There are a number of ways to get an Old Time Radio fix. Each has advantages and disadvantages to it. There’s some debate back and forth between various sites. I think each can meet the needs of a specific base of fans.
My purpose is not to reccomend any specific products, hosts, or services, only to give the interested fan a look at the benefits and drawbacks of each way of accessing Old Time Radio.
It should also be said that just because there are disadvantages to a method doesn’t mean the medium is bad, just giving pros and cons.
Commercially Distributed Audio CDs:
Advantages: These CDs usually have the best quality of sound, which can be of great importance to audiophiles. Oftentimes, tracks have been painstakingly restored and remastered. In addition, these companies have a wide distribution network that allows them to be sold commerically in stores, allows many people to experience vintage radio in sound that’s even better than the first listeners enjoyed.
Disadvantages: These collections tend to be the most costly. In addition, they have a relatively limited selection. Because of the high cost restoration, you won’t walk into a Cracker Barrel and see an obscure show like Candy Matson or Barrie Craig for sale. Instead, well-known shows like Dragnet, Fibber McGee and Molly, etc. will be the ones to make it to stores. Though, some of the more obscure might one or two episodes make it in a variety pack.
Even of those series that are released, your listening experience will be somewhat limited. Because of limited interest, no company can afford to actually sell CDs for every episode of even the most popular series out there. No one’s going to buy the 150 CDs you’d need to make a complete Dragnet set.
Thus, these commercial sets while at very high quality, will only allow a limited access to vintage radio treasures.
Archive.org and Free Download Sites
Advantages: There’s a lot of free Old Time Radio out there on the Internet. Archive.org and various groups including the Old Time Radio Researchers Group. Boston Blackie, the Falcon, Let George Do It, and Dragnet are all available at no cost. A listener just has to find the MP3s, download them, sit back, and listen.
Disadvantages: The maxim, “You get what you pay for,” applies with free MP3s. The quality of free MP3s is often not all it cracks up to be. However, to be fair, vintage radio never sounded like a Radio Archives or Radio Spirits CD.
You’re also on your own for labeling in many cases, and finding the right MP3 can be a fun-filled search across many Internet sites, with many files mis-labeled or misrepresented. Let the downloader beware.
Advantages: MP3 CDs at their best offer the same things that people can get online for free, except they don’t have to go digging for it and they don’t have to worry if a site is safe to download from. All they need to know is how to listen to an MP3 with Itunes or Windows Media Player and if they want to burn them to an Audio CD, they have to know that as well.
Disadvantages: First of all, there’s a cost to the MP3 CDs and DVDs. Secondly, there’s variable quality to the tracks. This isn’t a big concern if you’re downloading it for free, and it’s got skips and jumps, but if you’ve actually paid for a CD, you’ve got a real problem.
In addition, you may pay the same price and get far fewer Shows depending on who you buy from. Finally, the accuracy of the sets is often in doubt. The great advantage of these sites is their huge number of files. However, if you’ve got 80,000 Shows on your site, how well are you going to know each show? I’ve seen several sites selling CDs with five or six episodes of Johnny Modero, Pier 13 when there are only two and I can tell from the description that the other 3 or 4 episodes listed are merely duplicates of the two actual episodes.
Advantages: FTP sites tend to be cheaper than MP3 CDs on a pure GB for GB basis because they don’t have to make a CD or wear out their burner. On the same token, FTP sites are less likely to spit out bad tracks. The reason for this is that files are sometimes degraded in the burning process if the CD isn’t burner properly or the burner is wearing out. This isn’t a problem with FTP sites.
Disadvantages: It takes a little more technical proficiency than copying files from a CD. There’s also the problem in keeping an accurate catalog that MP3 CDs have.
Yes, there are radio stations that actually broadcast Old Time Radio. X-M Sattelite Radio has a station that features vintage radio. However, there are also land-based stations. While I’ve not included links to other sources, I’ll share my favorite radio station, 1710 AM Antioch based in Illinois. Thankfully, it also transmits online, or it’d be of limited usefulness given it’s narrow range of about 1 mile. The show is programmed just like a normal radio station and will give a large variety fo Old Time Radio programming. Mystery, Detective, Comedy, and Adventure shows will occur throughout the day. However, the centerpiece of its line-up is “The Whistler” and “Suspense” which each air for a complete hour back to back.
There are a few others that are included in Itunes radio stations list, but Antioch is the best of the lot.
Disadvantages: If there’s any disadvantage to radio stations, it would be the lack of consistency in actual shows. Part of this is due to the variable number of shows out there for each time slot. In addition, even when efforts are made to ensure constancy, you’ve got to work these shows into your schedule to enjoy them, and be able to sit down and listen to Superman at the same time, which we don’t like to do. And we wonder why Radio Drams died out in the first place…
Advantages: Okay, let me speak as being totally unbiased as a podcaster. In truth, it should be said that the consistent advantage of a podcast is the relative ease of syncing up your IPOD and downloading shows as they’re released and being able to take them and listen to them anywhere you’d like.
Disadvantages: Let’s be clear some hosts tend to ramble and say things like, “Alright” way too many times and don’t forget the uhs and uhms, or saying everything’s “interesting.” In addition, many real need audio editiors to keep them in line.
All kidding aside. Podcasts really are variable in nature as to the care taken by the hosts to quality of the production and commentary. In addition, there are podcasts that run the gamet from the absolutely eclectic (one week they’ll have Inner Sanctum and the next week, it’ll be Fibber McGee and Molly.) to the categorically organized (all the shows are Westerns) to those that are focused on one ore more shows.
Because, it’s such a new technology, and requires at least some work to get it done, you could be at the mercy of a podcasters’ schedule as to whether you’ll get your shows.
In addition, it should be said that while the term “podcasting” is better understood than it used to be , many people own IPODs but have not ventured beyond organizing their own music and don’t understand how or why they would subscribe to a podcast, so it has a long way to go to being as understood as CDs.
So Which Is Better
My answer: It depends on what people want. None of these forms are bad, though some of them may not work well. With the exception of paid FTP sites, I’ve used every single form of OTR distribution at one point.
When I was a little boy, my dad found an Old Time Radio tape set (this was before CDs) at the Thrift Store and bought it for us. I remembered enjoying the episodes, but being disappointed there weren’t more.
While looking online a few years back, I came across a podcast that was an eclective detective show. I really wanted to hear more Dragnet, so I bought an MP3 DVD off of Ebay, and it was from that DVD that I started my own podcast, though I’ve had to supplement that material on the DVD with free MP3s from various websites.
When I began to listen to Antioch, I had the genesis for this podcast. I met George Valentine in Let George Do It and I heard Box 13 and Dan Holiday’s first letter. While I’ll be unlikely to use it any podcast I’ve got planned, through Antioch I was introduced to I Was a Communist for the FBI and The Six Shooter.
Recently, I’ve been curious about The Green Hornet and The Shadow and have streamed a couple existing podcasts to get a feel for the shows.
Every distribution channel has a place in popularizing passing on the joys of vintage radio to future generations. Which one is right will depend on the individual needs and circumstances.