The Haunted Studio - Old Time Radio


Recently I’ve been spending my evenings listening to vintage American Radio Shows. The vast majority of which were originally broadcast years before I was born. I’ve thrilled to the exploits of Superman, Laughed at the hilarious antics of Jack Benny and been scared witless by the horrific tales from the Inner Sanctum. These Old Time Radio Shows are terrific entertainment and are a marvellous alternative to the bland offerings we are force fed today.  

How am I managing to listen to them? My Radio has not been lost in a time warp, but the manner in which I’m listening to them may well have seemed equally fanciful to the programme makers of yesteryear. The fact is I’m listening to these old shows by utilising the cutting edge of technology. Old Time Radio, or OTR for short, is experiencing a new wave of popularity on the World Wide Web. These forgotten masterpieces are widely available as downloadable MP3 files on the Internet.  

Many websites have been set up to trade or sell OTR. Most of these sites offer CD’s or cassettes of entire series but also have samples to download. Therefore it’s possible for new collectors to become familiar with the shows at little or no cost. This provides a golden opportunity for someone like me who never had the chance to hear these shows when they were first broadcast. Once the collector becomes familiar with the type of show that interests them they are then free to specialise in that area. For example I am specifically interested in the Sci-Fi and Horror genres and tend to concentrate my efforts in that direction.

So what is “Old Time Radio”? Most people classify OTR as that type of radio programming that was on the air in America during the so-called “Golden Age”. The years between 1925 and 1955 are considered by many to be the “Golden Age of Radio. Early radio stations were independent. They operated pretty much where and when they wanted. Certain stations had their own “stars” and broadcast dramatized versions of novels, or original stories written for the program. They also transmitted comedy, variety, live music, news analysis, mystery, and so forth. Listeners in different parts of the United States became aware of programs from stations in distant cities. These stations could not always be heard clearly, and some could not be heard at all past a certain distance. In order to satisfy these listeners, a number of stations formed a network, whereby the same program could be heard on a number of stations simultaneously.  

Jack Benny It was due to these networks that certain programs became popular throughout the entire United States. Programs such as Jack Benny, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Fibber McGee & Molly and The Lone Ranger were known to just about everybody. Year after year programs such as these became essential listening for many listeners. These programs soon attracted sponsorship. The sponsor’s name would usually be announced first, such as, “The Lucky Strike Program, starring Jack Benny”. 

You could tune to one station and hear a large number of different types of programs. In the morning and early afternoon you could hear, for example, soap operas. These were fifteen-minute serials aimed at housewives. These were mostly sponsored by laundry products, hence they became known as “soap operas”. Then in the afternoon, when the kids came home from school, you would hear “The Adventures of Superman”, or “Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy”, or “Captain Midnight”. These were usually also fifteen-minute serials.

In the early evening, the half-hour programs would begin. “The Green Hornet”, “The Shadow”, and the ever-popular “Lone Ranger” would be broadcast at a time when the kids were still awake and the adults were ready to start listening, too. Later in the evening were mystery and dramas such as “Suspense” and “Inner Sanctum”, or detectives such as “Boston Blackie” or “Sam Spade”. There were also hour-long programs like “Lux Radio Theatre”. Of course, there were many Comedy and Variety programs.  

Every network had a line-up of interesting and informative programs of every type and description. There were hundreds of programs to choose from every day. There was strict censorship of all words spoken during these broadcasts. Anybody could listen without fear of being offended by the broadcast. This is part of the charm of Old Time Radio, great entertainment, for the whole family.

Although most OTR shows are American in origin an increasing amount of British shows are becoming sought after. BBC comedy shows like “Round The Horne and “The Goon Show” are particular favourites with the OTR fan. Unlike its American counterpart, radio in Britain during the thirties was a grim and solemn affair. The BBC was still clinging on to the strict Presbyterian beliefs of its first Director General. Lord Reith was a dour Scot who believed Radio should be used to educate and inform the listeners and anything remotely entertaining or frivolous was deeply frowned upon. It was only with the emergence of commercial stations broadcasting to Britain that the BBC began to abandon its “Reithian” principles. Foreign stations such as Radio Luxembourg and Poste-Parisienne provided an entertaining alternative to the staid output of the BBC.  

