with Us Now to Those Thrilling Formats of Yesteryear!
has magic, but
it's really hard to find
By GERALD NACHMAN
Every night, much as I did at age 10, I crawl into
bed and fall asleep listening to Burns and Allen,
Suspense, The Kraft Music Hall, The
Jack Benny Program and The Lux Radio Theater.
These shows are, of course, no longer on radio, but are readily
available on cassettes--or, if you live in the right select cities,
on When Radio Was
, a syndicated series of old
radio shows hosted by Stan Freberg, radios last comedy
They represent all the kinds of shows that are not readily available
on radio--neither public nor commercial. Commercial
radio used to be entirely public, in the most eclectic, democratic
sense of the word. But now it plays to an increasingly narrow
spectrum of format-starved listeners. Lately, they've reared
up and made themselves heard in protests to Congress against
the new, controversial FCC decision to further diminish the range
of broadcasting choices available to listeners. You can hear
them clicking off their radios all over America.
It isnt the number of stations available, or who owns them,
or even what their politics are, that is the real gut issue here.
The real issue is one nobody is talking much about. Its
that the people who control the radio stations long ago quit
entertaining the growing segment of the public that is sick of
whats on. These disenfranchised listeners are hungering
for what might be--and what used to be available all day, every
day--on the air.
There are fewer and fewer varieties of programs to choose from.
Even jazz and classical stations have been all but pushed off
the far ends of the dial, leaving AM and FM radio to the talk
and schlock-music programmers
and to the relentless music/news/sports/weather/commute-casting
that now passes for radio in America.
The raging argument over whether radio is turning right wing
is the wrong discussion to be having, a distraction from what
really matters. Real radio, of the sort that once thrived in
the United States and still survives in Great Britain, has been
almost totally shut down on both commercial and public radio,
with a very few highly visible and popular exceptions.
Those exceptions include
shows that echo the past landscape, such as Prairie Home
Companion, Click and Clack, Harry Shearers
Le Show, Michael Feldmans Whaddya Know?,
the quiz shows Wait, Wait! Dont Tell Me, and
Sez Who? and Michael Lassers historic panorama
of pre-rock pop music, Fascinatin Rhythm.
Thats about it, folks. In a boundless radio universe that
once had a wide and varied appeal, the broadcasting band of possibilities
has shrunk to almost nothing. Is this another vast right wing
conspiracy? No, its much simpler than that--its a
vast conspiracy of accountants. It is just cheaper, and requires
no imagination, to hook up another talk show host to a telephone
or to spin the old news-sports-weather-commute wheel every few
The great irony here is that radio, even in its heyday, was the
cheapest entertainment of any to produce, requiring but a script,
a few actors, a piano or organ and a sound-effects man. Radio
that entertained as well as informed--if you can
count talk shows and endlessly repeated news updates
as information--was possible. It neednt even be an either/or
Theres no reason that radio, as it once did routinely,
cant provide news, sports, music and talk as well as comedies,
dramas, westerns, detective mysteries, quiz and horror shows--a
glorious mix of genres that no longer exists because none of
those in power in radio, public or non-public, has the imagination
for it, or because theyve somehow decided it would not
be commercially viable. Maybe they havent even decided
it but just keep producing the same thing out of habit or because
they dont know anything else is possible. They never heard--and
cant conceive of--Inner Sanctum or The
Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show or Boston
Blackie or The Whistler or Grand Central
Station or One Mans Family. Their ears
are just not trained to pick up signals from afar--from, say,
It isnt that Clear Channel and the other media monoliths
are politically right or left, its that theyre soul-less,
clueless, uncreative corporations that are now running the show--into
the ground--while those who love and revere radio want something
more, much more.
We do not need to hear more traffic accidents. We can do without
reports of warehouse fires, drug busts and gangland shootouts.
We are weary of the same babble of threadbare issues on round-the-clock
talk shows, whether run by lunatics or intellectuals or shock
jocks. We do not need to know the scores of ballgames, the days
rainfall and the Dow Jones averages every 10 minutes. This is
not news and clearly not radio as it was designed to be. This
is wallpaper, federally licensed white noise.
All of that is but a bare minimum, the bargain basement, of what
radio is capable of providing. The millions of American who grew
up with radio still hunger for real entertainment. We want to
revisit that old theater of the mind, not theater
of the mindless and the politically minded. We want comedy, variety,
drama, and mystery shows. We want to hear from contemporary Fred
Allens and Richard Diamonds and Lone Rangers and Bing Crosbys
and Burns and Allens and Great Gildersleeves and Lum and Abners
and Mysterious Travelers and Our Miss Brookses and One Mans
Families and Captain Midnights and My Friend Irmas and Grand
Surely they are out there somewhere in the silent, unheard air,
but with new names, just waiting for radio to tune them in.
©2003 by Gerald Nachman.
The Nachman caricature is ©2000 by Jim Hummel. The cartoon
radio is from IMSI's Master Clip Collection, 1895 Francisco Blvd.
E., San Rafael, CA, 94901-5506, USA. The old-time radio personalities
pictured are, clockwise from top left: "Johnny" Roventini
for Philip Morris; Eve Arden of "Our Miss Brooks";
Charlie McCarthy; Jim and Marian Jordan of "Fibber McGee
and Molly"; Fred Allen; Arthur Godfrey; Harold Peary of
"The Great Gildersleeve"; Bob Elliot and Ray Goulding
of "Bob and Ray."
NACHMAN is a veteran newspaper columnist and longtime radio fan
whose "Raised on Radio" is one of the classic books
about the radio medium and its Golden Age. His latest book is
"Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s."
He is a co-founder of www.thecolumnists.com.
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