Radio Families

A comment I heard lately made me think about shifts in social norms. The lament had to do with growing up in what might be called a broken home. Divorce had torn apart the typical, traditional model of dad, mom, and kids. A thing that is increasingly not the norm, but one that is still engrained as normal.

In modern days, the mantra seems to be, ‘anything goes,’ it’s all good, and what works for me isn’t necessarily something that works for you. I can agree with that on many individual preferences, but there’s still a place for certain structures of society. The basic building block in any group of people boils down to the basic family unit. I’m not trying to suggest that a rigid, cookie cutter approach to the family should be held. Looking at some of the families found in the world of old radio shows will bear out that even in that idyllic age of squeaky clean families, there were many different kinds portrayed.

Despite some exaggerated personalities for comic affect, some radio families held to the expected model of mom, dad, and kids. Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, along with Phil Harris and Alice Faye brought their real life families to the air. The kids normally being of the variety to stay in the background, and the real comedy in the story with dad’s goofy adventures, while mom is the long suffering one who holds the family together. Versions of that formula also show up in the fictional families on shows as the Life of Riley, and Father Knows Best. Although the Andersons of Father Knows Best, had the kids more in the forefront as they had a knack for proving that maybe it was really mom who knew better.

Maybe one of the families that a modern audience can relate to from the air waves was on the Great Gildersleeves program. For a family meant to be in the middle class, they had a maid, but since the premise was of a man who became the guardian of his deceased sister’s household, it made some sense. Birdie also served as a mother figure, lending that element, yet leaving the door open for Gildersleeves to have love interests outside the home. It was also a lot more likely to feature the kids in more stories, and not being brushed aside for much of the show, or not appearing at all.

Outside of comedies, there really weren’t many portrayals of families, at least not as a regular feature. Dramas like One Man’s family tried to take a realistic look at family life, but there were still elements of the exotic that the typical family might never experience. Large country estates, summer homes, taking airplane trips, or cruises all around the world, inheriting huge amounts of money, and the like. On an interpersonal level though, the relationships between the generations could come from any family, of any time.

To extend the family, as we often do today, to the work place, or school, or a circle of friends, the door flies open, even for the old radio era.

Jack Benny’s cast was one that he cultivated through the years. Each character had a recognizable personality, and certain jokes or wisecracks were expected as they interacted with other cast members. Our Miss Brooks was all about life in high school, and the private life of English teacher, Connie Brooks.

For Westerns, Detective, or Mystery shows, all the dark, dysfunctional sides of life cropped their ways into the family. Typically in the lives of jealous or cheating married couples. Sometimes between siblings who might have it out for one another, vying for an inheritance, if not in schemes to bump off their wealthy family member to move the matter along. If divorce was portrayed, it seems to mostly be as part of a murder motive, and not to indicate any ups or downs of a single parent trying to raise their kids.

Were there families in that era that had only a single parent? Yes. Were there families who had an abusive or drunken dad? Yes. Were there broken homes? Yes. One difference that we can see based on the entertainment media was that it wasn’t held in high regard, or as the norm, and that in someway, the individuals involved had failed society.

I can’t hope to preach that striving for the traditional family is exactly what every adult should work towards. However, if it’s a thing that you don’t have, but want it, the goal is attainable. It won’t come without a little dedication and individual effort though. Find a partner with that same determination, and someone who has made it happen for them to be a mentor to you. Who knows, with a concerted effort, and desire to change, maybe the tide of social norms will shift, and the future social statement in the entertainment industry will reflect healthy families, and the shrinking image of broken homes.


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