Old Time Radio Primer: OTR in a Nutshell

The creaking rocking chair is all that can be heard in the room. Pa is reading his paper while ma finishes up the dinner dishes and the kids play with wooden cars on the living room floor. No i-pods, no computers, no cable television, no network television. No radio. The year is 1918. The lights are electric and there's a car in the driveway. But inside, all is silent, and the entertainments are either self-made or drawn into the mind off a printed page.

But all of this is about to change due to technological advances of the last several years.

To Send Messages Over the Air

Just before the dawn of the 20th century, the German scientist
developed two important ideas: that the nature of light can be boiled down to electromagnetics and that electromagnetic waves behave the same way as light.

The goal was to be able to transmit electromagnetic waves in a way that was useful--could they transmit comprehensible sound, including the human voice? In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi was able to transmit a wireless signal to Canada from Ireland. From this crude beginning, he developed the key refinement of being able to tune both the sending and receiving antennas to a certain frequency. This allowed mankind to send, not just morse code blips, but the human voice over the air.

Ham Operators Like Music

What we think of as the first radio broadcast happened on December 31, 1906. Reginald Fessenden, another technological pioneer in the field of radio, played "O Holy Night" on violin--with some vocals--transmitting this p
erformance to ships owned by the United Fruit Company. Imagine hearing voices like this traveling without wires!

With the technology now in place, what followed for the next few years was a prolongation of ham radio operators. People like Fessenden manufactured little transmitters and sent signals to other people like them: they'd say "hi" and talk about the technology they used to do so.

Dr. Frank Conrad was not only one of these ham radio operators, but by far the most important. Having no idea how he'd be changing society and media forever, Conrad, one evening in 1919, got this idea: why don't I put my phonograph near my mic and let my friends hear my record collection? Thus, in a sense, he became the first radio DJ. He contacted a local record store, which lent him records to play. In return, Conrad tap-danced onto the invention of broadcast advertising by mentioning that the records he played were on sale at the store.

What Comes out of this Little Box?

Dr. Conrad teamed with
to found the first-known radio station, Pittsburgh's KDKA. The first of what we now consider to be a radio broadcast was unleashed on Nov. 2, 1920, when KDKA broadcast the results of the Presidential election between Warren G. Harding and James M. Cox.

In 1921, the ma's and pa's of the world were largely still reading their papers and washing their dishes in silence. A few thumbtack dots of radio stations popped up across the USA, eight in all. In that year, less than 50,000 Americans owned radios.

But actual radio commercials--not just a mention of the sort that Frank Conrad engaged in--as well as sponsorship of radio programs, made the enterprise financially viable. 1922 saw a mushrooming of the number of radio stations heaving their signals heavenward. One of the chief catalysts was AT&T, which began opening station after station. Some of the first were WEAF in New York, WJAR in Providence, and WCAP in Washington D.C. In all, 600 radio licenses were owned, nationwide, by the end of the year. We then see another major development, the birth of the network. AT&T connected its various stations by wire, which meant that something broadcast on one was broadcast on them all. This would facilitate the production and mass dissemination of programming, a huge step in creating a national identity by giving people common characters, catchphrases, jokes, and songs to discuss and share.

As radio stations and networks were able to offer programming beyond live events such as speeches, concerts, and boxing matches, early programming became a rather heterogeneous mix of music and original scripted shows. 

Sitting in Front of the Radio

American society was now transformed, with families congregating in their living rooms to hear their favorite scripted drama and comedy series. By 1930, 60% of American families owned radios.


Major national comedy stars began to shine in this environment. Some of these include Ed Wynn, of the Fire Chief Show; Gracie Allen and George Burns of The Burns and Allen Show, Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden of Amos and Andy, Milton Berle, Fred Allen, and Jack Benny. Monologues, short skits, and full episodes crackled into living rooms across the country from the minds of these jokesters.

Later in the golden era of radio--roughly the beginning of the 40's--Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Abbott and Costello, and Edgar Bergen (and his dummy Charlie McCarthy) were some of the big comedic talents.

In addition to the shows powered by full-fledged comedians were the situation comedies with a full complement of characters bringing roughly half-hour-length stories to life each episode. Some notables (in addition to the aforementioned Amos and Andy) are the Fibber McGee and Molly Show, Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, and Our Miss Brooks.

Soap Operas and other dramas

These guilty pleasures were, of course, labeled "soap
operas" out of sarcasm, springing from the fact that brands of detergents were often the sponsors. Some of the shining examples of these dramatic serials in radio's golden age are Betty and Bob, The Romance of Helen Trent, Life Can Be Beautiful, Ma Perkins, One Man's Family,  Pepper Young's Family, and The Guiding Light.


Not long into the era, networks began producing Western programs, sometimes using characters already established from novels, comic books, even movies.

The Lone Ranger began airing in 1933, originating from Detroit's WXYZ. Cisco Kid, Straight Arrow, and Red Ryder would soon throw their cowboy hats into the ring.

Some Westerns were for adolescent audiences and carried an air of near-camp, with a very obvious division between Good and Evil. Yet, like most genres of radio shows, Westerns matured greatly during the golden age, particularly during the 1940's. Gunsmoke, Frontier Town, and Fort Laramie, were impactful shows that appealed to adult audiences, getting into the psychologies of their characters and presenting nuanced, gritty plots. These shows stretched the boundaries of Western programming and helped shape the mission and scope of mass entertainment in this country.


Adventures, Sci-Fi, and other dramas

Many great radio programs are hard to classify, but have elements of drama in addition to some of their other traits such as a focus on the supernatural and intentions to scare, titillate, surprise, or perplex. Some of these go down among the best radio programs of all time. These include Suspense, Dimension X, and the show it spawned, X Minus One

A sub-genre of note is the drama largely comprised of radio adaptations of existing works such as films, plays, novellas, short stories. These programs, such as The Lux Radio Theatre, Mercury Theatre on the Air, and Kraft Radio Hall of Fame, featured, rather than traditional casts, a revolving array of established stars--you name a television or movie actor or actress of the 1930's, 40's, and 50's, and he or she appeared on one of these programs.

Also of note here are the great detective programs such as The Adventures of Sam Spade, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, The Thin Man, and The Shadow.

Old-time Radio in a Nutshell

Some of the traits of old-time radio that make it distinctive are the always-enthusiastic announcers, the organ music at shows' introductions, the campy sales pitches for the shows' sponsors, and the versatile actors who could play characters twice their age, half their age, and sometimes of the other sex.

The concepts of situation comedy and serial dramas just did not exist before old-time radio. These forms, which have contributed so much to our culture's understanding of narrative to this day, were developed by bold, experimenting pioneers in radio, who paved the way for television.

Before rock and roll came along and helped facilitate a move to music-dominated radio fare, the skies blazed with transmissions of colorful and amazing stories, sketches, live performances, and all-around radio golden goodness.