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Exploring Golden Age Radio . . . But first some definitions: What era are we really addressing here? Was it a cultural phenomenon or a business phenomenon? . . . or a little of each. What made it so uniquely visceral?

Let's start with a definition of the Golden Age of Radio: but that in itself seems a point of great controversy with Golden Age Radio fans and scholars alike. Most can agree that it falls somewhere between 1929 and 1957, but many would extend that well into the 1960's. Indeed, some the Radio Drama revivals continued well into the 1980s. Scholars and academics aside, most fans 'know it when we hear it', irrespective of it's chronological date.

Our Spotlight on The Golden Age of Radio generally defines the Golden Age Radio Era as that period between the advent of commercial radio "broad casts" (the term first used to describe wider--broad--casts of radio air waves) in 1921, and somewhere between 1965 and 1968.

For our purposes, we use 1921 - 1967.

As a point of reference we offer the following widely accepted definitions, for comparison:

1909 - 1962. Rationale: The invention of the Audion Tube by Dr. Lee DeForest in 1909, and the end of both the "Yours, Truly, Johnny Dollar" and "Suspense" programs in 1962.

1921 - 1984. Rationale:
The first commercial broadcast in 1921, through the last run of original CBS Radio Mystery Theatre (CBSRMT) broadcasts in 1984. Hyman Brown's excellent CBSRMT productions embodied all of the unique, high production value, well acted dramatic presentations of the very best examples of the Golden Age of Radio. Indeed, it was Himan Brown's [Hyman Brown] hope that CBS Radio Mystery Theatre would encourage others to realize the continued commercial viability of Radio dramatizations.

1920 - 1950. Rationale: Some people prefer to define the Era of Early Radio as separate from the remaining radio drama, variety, and comedy productions during the Cold War Years. They might further break the period down by defining 1950 - 1960 as 'The Silver Era', and Post-1962 radio drama as 'Revival'.

1924 - 1939. Norman Corwin is quoted as stating that The Golden Age of Radio effectively ended with the wide adoption of Television by the networks. Keep in mind that Television had already been broadcast as early as 1921. From a purist standpoint, there's a poignant truth in Corwin's observation. Network Broadcasting has always been a ruthlessly commercial endeavor. There's no doubt that the advent of popularly available television sets marked the beginning of the end of network emphasis on Radio as the most commercially viable broadcast medium. But of course that was a corporate decision, with no underlying motivation to serve the public over the public's air waves.

We began collecting Golden Age Radio in the 1960s, capturing both early FM rebroadcasts of Golden Age Radio shows, as well as recording the shows still airing over AM Radio at the time. We recorded them to magnetic tape. When I began collecting in earnest twenty years later, it was the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre series that reinspired me to find and collect as many extant episodes as practical. Within a few months I'd acquired what I thought was a very extensive collection of over 600 CBS Radio Mystery Theatre (CBSRMT) episodes. . . . only to discover that my collection represented only a fraction of the CBSRMT shows produced. Needless to say, I'd 'caught the bug'. That initial collecting bug has expanded to over 250,000 unique radio recordings, most of which we make available on our affiliated FTP site.


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Few periods in modern human history seem so tightly interwoven into expressions of its culture as the period when the world entered -- then emerged from -- The Great Depression, further extending through the years of yet another cultural catastrophe--a second World War . . . and then a third, right on it's heels. This, topped off by the advent of The Atomic Age and Cold War Years.

And yet through all of those world-shattering events, American culture throughout the Golden Age Radio Era -- as well as that of the rest of the modern world -- seemed drawn together in hopeful celebration--via song, radio, print, and early television drama, dance and other arts, visual entertainment and audio-visual technology.

This used to be a difficult experience to articulate to those born after 1967, certainly to those born after 1984. Now that the political, social and economic climate has reprised a Great Depression, it's far easier to explain the era to younger people shell-shocked by the current economic and corporate climate.

Irrespective of the Age, imagine for a moment the wondrous, magical devices that the telephone, radio and television must have seemed to the people of the 20s and 30s. . . . and how quickly those electric wonders came to be taken for granted. A situation much the same as the cell phones and personal computers we take for granted today.

As a function of the medium, it was the more highly attenuated focus on sounds decoded and translated from the airwaves and the human imagination that further processed them that made those first years of wondrous popular transmissions so very different from anything that preceded them -- or succeeded them for that matter. They provided an often desperately needed distraction, inspiration and means of escape from some of the most trying years in modern humanity's collective history.

