Radio That Teaches American History

A recent study shows that Americans don’t know their history. According to the NAEP report card, 22% of American students are proficient at grade level in American History, dropping to 13% for High School graduates.

Of course, it hasn’t always been like the case. During the golden age of radio,  the radio not just the theater of the mind, it told the story of America’s heritage, passing it on like an ancient storyteller around a campfire.

And those who told these stories of America were some of the best at it. Thankfully, many of these great shows are preserved so that we can find those unique and exciting stories that are part of American history.

We cannot hope to cover every single series that was about some portion of American History. The field of radio programs is far too vast. Rather, in this piece we’ll highlight four shows that represent a good jumping off point. Nor does this list included the almost never-ending list of programs that because of their age, give us an insight into history.

1) Cavalcade of America: 1935-53:

The term “Cavalcade” is one that was used often during the golden age of radio and television but not commonly today. A Cavalcade is a procession, a noteworthy series. The theme of Cavalcade of America’s early years was that as Americans we were part of a cavalcade that kept moving on.  Early episodes would take a look at a theme. In the first episode, “No Turning Back,” the program began with the pilgrims electing to stay through the hard winter at Plymouth Rock and then turned to farmers who had been hit by the dust bowl who found the courage to keep on. Both, according to the program’s creators were part of  that same procession. Future episodes focused on virtues of self-reliance, industry, and the will to rebuild. Each took vignettes from American history and tied them together through this Cavalcade theme.

And the stories that were told were magnificient. There were, of course, the ones you’d expect such as the Wright Brothers flight. However, there were many marvelous little known gems from American history.  Examples include:

  • A steamboat race from St. Louis to New Orleans that captured the imagination of the world.
  • The settlement of Oklahoma and why the state was called the Sooner State.
  • The man who struggled to make a business of exporting ice from the United States and selling it overseas in tropical climates in the 19th Century.

The program did evolve and the Cavalcade theme became less prominent, particularly during the War years. If you listened to other radio programs during the war you’d hear about the work done by the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, but the Cavalcade of America took pains to portray  the Merchant Marines, ambulance drivers in Africa, and those who brought supplies to the front.

Cavalcade of America featured some of the finest talent in radio. Among those who appeared were: Orson Welles, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Dick Powell, Bob Bailey, and a host of others.

Cavalcade continued to tell remarkable true stories, along with a few fictionalized plays that were popular in the era. While occassional bias in the selection of material or the portrayal of controversial figures was on occassion, apparent, the series remains a marvel.

The show was sponsored by the Dupont Corporation and here Dupont deserves some plaudits. Unlike other sponsors who threw old transcription discs out like old rubbish, Dupont has held on to most of these discs, and they deserve some credit for the series being so well-catalogued and with more than 700 episodes in circulation. Dupont’s ads themselves are great history as they describe how the company is working for “better living through Chemistry” and some of Dupont’s latest advances, many of which we take for granted in the 21st Century.

The Old Time Radio Researchers set of this series remains one of the best collections, providing a good look at the breadth of this series.  Click here to sample some of the single episodes.

2) Inheritance: 1954-55

This program, filled the void of Cavalcade of America. It was sponsored by the American Legion and aired over NBC. It featured stories from American History, both well-known figures such as Davy Crocket and George Washington Carver, as well as lesser known figures such as the first female American physician, Elizabeth Blackwell.

49 of 57 episodes of “Inheritance” are available for download at the Internet Archive.

3) You Are There: 1947-50

It was Orson Welles with his, “War of the Worlds” broadcast that first highlighted the dramatic storytelling power of a fictional newscast. In 1947, CBS News used the power of radio to teach history in its radio programs (and later television version), You Are There.

CBS is There/You Are There showed how historical events would have been covered by a modern news organization. In this Case, CBS, brought to life such events as the passage of the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  It should be noted that not every episode of You Are There focused on American History, with CBS covering global events such as the last days of Pompeii and deaths of Joan of Arc and Socrates.  CBS offered a great product and episodes are available at the Internet Archive. The Digital Deli has put together a wonderful log that arranges the episodes of You Are There in historical order.

4) Mr. President: 1947-53

Each episode of Mr. President tell a real story from the life of the President of United States.  Often the stories are exciting or little known chapters in the lives of the men who have filled the office. Mr. President in all of his persons is played by Edward Arnold.

The series was noted for not telling listeners what President was being profiled until the end with listeners guessing who it was. Sadly, many OTR collectors have ruined that aspect of the series by labeling the shows with the name of the President.

However, there’s still much to enjoy. You can download 126 episodes of Mr. President at the Internet Archive.

5) Other shows:

As stated at the start of this article, we’re only scratching the surface of historical old time radio.There were plenty of other shows that profiled American History. The OTRR, a few years back assembled a collection of radio shows on American History with excerpts from programs such as American Trail,  Destination: Freedom, and Frontier Fighters.

You can listen to these miscellaneous  programs at the Internet Archive which also contains many other great radio treasures that provide an insight into America’s great history.

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  4 comments for “Radio That Teaches American History”

  1. July 5, 2011 at 6:48 am

    Most OTR “history” shows were more civic mythology and
    propaganda for the Chamber of Commerce than actual history.

    A few shows transcended the genre.
    Horizons West, a detailed re-enactment of
    the journeys of Lewis and Clark;

    “Democracy in America,”
    where de Tocqueville’s impressions,
    first of the prison systems, then of
    Americans in general are recounted
    in “theek franche accsahnts”.

    Both series are written by historians
    and educators and draw from the primary
    source material. They last a full season of
    a dozen episodes and can take time to develop
    their subject.
    “White Coolies” is an Australian tale of nurses in POW camps,
    taken from the diaries of Bettie Jeffries.
    Gripping, horrific, yet deeply affecting. You get to know all these
    characters over the course of 52 episodes, share their joy discovering
    a bar of soap, grieve when one dies, their isolation and
    slow re-entry into society. The actual physical diaries become a
    character themselves, with great effort
    keeping them hidden from captors,
    dry during monsoon rains and safe in shipwreck.

    Oh yeah. Slip
    a couple of e-bucks
    for making all this available for free.

    The Firesign Theater deftly parodied
    the whole Cavalcade genre in
    “I Think We’re All Bozos on This Bus”,
    during the Wall of Science section,
    recounting the invention of the Pushover.

  2. Yours Truly Johnny Blogger
    July 5, 2011 at 7:08 am

    Well, I appreciate the shows you mentioned, thanks.

    I do think you’re being somewhat unkind to Cavalcade in particular. They used historians to make sure their stories were accurately told.

    As for these “parodies,” I don’t care much for them. Because they seem the work of small men determined to tear down and belittle the works of great ones.

  3. July 5, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    Oh, I love cavalcade. I got the cd set and worked my way through every episode one summer. DuPont did their homework. Some of the other series were not as objective. I vaguely remember a portrait of Jay Gould that ignored any controversial elements and had to reach to find enough nice things to say
    about this charter member of the “Villians, Thieves and Scoundrels Union, Local 12”.

    Firesign did not so much parody calvalcade as deconstruct it, long before professors were teaching deconstruction in universities. They employed the structure, the pacing, the voicings to build something much, much greater than their source. In Bozos, a former programmer at a Disneyland-style “Future Fair” hacks the presidential robotronic exhibit. Their previous album employed the structure of Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape”, transposing the setting to an old actor dozing in front of the TV, watching his life unfold in his Hollywood movies.

  4. July 5, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    Well, I would agree that there were some shows that did a poor job of educating or being accurate, but I haven’t run into them too much yet. I think the one you’re referring to is Captains of Industry.

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