[../../../_private/magazine_tmp.htm]The Return of Radio's Golden Age






















Did you ever hear your parents or grandparents wax nostalgic about the radio shows of their childhood? Or perhaps you're old enough to remember the likes of Fibber McGee & Molly, Jack Benny and Abbott & Costello.
In its heyday, the '30s and '40s, AM radio was as popular as TV is today. Families would gather around bulky console radios in their living rooms and listen to classics such as "The Lone Ranger," "Burns & Allen" or "The Shadow" just as today's families watch programs like "Beavis & Butthead," "Beverly Hills 90210" or "Wheel of Fortune."
Maybe you've wondered about those old radio shows and why your folks can't stop talking about them when someone brings up the subject. Or perhaps you simply can't stand to watch one more rerun of "Cheers." If that's the case, two local stations offer alternatives that are certain to get your imagination working.
"KJOI Radio Theatre" airs weekdays from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the KJOI stations (KJQI AM 1260 and KOJY AM 540). And each evening at 9 p.m., KNX AM 1070 breaks its hard news format to run a series called "KNX Drama Hour," which repeats at 2 a.m. for night owls. (See schedule on page 16.) These shows aren't just for the senior set, according to Gary Nice, president of Equity Radio Network, which sells the programming to KNX. "A lot of stations think it's for older people, but a lot of younger people like them," he said. "I'd say the young and middle-aged people are enjoying this. It's not just for people 65 and over."
Nice has agreements with stations in 22 markets to broadcast the shows. Charles Michelson, an 83-year-old Beverly Hills program distributor, supplies the programming to Equity. "He's been in the radio business all his life," Nice said. "I wanted to syndicate something different. I wanted to find a niche. Originally, I was syndicating talk shows, but they're a dime a dozen nowadays - especially conservative talk shows." Others have attempted similar ventures, but no one had access to as much programming as Michelson and Nice.
"We have all 52 episodes, and we can feature the same program each week so people can follow it," Nice said. "[The stations] can air it in order. You start to look forward to it. 'When Radio Was' (KJOI's syndicate) doesn't run it in order. We're doing it just the way it was then.
"It's TV without all the pictures. I've gotten calls from KTRH (Houston) and KMOX (St. Louis). Every station says people are calling them and thanking them for the shows."
Ask almost anyone who was alive in the '30s and '40s - radio's "golden age" - and they're sure to gush about their favorite programs. There was no TV to dull the imagination in those days. "AM radio beat the hell out of other media," Rod Page, a 30-year San Diego radio personality, said. "There was so much more participation. It was larger than life. Today we get so much visual that we don't have to use our minds. Radio is infinite. It's whatever you want to bring to it."
Harry Goldstein, a retired radio actor who was a regular on "The Lone Ranger," "The Green Hornet" and "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon," agreed. "TV is so graphic," Goldstein said. "It's a lazier way of listening or watching. You had to use your imagination [with radio]. And your imagination was fed by great writers. The sound effects were very important too." During the Great Depression, dramatic radio served as an escape from financial woes. "You could forget about your troubles through the radio," Page said. "It was like a good book." Programs like "The Lone Ranger," Jack Benny and Burns & Allen became popular in the early '30s. The networks, CBS, NBC, Mutual, and later, ABC, quickly caught on to the growing attraction of entertaining radio and competed for actors, comedians and directors.
Jack Benny, the tightwad violinist who was on for more than 20 years, was a big hit. (On Saturday nights, KNX revives the spirit of Benny, along with those of Burns & Allen.) "It was satire," Page said. "He never made fun of anybody but himself. Jack Benny's character was stingy, vain and effeminate. He was sometimes like a girl, but they always had a character with a higher voice than him. He was always the victim. He gave all the funny lines away, but he had great timing."
Timing - not necessarily comedy timing - was a necessity for a radio actor, according to Goldstein. "Those shows were precision-timed," he said. "You learned to handle the time element. You couldn't do it any other way. We never improvised." Listeners can hear Goldstein in "The Lone Ranger" and "Sgt. Preston of the Yukon," a Western series focusing on the adventures of a Canadian Mounted Police officer stationed in the wilds of Yukon.
"I started out as an actor while I was a senior at Wayne State," Goldstein said. "I was a teacher in the Detroit public schools. My schedule allowed me to act. It was a part-time job that paid more than the teaching job." Eventually, Goldstein gave up his teacher role to become a freelance actor "for anyone who would hire" the young man. "It was a very pleasant way to make money," he added. "Sgt. Preston" airs Monday evenings.
Welles and Westerns
Well-known TV westerns like "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke" and "The Rifleman" were inspired by radio westerns such as "The Lone Ranger," "Tales of the Texas Rangers," "The Six Shooter" and "Hopalong Cassidy." KNX carries them all, and KJOI has "Hopalong Cassidy." The "KNX Drama Hour" lineup also features an Orson Welles classic - "The Black Museum," a BBC and Mutual Network-produced show that was launched in 1951 and lasted for a year. The sequels took place in the fictional Scotland Yard Black Museum, which contained artifacts from gruesome murder cases. Welles would stroll through the museum to open the show. An item would catch his eye and quickly prompt him to tell a fascinating murder story. Because Welles was such a great yarn-spinner, many British citizens actually thought a Black Museum existed.
"When we were running it on the BBC, Scotland Yard called the BBC up and asked would you please announce that 'The Black Museum' isn't a museum at all because we've been getting hundreds of calls from people who want tours," Michelson recalled. "Dragnet," which went on to become a huge TV hit, was the first police drama to offer its listeners realism. Jack Webb starred as the main character, Sgt. Joe Friday of the Los Angeles Police Department. "Dragnet" fans can tune in to this show on Tuesday evenings.
Other programs include: "Night Beat," a newspaper series; "The Damon Runyon Theater," wise-guy drama and horse-racing tales; "Voyage of the Scarlet Queen," sailing adventures; and "Screen Directors Playhouse," radio adaptations of hit movies. KJOI's series features: "Duffy's Tavern," "Our Miss Brooks," "The Great Gildersleeve," "Ellery Queen," "Perry Mason," "Academy Award Theatre" and "The Traveler."

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