It’s National Radio Day

IMG_3615.JPGAs with most other questions, the history of the invention of radio is debated. The basic technology can be traced back to work done by Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937) but much of what we know as broadcast radio (i.e., AM and FM bands) was made possible by the work of Lee DeForrest (1873–1961) and Edwin Armstrong (1890–1954). David Sarnoff (1891–1971), who turned RCA and NBC into radio empires, is largely responsible for commercial radio as we know it. The PBS documentary from a few years back tells the story well.

Radio was the Internet of its day. It experienced a pattern of growth similar to that we have seen in the Internet. It was a brand new technology that connected people in a way they had never experienced before. Like the Internet, radio changed the culture in important ways. It rapidly increased the speed of communication. It entertained. It distracted. By the late 1920s and early 1930s everyone had, in effect, a personal, one-way, telegraph in his home. Today, via the Internet, we have personal telegraph machines (text messages and email), televisions (YouTube, streaming TV), and radios in our mobile devices. Indeed, they are radios. That telephone signal you’re getting is really a radio signal. Same is true for Wi-Fi.

Radio is a great medium the death of which has been prematurely announced several times. When television (radio with pictures) first began to become popular there was a great fear that it would eclipse radio entirely. It did not. When color television began to become popular in the late 60s, the death of radio was announced again. The Internet has not succeeded in killing radio, yet—even though it does seem to be killing print media. At first radio stations resisted the Internet as a competitor, and much the same way that newspapers resisted radio as a competitor. When I got into radio in the mid-70s, newspapers and radio stations did not cooperate much. Today, however, they cooperate regularly. In the same way, every radio station that wants to be viable must have an Internet stream. The broadcast signals where I live are so poor that most of the radio I hear is via the Internet. As the Internet becomes more ubiquitous and technologically stable radio stations are becoming just another source of content competing with other podcasts for attention and listeners.

What is the power and attraction of radio? Why hasn’t it died? It is the power of sound (the spoken word, sound effects, and music) to affect the listener. Virtually everyone involved in radio today was raised in the television/Internet eras. As a consequence, those producing much of what is broadcast do not seem to appreciate fully the potential of sound to affect the imagination and thereby to create different worlds in the mind. Radio has that power, however. Two of my favorite old-time radio shows are Gunsmoke (1952–61) and The Jack Benny Program (1932–55) both of which are available at Both programs made terrific use of the potential of the medium at a very early point in its development. Both featured outstanding writing, direction, and acting. When Jack Benny goes to Palm Springs, we all go with him. When he drives his Maxwell (his jalopy) we are in the car with him. When Matt Dillon faces down a bad guy in the dark we can hear the bullets whizzing by his head and ours.

The Jack Benny Program was the first show about nothing. Jerry Seinfeld just re-made The Jack Benny Program. He played himself surrounded by a group of friends. There is a lot of talk about putting on a show but we never actually hear him do the show. There is nearly a one for one correlation between the cast of Seinfeld and the cast of The Jack Benny Program. One exception would be the role of Eddie “Rochester “Anderson (1905–77). He was a great African-American radio and TV actor. He portrays Benny’s Butler/valet. Benny, whose real name was Benny Kubelsky (1894–1974), was Jewish and was sensitive, cause of his own experience, to the social and economic situation of minorities. Anderson received a lot of criticism in the 1960s for his portrayal of Rochester. Much of that criticism was unfair. The relationship in the show between Benny and Anderson was complex and subtle. There is little overt racism and Anderson’s character gets in quite a few digs at Benny. When he mocks Benny, was that anti-semitic? No. Remember, when this program aired. Jim Crow laws were still in effect in the South and racial segregation was widespread across the North. There were no African-American actors in leading parts in radio or television. That did not begin to change until the mid-1960s (TV). Were there African-American butlers in that period? Yes. Is there a hierarchical relation between employers and butlers? Yes. Is that inherently racist? I don’t think so. I am not sure that his character was any more subordinate to his boss than Joseph Marcel’s character was to his in The fresh Prince of Bel Air. Nevertheless, be forewarned that you may hear some things that are unfamiliar and possibly discomforting. Along those same lines, some might be troubled at the relationship between Jack and Mary, who were married in real life. The relationship between Jerry and Elaine and Seinfeld, is virtually identical. It does not sound sexist to me but perhaps it might to someone else.

Gunsmoke was perhaps the best written and acted radio program ever. We should consider the Foley artists among the actors. No radio program that I have heard came close to having the same quality of sound effects except perhaps one featuring Raymond Burr, Fort Laramie, which featured some of the same writers and directors. Even Jimmy Stewart’s excellent radio program, The Six Shooter, had inferior sound effects. When Matt Dillon (William Conrad) gets off his horse on the grass you hear him stepping on grass. When he gets off his horse on a dirt road you hear that. When he walks on the boardwalk to hear that. The skill of the Foley artists in that program is remarkable. The best thing about the show, however, is the writing and acting. The stories are tight, well-written, and coherent. After listening to William Conrad play Matt Dillon it is more difficult to see James Arness play the same character on television . The radio show was a essentially a Film Noir version of the old West. The stories are dark, the characters are often dark and morally ambiguous. It is much clearer in the radio program than it was later on TV what Miss Kitty did for a living. The Dillon character has a shady past and he is not above taking the law into his own hands to achieve a rough version of justice. He does not expect to live long. He is the weary, hard-bitten Film Noir detective placed in the old West.

As in the case of the Benny program’s portrayal of African-Americans, the portrayal of Native Americans (American Indians) in Gunsmoke may cause some discomfort. The show was sent in the post-Civil War plains. It was not a particularly enlightened time.

In the Heidelcast I try to preserve some of features of radio from its different periods (old time radio, the silver age, top-40, and talk radio). Someday I would like to try producing a real, old-fashioned radio drama or comedy but I suspect it is a lot more difficult than it sounds.

Thanks for listening and stay tuned for our next thrilling adventure!

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One comment

  1. Scott, thanks for this enjoyable history read. Brings back memories of my youth and AM radio, not to mention a lot of old TV shows including Jack Benny.

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