Historians of broadcasting often refer to the decades just prior to the popularization of television as “the Golden Age of Radio.” Commercial stations emerged in the 1920s, and radio rapidly became the most popular form of entertainment in the American home. Broadcasts included news reports, live and recorded musical performances, and a wide variety of scripted programs. Perhaps most representative of this era are the serials and genre anthologies. Dramas, comedies, westerns, detective stories, and super heroes all got the serial treatment, while the anthologies leaned more toward science fiction, horror, and thrillers. Since our very own Fission Girl is an homage to these classics, today we’ll take a look back at some of the most popular radio programs of the Golden Era.
- The Adventures of Superman
This serial was the first attempt to bring the Man of Steel to an adult audience. Beginning in 1940, the show was hugely popular and ran for over a decade. The pace of production was incredibly high by current entertainment standards, airing three new episodes per week for most of its 11-year run. Much of the now familiar back story of Superman was codified on this program, and phrases like “Faster than a speeding bullet…”, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane…”, and “Mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent…” originated there. In all, there were 2088 original episodes of The Adventures of Superman.
- The Shadow
“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Listeners all across the US tuned in on Sunday nights to hear this introduction. The Shadow began as a character on the CBS program, Detective Story Hour, but soon was given his own show, known simply as The Shadow. This crime thriller with supernatural overtones transfixed audiences weekly from 1931 to 1954, and at one point featured the acting talents of Orson Welles in the titular role. Initially, the Shadow was merely the narrator of the program, but early in the 1930s, he became the protagonist. Many view the Shadow character as the conceptual father of Batman.
- Lights Out
Beginning in 1934 and running until 1947, Lights Out is considered the first successful horror program, and it paved the way for others shows like Suspense and Inner Sanctum Mystery. Although it was originally a serial, the producers found a larger audience when they shifted to an anthology format. The style of the early scripts is quite grisly, with a macabre sense of humor. Vivid descriptions of gore were common, as characters were often tortured, torn apart, dissolved in acid, skinned alive, or dropped into foundries full of molten metal—all with appropriately histrionic voice acting and sound effects. Once the show became nationally syndicated, this element was toned down in favor of plots featuring more supernatural or psychological horror. The show changed networks several times and eventually made the jump to television, airing from 1949 to 1952.
- Inner Sanctum Mystery
Running from 1941 to 1952, Inner Sanctum Mysteries is often credited with creating the comedy horror genre. Television horror hosts like Vampira, Ghoulardi, and Elvira owe much to Inner Sanctum. Combining campy intros with genuinely chilling tales, Inner Sanctum Mystery also brought major movie talent to the airwaves. Horror legends Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, and Claude Rains were joined by other big names like Richard Widmark, Frank Sinatra, Burgess Meredith, and Orson Welles. The original host, Raymond Johnson, always closed the show by wishing the listeners “pleasant dreams, hmmm?” with the most over-the-top, camp malevolence possible.
This program was a staple of CBS Radio from 1942 to 1962, and aired 945 original episodes. An illustrious list of writers and directors produced the episodes, and many famous actors lent their talents to the show. For example, the pilot episode was written and directed by Alfred Hitchcock, and voiced by Edmund Gwenn and Herbert Marshall, both famous British actors with lengthy Broadway and Hollywood resumes. Initially, the show focused on contemporary themes and settings, but by the 1950s it had shifted to more fantastic science fiction and horror tales.
No list of classic radio shows would be complete without at least one Western. Not only is Gunsmoke a great Western, it is regarded by many as one of the best radio dramas ever made. It ran on radio from 1952 to 1961 (and on television from 1955 to 1975), and it was groundbreaking in several ways. It was aimed at adults, unlike other Westerns popular at the time (The Lone Ranger and The Cisco Kid). The main character, Marshall Matt Dylan, was conceived as a sort of 1890s hard-boiled detective—the Phillip Marlowe of the Old West. Even those who are not aficionados of cowboy fare will find the stories engaging, and the voice acting compelling.
- Little Orphan Annie
Although intended for children, the adventures of the mop-topped orphan and her little dog, Sandy, caught the attention of many adults as well. Although it was based on Harold Gray’s long-running (86 years!) comic strip of the same name, the radio show was less political in its themes, focusing instead on narrow escapes from thrilling cliffhangers, and selling the products of its sponsors, first Ovaltine, and then Quaker Puffed Wheat. The show was broadcast in the afternoon to cater to its afterschool audience, airing its pilot in 1930, then serialized from 1931 to 1942. Little Orphan Annie is also important to radio history because it is viewed by many as the first successful use of premiums like decoder rings, badges, toys, and other branded products.
These classics of the Golden Age of Radio influenced electronic storytelling, especially when television was in its infancy. Even today there are writers and actors keeping audio theatre in the style of old time radio alive on the internet. Podcasts like The Thrilling Adventure Hour, Welcome to Nightvale, and The Incomparable Radio Theatre, are proof that the format is alive and well. Of course, the best example around this neck of the web is the Planetary Broadcast Network. Tune in to follow the exciting adventures of Fission Girl and her Faithful Maid Marie, airing just after the PBN Evening News. Award-winning journalist James Dixon and PBN’s team of crack reporters bring you the news, weather, and rogue robot updates you need to be an informed member of our great democracy!