The Golden Age of Radio is beloved by fans who’d love to share an interest in old radio with children or friends, but to the uninitiated, the whole thing can seem rather weird or daunting, and leave them wondering, “why would I want to listen to that?”
How quickly radio declined once television became available and affordable to the mass audience is an indication that many people listed to radio less because they preferred the art form over film and more because it was all that was available outside of a movie theater and at no cost. Even in countries like Great Britain where new radio dramas are produced with high quality actors and creative teams, their popularity is dwarfed by that of television.
For younger viewers/listeners, this problem is compounded by an increasingly hyper-paced state of entertainment, they’re fed from their first television shows to the present to expect high-paced stories that are resolved very quickly and this has grown over the years. In the video commentary on the 1990s Batman: The Animated Series, it was commented that the show was too slow paced for today’s kids, and if you watch modern day cartoons, they move at a dizzying speed that make 1990s Action cartoons seem like they’re moving in slow motion. And for viewers like that, the more deliberately paced programs of 1930s-60s don’t have a chance.
Many people have an image of golden age radio drama from television and movies of the era that portray it as corny or hammy. Certainly there were programs that could be that way, but there’s a wide variety of quality. The tens of thousands of programs out their encompass so many different genres and styles. If you like bold well-done drama there’s Studio One and the Mercury Theatre, for classic Science Fiction, it’s X-minus One, or you could listen to Fred Allen who pioneered the field of satire on his various programs, and then Cavalcade of America made American history entertaining. And there are countless more: from soaps to medical dramas to horror and fantasy.
Finally, there are social issues in old time radio for twenty-first century listener. To some people (myself included), patriotism, morals, and reverence aren’t bugs, they’re features, but not everyone shares that view and may find such things “preachy” or “propaganda.”
However, there’s larger concerns about some golden age programming particularly when it comes to racial stereotypes and views of women. Even some who might chafe at modern day political correctness will probably find something that would make them uncomfortable in the tens of thousands of surviving radio programs.
To enjoy the golden age of radio, you have to understand yourself to be a guest in another time and place with a different cultures, values, and understanding. I tend to think that there are lessons to be learned from the past (both good and bad) and that we should have some grace and understanding for the foibles of past generations when listening to radio because future generations will no doubt have problems with today’s culture’s attitudes and behaviors, and I wouldn’t want everything good about our modern world written off due to those failures.
Still, if you find yourself unable to move beyond the lens of our twenty-first century world, you may not be able to enjoy the golden age of radio or many other classic works.
For some, enjoying the golden age of radio may mean finding the right programs or changing perspective. Still, for others, it’s not something they’ll ever be able to understand the joy of old time radio. As Jimmy Durante, “Such are the conditions that prevail.”
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