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The History of Old Time Radio

The term “Old Time Radio” refers to the entertainment programs that were broadcast to the public from the early 1920s to the early 1960s. In the beginning, most radio programs emulated the vaudeville acts that were the mainstay of public amusement before radio. Comics and singers ruled the airwaves! Best of all, you no longer had to leave your home to enjoy their talents! Eventually, however, audiences matured and other types of programs were added to the radio schedule. Drama series became extremely popular including shows about doctors, soap operas, and even movie scripts that were adapted for radio. Action series brought cops, robbers, private detectives, and westerns into the home! Fantasy series thrilled audiences with well known characters including Superman and the Green Hornet! Horror fans got their share of ghosts, vampires, and werewolves. Those who craved science fiction got their weekly craving for tales of the future, space travel, and exploration of the unknown. Game shows like “You Bet Your Life” gave the average person an escape from everyday life!

The first commercial radio station in the U.S. (KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) began occasional broadcasting in 1920. By 1922, the first regularly broadcast old time radio shows had begun. Up until the late 1920s, musical programs were most popular with shows highlighting opera, big bands, jazz, classical, and popular music.

In the 1930s, the first daytime series appeared featuring romance and other subject matter that appealed to the typical American housewife. Most of those programs were sponsored by soap products and that’s where the term “Soap Opera” originated. Radio shows like “The Cisco Kid” and “Captain Midnight” were broadcast in the afternoons for the entertainment of young people as they returned home from school. Comedy series began to appear including the “George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” and the “Jack Benny Show” which both began in 1932. “Amos ‘N Andy” actually hit the airwaves in 1928! Then in the early 1940s, a nearly never-ending list of comedy programs joined those pioneers and comedy shows became the most prolific genre through the end of Old Time Radio.

By 1947, 82% of people in the U.S. listened to the radio on a regular basis. The Old Time Radio shows were not like most audio books of today where someone with a pleasant voice reads you a book. Old Time Radio shows were productions just like the television programs of today. There were sound effects, multiple actors in multiple roles, and first rate scripts! Many people today are shocked at how entertaining they can be when they hear their first Old Time Radio program. The lack of video can actually be a plus! Your mind often imagines the characters and scenery much better than seeing those things on a television screen.

Most Old Time Radio Shows were aired live up until the late 1940s. Therefore, the most popular shows had to be performed twice due to the time difference between the east coast and the west coast. Most of those programs are lost to us today as they were generally not recorded. There are exceptions where and advertiser wanted copies of their programs or for some programs that aired in syndication. Thankfully, by the early 1950s, many programs were broadcast live on the east coast and recorded for later broadcast on the west coast. A surprisingly large number of those recordings are still in existence today thanks, mostly, to collector/hobbyists who acquired them through the years. Due to their age, most of those are available free of charge on the web or at very low cost on cd (in mp3 format) from numerous vendors.

In the mid 1950s TV was becoming the king of entertainment and radio was transforming into a mostly musical format. There were shows, however, that continued for a few more years and some of them even aired at the same time as a TV version of the same program.

Learn more about the history of radio on a show by show basis and listen to shows free by visiting this Old Time Radio Shows site.

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