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Vintage radio shows on Archive.org

Old radio shows from the 1930s and 40s are being hosted as free MP3 files by the Internet Archive. Among them are old sitcoms that are as funny and entertaining as Friends or Seinfeld.

The first radio broadcast was made on Christmas Eve in 1906. By the 1920s, commercial radio networks run by the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) became popular. Television was invented in the 1930s but it languished due to World War II. Consequently, radio lasted as the popular medium for news and entertainment for over two decades. After World War II, radio lost the crown to TV. In the age of the Internet, networks such as NBC, ABC and CBS turned over their vast radio archives to the US Library of Congress and other institutions.

The decades 1930s and 40s are known as the "golden age of radio" in America. The process of archiving radio shows from this age has been slow but the Internet has taken the lead. Vintage radio enthusiasts have recovered radio shows from transcription disks (such as those given to the US Armed Forces Radio) and from personal collections. These radio shows are now freely available to the public as MP3 files. According to a leading archivist group, most of these radio shows were broadcast without copyright and are hence not covered by US copyright law. A non-profit organization named Archive.org (home of the Internet Archive and the WayBackMachine) is now hosting many of these radio shows. They cover several genres including crime/detective, mystery, Western, science fiction, romance and horror.

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For today's listener, the payoff is in the richness of the content, as radio shows by definition had to have consistently sharp writing. An ordinary TV sitcom fan will find that old radio comedies have more jokes per dialogue than today's TV shows. Like podcasts, you can listen to vintage radio shows when relaxing at home or while jogging/exercising or when traveling/commuting.

Some popular radio shows

Here are a few comedy shows for starters:

Vintage Radio Commercials

Old radio shows are interesting for another reason - the commercials. The golden age of radio was also a time when many household staples, such as toothpaste (as opposed to toothpowder) and detergents (instead of soaps), were promoted to the public. One tobacco company, which sponsored Red Skelton shows, claimed that "medical science" had provided "proof positive" that their brand was the best for smokers' health than other cigarettes! Product placement was exceptional and the radio medium was tailor-made for it. Commercial messages were written into the dialogs and entire characters built around them.

We also get to hear casual references to politics, war, famine and suffering. In one unusual episode, Duffy's Tavern replaced its regular programming with a serious drama (by a different cast of characters) about the famine in India - to urge Americans to contribute money for famine relief.

We can also note how the political correctness epidemic had an early start. In one episode, Red Skelton tells how "newsboys" (at that time) wanted to be called as "newspaper boys"!

History of radio

According to the Library of Congress, radio broadcasting began in 1926 when the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), a subsidiary of Westinghouse, bought a New York City radio station operated by AT&T (since 1922) and amalgamated it with its own Newark station (started in 1921) to form the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). By 1927, NBC had two networks, Red and Blue, with a total of 25 stations. In the same year, another network named Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System came into being. It later changed its name to Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). The original investors which included a phonograph company were bought off by the new owner, a tobacco magnate. The US Federal Communications Communication (FCC) forced a split of NBC and its "Blue" network was bought by a candy company. It became the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in 1943.

Regular radio shows required serious production effort including radio actors, writers, props, and orchestra. Many shows were recorded in front of a live audience. Thus, the comedy shows had the laugh track added live during the original taping. When these shows were not on air, music, news and interviews with local notables filled the gaps. World War 2 added to the popularity of radio.

Initially, Hollywood was not interested in radio. But, as radio stars moved to Hollywood, Hollywood started producing radio shows based on their old and new movies - it was good publicity. A good example is the Lux Radio Theater. Advertising seems to have been largely provided by tobacco companies and makers of soaps and cosmetics.

In 1928, television made its first appearance. In 1935, the German government started the first regular TV transmissions with 90-minute broadcasts three times a week. In the UK, the BBC started television broadcasts in 1936. In the USA, NBC started with two hours of TV broadcasting per week from 1939. At that time, RCA began selling television sets whose screens were 12x5 inches. World War II distrupted television manufacturing and broadcasting, as factories were diverted for the war effort. Only six TV stations with limited programming was left to cater to 10,000 "TV receivers." Hence, radio continued to rule the air waves in the 40s. When the restrictions were lifted in 1946, television sales grew exponentially. Initially, TV broadcasts were mostly seen in bars and restaurants but by the end of the decade the number TV sets in use was in the millions. Many radio stars had moved to TV and they made their old radio shows even bigger hits on the small screen. There was a Duffy's Tavern movie and a Duffy's Tavern TV show too. The movie was noted for the huge cast of famous stars who had earlier appeared on the radio show but it did not do well at the box office. The TV version also did not last long. Apparently, Duffy's Tavern's main strength lay in the clever use of dialogue written by Gardner and it was mostly lost on the screen. Red Skelton had no such problems. He was a great pantomime artist and his histrionics extended to physical comedy. So, he had a much longer run on TV. From the 60s onwards, radio programming catered to Americans commuting in their cars. (This change can be observed in newer shows such as that of Sears.) However, the golden age of radio had clearly ended.

Stills from the Red Skelton show

Clockwise from left: Skelton thinks the "laws of gravity" have changed, after his wife rearranges the room furniture a bit to cure him of his drinking habit; Skelton as the cowboy DeadEye; Skelton solves the Los Angeles smog problem and unsolves a new mosquito problem; Skelton, as the village bumpkin Clem, strikes the New York art scene.

Vintage radio shows live forever

Vintage radio shows that are online now make an interesting form of alternative entertainment for us in the present. The payoff for the listener is in the richness of the content. As they lacked video, radio shows by definition had to have consistently sharp writing. A TV sitcom fanatic will definitely find that old radio comedies have more jokes per dialogue than today's TV shows. Unlike podcasts, vintage radio do not seem to lose their value no matter how many times you have listened to them. But, like podcasts, you can listen to vintage radio shows when relaxing at home or while jogging/exercising or when traveling/commuting. Why, you might even delude yourself and wax nostalgic as if you were really around at that time!


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