Indeed it was that very attenuated -- often strained -- attention to those sounds magically emanating from a tabletop or cabinet radio that forced the listener to pay intense attention to every sound, every utterance, and every nuance of the presentation--be it music, news, variety, drama, or comedy.
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We're fascinated with what went on 'behind the mike' as well, as exemplified by this Chevrolet-sponsored Jam Handy short from 1938 entitled, appropriately enough, 'Behind The Mike'

There's no denying the very personal aspect of the simple, common experience of listening. Take a moment and consider what listening actually means. We've all read or heard of any number of experiments regarding the individual -- and very personal -- impressions of the experience of listening to a common message. Indeed, of how very differently any two sentient beings hear or listen to a commonly experienced audio message.

It's those very diverse and more personalized impressions and interpretations that make a truly common understanding of a medium all the more remarkable -- even unlikely. But such common experiences were the very unlikely, yet basic common denominator that fueled the commercial possibilities of early Radio. Early Radio advertisers left no stone unturned in attempting to tap into that elusive common listening experience that made a radio broadcast -- and of course, it's commercial messages -- popular, as well as commercially successful to a wider, more predictive audience.

Those of us 'of a certain age', can all remember our folks' anecdotes about the wonders of Radio in those early years. The main reason I delimit the first of the Golden Years as 1929 is due to the Neutrodyne, Heterodyne and Superheterodyne circuitry (c.1922 - 1929) that made listening to early radio a vastly more enjoyable and involving experience.

Granted, the sheer novelty of Radio made even the earliest Radio transmissions a riveting experience, despite all the pops, squeals and hisses. Social psychologists, contemporary anthropologists, and research psychologists -- as well as early advertising experts -- were learning that a human tends to focus more intently on a faint message than on a loud, blaring, monotonal message. People listened more intently because they were forced to. The medium of Radio--and Telephone before it--was often scratchy, faint, or garbled by atmospherics or dirty or electrically noisy appliances or nearby wiring. It forced the listener to focus or attentuate more on the aural source of the sound--and its messages and nuances.

With vastly improved circuitry and tube design came an even greater focus on sound -- and imagination. Sound clear enough to evoke far more than just auditory responses. These were sounds clear enough to transport their audience anywhere the human imagination could listen to--or imagine. Even to places that its audience had never thought much about at all . . . before Radio.

I can't think of the term 'Golden Age' of Radio without immediately making the connection to what--for me--was truly golden about it. . . literally.


We love Golden Age Radios just as much. Visit our Radio pages here.

It was the golden glow of that dial, day or night--but by far better at night. The glow of that dial and--from most early units--the faint glow of the tubes behind the grill cloth or cabinetry. It was a hypnotic, transfixing experience--and yet universally hypnotic to every individual that heard it, differing only as colored by personal maturity, background, or culture.

Indeed, so universally intense was that focus, that beginning at about 8:15pm Eastern Daylight Time on 30 October, 1938, a rather embarrassed population took Orson Welles' masterful radio dramatization of H.G.Wells' 'War of Worlds' as fact for as long as 36 hours in some parts of the country.

How tempting to laugh at or scoff about such a possibility now, but it's easy to understand how it could have happened in those pre-Television, pre-CNN, pre-MSNBC years of communication.

Radio was not without its detractors. Both reviled and embraced as a popular medium for messaging, religious, political and cultural disputes and conflicts almost immediately arose over its use in the public interest. Indeed, its basic charter, as controlled by the Government, was to retain ownership by the Public--in perpetuity.

As we've come to learn over the years, the Public ownership of the air waves has become nothing more than a 'wink-wink, nudge-nudge' joke among politicians of every stripe. With the abolishment of The Fairness Doctrine, any practical evidence of Public Ownership of the Air Waves vanished with it. Framed simply as a political issue only, the battle to end The Fairness Doctrine conveniently overlooked the other ninety percent of its precepts, which mandated messages in the public service by all broadcasting media.

We need reliable, diverse, and transparent information more than ever during this second Great Depression of our American History. Radio and Television could yet again play an important role in disseminating that information to a public starved for advice, counsel and hope. Now more than ever, we need to remind ourselves that we've never legally lost ownership of the airwaves. And now more than ever before we need to reassert that ownership for the common good.

Listening to Golden Age Radio during these troubled times isn't merely escapism. It's a profound and often poignant reminder of how a great Nation fought its way out of the first Great Depression and survived the devastating World Wars that followed in its wake--through the medium of Radio.

One common observation remains universal: no one listening to recordings from The Golden Age of Radio can escape the conclusion that human beings the World over have lost far too much of their civility and simple adherence to a universal Golden Rule. Nor is it any accident that The Golden Age of Radio very much embodied The Golden Rule.

Santayana's timeless adage that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" was never more appropriate.