There are many individuals who own private collections of Old-Time Radio Programs on CD or cassettes. Some collections are very general and consist of programs from almost every series but many collections consist of one type of program (i.e. comedy, mystery, drama, adventure, detective, musical etc). Some collectors are more specific; an individual with a serious interest in a particular program or series will take great pains to "log" every program accurately. This usually requires extensive research in libraries and sponsors' old files. Collectors of this type are the true heroes of the hobby, as their logs become the "bibles" the rest of the collectors follow. Clubs have been formed that have libraries of various programs available to club members. Some clubs are devoted to a particular program or star. For instance, Jack Benny still has a "fan club". There are groups of collectors within clubs, or independent groups who borrow and swap programs among themselves. It's similar to collecting and trading stamps or coins.  

It’s amazing that so many shows still exist and to understand the reason for this we need to go back to the beginning to learn how the collecting of OTR programs began. The first thing we need to know is why these recordings were made. The vast majority of these programs were recorded by someone who was associated with the program. Many sponsors wanted recordings of their "product", and kept these recordings for years. Stations, Networks, Stars, and Guests comprise the second large group who recorded radio programs for a variety of business and personal reasons. Most of these recordings were only played once and then routinely destroyed because they were taking up valuable storage space. Thankfully, some of them survived. The recordings themselves were usually sixteen-inch discs known as "Electrical Transcriptions". They were also simply called "Transcriptions" or ET's. A smaller group of people recorded programs off the air for any number of reasons. It was these private, individual recordings that started the OTR Collecting hobby.

Most people didn’t have home recording equipment in the early years, but there were consumer machines that recorded on disc, and there were "Dictaphone" machines that were sometimes used to capture a radio program now and then. In the late 1940s wire and tape recorders became available, and many individuals made a few recordings of their favourite programs.

These recordings were usually on reel-to-reel tape (cassettes had not yet been invented). There were various methods of recording on reels, and the accepted standard method would allow 12 programs to be recorded on a single tape. After a few years, the "veteran" traders would no longer trade individual shows. They traded entire reels for other reels. It would not be unusual for a person to have a collection of a thousand different programs on 120 reels. By the 1960s it was evident that radio was changing drastically, and many programs had either left the air completely or moved to television. It was then that private collectors began to discover each other and started trading programs. Collectors would dub copies and trade them with other collectors. The main problem with trading in this fashion is that every copy made was another generation away from the "master" recording. With each generation there was a loss of sound quality. Eventually the sound became so poor that the programs were difficult to understand. Something had to be done to get sound closer to the source.  

Some avid collectors recognized the fact that many "transcription discs" might still exist, so they contacted the various sponsors, radio stations, stars, and guests from the old days. A great many discs were found in this manner. Collectors and clubs of collectors began transferring the material to tape. Some collectors actually formed companies and began to sell these higher sound quality recordings to other collectors. These recordings were usually on reels, but cassettes also began to appear on the scene.   

As more and more discs were discovered, more and more cassettes were created. Reel-to-reel tape began to vanish, and CDs began to appear. Eventually the average person on the street could purchase OTR programs at a reasonable price and begin to build a collection of radio programs with very good sound quality.  

The availability of commercially recorded OTR did not put a stop to trading, however. People continued to trade copies of individual programs on cassette, but if someone wanted better sound quality, they could and did purchase the commercial cassette. Nowadays the proliferation of web sites devoted to OTR has made another format popular. MP3’s can be downloaded onto computers. Using a CD burner it’s possible to transfer entire series of programmes onto one convenient MP3 CD. 

The early collectors saved “Old Time Radio” from extinction by preserving and propagating these excellent programs. Present day collectors whose only goal is to obtain as many programs as possible may represent a manifestation of a passing fad. Then again, there may be new collectors who truly appreciate the artistic value of OTR and represent the archivists who will preserve OTR for future listeners who never had the opportunity to hear Old-Time Radio as it was. There are still programs in private collections that have not yet been made commercially available. These un-circulated programs plus those already in circulation are the basis for private collections, and these private collections are the legacy of Old-Time Radio.  


Click here for my Favourite Old Time Radio Shows

Click here for the Links Page

Click here for the History of Radio

Click here for the History of Radio Part 2

Click Here for the History of Pirate Radio

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