The Lost and Found of Old Radio Programs

Lost and Found. That phrase conjures up memories for me dealing with the box of the same name that can be found in any school.

For almost all my school years, my dad was a custodian at the same school district where we lived and went to school ourselves. He started out working in the high school, but as his kids grew into the middle school years, he asked to be transferred to the elementary school in the town where we lived. On occasion, my mom would go to pick him up from work, and since we were fairly young, she would take us along, and we would sometimes get to hang out in the janitor’s office while we waited for his shift to end. That’s where the box of lost things was found. There was always an interesting collection of misfit items. Always a single sock, or glove, or shoe, never a matched set. There was never anything of real value, unless it was clearly broken and missing parts. Sometimes a jacket, or a shirt, or… don’t tell me those are somebody’s underpants… ew! It’s not the fact that they’re actually there. It’s most likely an innocent mistake, where they just fell out of someone’s gym bag, at least I hope that explains their presence.

Since this is a blog about old radio shows, it occurred to me to use that theme to filter a few aspects of the genre of that branch of media.

On a broad scale, the art of audio drama is largely a lost one. It’s not entirely dead, but far from being as popular as to market it on the radio as it once was. Unless a person is a history buff, or curious to learn where broadcast media got its start, I’m sure nobody thinks much about it. Even folks who are from that era, and heard the shows as they originally travelled from the studio, through the airwaves, and out the speakers of the radio in their living rooms don’t mention it much in conversation. They may reminisce about the political climate, or their favorite old musicians and songs. They may talk about historical events, or the shift in social issues, or styles and fashions. They may share about cars they drove, or toys they had before the era of electronic games, and social media on the Internet. Or maybe not. As part of assignments when I was in grade school, we studied the Great Depression. I decided to ask my grandparents since they lived through it. The short answer was, “The what? When did that happen?”

I was sure they were joking, how could they miss an entire decade from 1930 to 1940? “Oh, then. We were too poor, we didn’t notice,” was the response I got. My grandparents were all farm people, especially my mom’s people. “Those were the years that we worked the hardest. There was always work to do and not enough people around to do it all. There were animals to feed,” they began, but they were just getting wound up. “We had fields to plow and tend to, tractors to keep running, fences to mend, not to mention the chores around the house. We didn’t even have electricity or indoor plumbing until the mid-30’s” That does sound like a lot.

I asked, “What did the women do, grandma? How did you do laundry, and cook back then?” She continued, “We did all the same work as the men. Well, I never worked on the tractor, or did mechanical work, but I would put on overalls, and do all the other farm work”.

After a moment in memory she added, “We had a wood burning cook stove. The guys would stack up the cord wood, but the women had to keep the kindling cut up, and fed into it. Before we bought our first electric washing machine, it was a washer ringer; there were big round wash tubs we heated over an open fire. That was hot work….” she trailed off.

In our studies we learned about the fireside speeches of Franklin D Roosevelt, and our teacher even had a record or two that had old radio shows on them. One of them was an episode of ‘Red Rider,’ a cowboy show for kids, and who can still be seen on certain models of BB guns. Although kids today would be clueless that the cowboy image looking at them on the package of their BB gun, was once as well known to kids across the nation as Sponge Bob is today. I know I was clueless when I was a kid, and Scooby Doo was the latest, new hero across the nation.

Another recording was the radio report of the crash of the Hindenberg. There may have been more, but those are the ones I remember. I asked my grandparents about another historic moment in radio. “Did you hear the Orson Wells show of ‘The War of the Worlds’?? If you did, were you afraid the Martian invasion was real?”

They chuckled, and gave a simple, “No”. Did they even hear it? “Probably not… but that was a Sunday, and we were probably still at church. Besides, on a Sunday night, if we weren’t at church, we would probably have been listening to Jack Benny”. Years later I did some research. The date in question was October 30, 1938. They would have heard Jack Benny’s Halloween Party., with his cast joking their way through the party preparations.

I had totally forgotten about such things as radio dramas until a few years ago. I thought it was all lost to the ages. Shows were done live, broadcast, and gone into the ether after being enjoyed by the listening audience… right? I had heard the word, ‘transcription’ but never knew exactly what it meant. Little did I know about the practice of recording radio broadcasts? Fans, clubs, and even the military had been recording and preserving radio broadcasts for years. With the technology of the Internet, and the methods of sharing information we have with us today, discovering archives of these old recordings is like discovering buried treasure. Every time I learn about a show I had never heard of, it’s like finding a gold mine. With every episode I listen to, it’s another nugget, another story, another chance to stop and look at the date of when it originally aired. How old were my parents at the time, or were they even born yet? If the grandparents of then could meet the me of now, I’d be older than them for most of the old time radio era.

At first there’s a lot of jokes, and names of political figures that are strange, and out of context. There are references to other radio shows and actors that mean nothing. There are voices that seem familiar, but you can’t quite place where you’ve heard them. The more you listen, recognition creeps in. You may recognize voices of cartoon characters of the 1960’s or early 1970’s, and place them in the show you’re listening to. You pause to listen to the acting credits at the end of shows, and slowly learn names of some of the people behind some of the characters, and begin spotting their work from show to show. Granted, the audio quality is sometimes terrible, but most often it’s passable enough that it becomes more about the story telling.

Now that I’ve managed to discover this lost art of entertainment, the time and technology is ripe to share it with new generations. That, in a single sentence, is why I do my Retro Radio Podcast.

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