullavan or Helen Hayes, in adaptations from literature, Broadway, and/or films. They included such titles as Liliom, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Lost Horizon, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It was on Mercury Theatre that Welles presented his celebrated-but-infamous adaptation of H.G. Wells's The War of the Worlds, formatted to sound like a breaking news program.
Lux Radio Theater and The Screen Guild Theater presented adaptations of Hollywood movies, performed before a live audience, usually with cast members from the original films. Suspense, Escape, The Mysterious Traveler and Inner Sanctum Mysteries were popular thriller anthology series. Leading writers who created original material for radio included Norman Corwin, Carlton E. Morse, David Goodis, Archibald MacLeish, Arthur Miller, Arch Oboler, Wyllis Cooper, Rod Serling and Irwin Shaw.
Recordings of radio programs were typically made at a radio network's studios, since the expense and expertise of making a recording was usually more than a local station was capable of handling. (Recordings required special equipment and trained technicians who had to monitor the recording while it was being made.) However, there are some surviving recordings produced by affiliate stations.
The Armed Forces Radio Services (AFRS) has its origins in the War Department's quest to improve troop morale. This quest began with short-wave broadcasts of educational and information programs to troops in 1940. In 1941, the War Department began issuing "Buddy Kits" (B-Kits) to departing troops, which comprised radios, 78 RPM shellac records, and electrical transcription disks of radio shows. However, with the entrance of the United States into World War II, the War Department decided that it needed to improve the quality and quantity of its offerings.
This began with the broadcasting of its own original variety programs. Command Performance became the first of these, when it was produced for the first time on March 1 1942. On May 26 1942, the Armed Forces Radio Services was formally established. Originally, its programming comprised network radio shows with the commercials removed. However, it soon began producing other original programming, such as Mail Call, G.I. Journal, Jubilee, and G.I. Jive. At its peak in 1945, the Service produced around twenty hours of original programming each week.
After the war, the AFRS continued providing programming to troops in Europe. In addition, it also provided programming for future wars that the United States was involved in. It survives today as a component of the American Forces Network.
All of the shows aired by the AFRS during the Golden Age were recorded onto electrical transcription disks and shipped to stations, in order to be broadcast to troops overseas. People in the United States rarely ever heard programming from the AFRS, although AFRS recordings of Golden Age network shows were occasionally broadcast on some domestic stations beginning in the 1950s.
There was some home recording of radio in the 1930s and early 1940s. Home recording at that time could typically only be performed by home disk recorders, which were only capable of storing five minutes of a radio program per side on a seven-inch record. As a result of the short durations of these records and the expense of the recorders, home recording was uncommon during this period.
The lack of suitable home recording equipment was somewhat relieved in 1943 with the introduction of home tape recorders using Scotch 100 tape. However, the quality of recordings made from these devices was far below professional levels. In fact, home recording of radio programs did not become common until around 1950, when affordable reel-to-reel tape recorders were introduced to the market.
When radio stations first began recording programs, they recorded onto records called "electrical transcription disks" (ET). Originally, these disks varied in both size and composition; although, they were typically bare aluminum. However, by the mid-1930s, sixteen inch aluminum-based disks coated with cellulose nitrate lacquer and playing at a speed of 33 1/3 RPM became the standard. (These had been invented in 1932 by RCA Victor.) These disks were recorded using the "hill and dale" process, in contrast to the side-to-side recording method used by commercial recording studios. Disks could store fifteen minutes of a show on each side, allowing a thirty minute program to be stored on one side of two separate disks. The disks would deteriorate rapidly on each playing, allowing only a few playbacks before being destroyed.
During World War II, aluminum became a necessary material for the war effort. This caused alternatives to aluminum to be used for electrical transcription disks, since aluminum was hard to come by. As a result, glass became the most common material used for disks between the years of 1942 and 1945.
In the United States, radio comedy and drama gets relatively little airplay apart from National Public Radio, satellite and Internet radio, but it continues full strength on British and Irish stations, and to a lesser degree in Canada. Regular broadcasts of radio plays are also heard in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and other countries. Vintage shows and new audio productions in America are accessible more on recordings and by satellite and web broadcasters rather than over conventional AM and FM radio. There are, however, several radio theatre series still in production, usually airing on Sunday nights in the United States. These include original series such as Imagination Theatre and a radio adaptation of The Twilight Zone, as well as rerun compilations such as the popular daily series When Radio Was and USA Radio Network's Golden Age of Radio Theatre.
One of the longest running radio programs celebrating this era is The Golden Days of Radio, which was hosted on the Armed Forces Radio Service (later Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) for more than 20 years and overall for more than 50 years by Frank Bresee, who also played "Little Beaver" on the Red Ryder program as a child actor.
Today, radio performers of the past appear at conventions which feature recreations of classic shows, as well as music, memorabilia and historical panels. The largest of these events is the Friends of Old Time Radio Convention, held annually in Newark, New Jersey each October. Others include REPS in Seattle (June), SPERDVAC in California, the Cincinnati OTR & Nostalgia Convention (April) and the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention (September).
Radio dramas from the golden age are sometimes recreated as live stage performances. One such group, led by director Daniel Smith, has been performing recreations of old-time radio dramas at Fairfield University's Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts since 2000.