The American Audio Drama Tradition, Part Three: The Decline of Network Radio Drama

Continued from Part Two

As television rose, radio drama declined. The year 1951 saw the first time television advertising revenues surpassed those of radio. This led to rising budgets for television and falling budgets for radio. On radio, the big stars’ appearances became less and less frequent. Radio’s most talented writers began writing for television, often pulling out old radio scripts, dusting them off, and rewriting them for television.

The budget cuts showed up in music. As television rose, some programs saved money by switching from orchestral scores to organ scores. NBC saved money in the early-to-mid 1950s by using the same musical bridges on nearly all of their dramatic programs. Radio appearances by big stars on programs such as Suspense became rarer as the decade went on. The quality of films getting adaptations on the Lux Radio Theater declined as well.

A vicious cycle emerged. Declining budgets led to declining quality of on-air programs which led to further declines in listenership which led to budget cuts which led to declining production quality, which led to more declines in listenership which led to more budget cuts

Radio did have one last great moment of major pop culture influence. In 1953, the series Gunsmoke appeared and began a major trend: the adult western program. Westerns had a place on radio since the 1930s. However, Gunsmoke dealt with more mature themes and featured rich, well-developed characters. The series would run for eight years and spark a revolution on radio and television that would carry over into the 1950s.

Gunsmoke would make the jump to television but not with the radio version of Marshall Matt Dillon. The character was played by William Conrad, who was viewed as too fat for the role. The role went to James Arness, who would do a superb job. However, Conrad being left in the lurch was a reminder that television was a far more shallow medium than radio.

Quite a few TV shows attempted to continue to air separate radio episodes. It was a win for the networks who saw having separate radio and television programs as an opportunity to cross-promote. For the actors, it meant more money. Yet for most shows, it began to make less sense with declines in radio listenership reduced the amount of the revenue, and the burnout that comes with doing the same thing repeatedly took a tool. Ozzie and Nelson record thirty-nine episodes on television and another thirty-nine on radio, Dragnet recorded fifty-two on radio. At some point, it began to not make sense for TV successes to hang around radio.

1955 saw some major departures: Jack Benny and Bob Hope left radio along with Dragnet and the Lux Radio Theater. Beloved programs were leaving in droves, yet radio drama would survive until the 1960s.

How Network Radio Drama Survived the 1950s

Among fans of the golden age of radio, by far, the most beloved radio programs of this era came from CBS. While the big stars became scarce on radio, CBS was buoyed by a de facto radio repertory theater where the same actors appeared over and over again in CBS various radio productions. Actors like Virginia Gregg, Parley Baer, Peggy Webber, and John Dehner were the backbone of CBS’s Hollywood radio output of the late 1950s. None would be famous, but each were talented and performed with thousands of radio appearances under their belt. That sort of talent and competence kept radio interesting.

Their work could be heard in CBS’s surviving anthology programs: Suspense and Romance. In addition, they appeared in the CBS Radio Workshop, an experimental program that harkened back to the groundbreaking Columbia workshop of the late 1940s and 1950s.

Outside of this, CBS maintained many soap operas and launched a new one, The Couple Next Door, in 1957. Several Westerns also aired during this period, including Gunsmoke. In a reversal of adapting radio shows to television, CBS launched a radio version of its western TV Show Have Gun, Will Travel with Dehner as the lead.

The big surprise during this era was Yours Truly Johnny Dollar. The series had run from 1949-54 with three different actors playing the lead over the course of more than 200 episodes. However, CBS wanted to bring the show back as a serialized version with stories told in 15-minute segments Monday-Friday. Bob Bailey was cast as the new Johnny Dollar. The serialized episodes often expanded upon previous half an hour stand-alone detective scripts or combined concepts from multiple scripts. In 1956, the series continued on as a half-hour program. (For more on the Johnny Dollar in this era, see my recent article on the top five detective dramas of the declining years of the golden age of radio.)

NBC also contributed to this era, starting with its Monitor series, a weekend-long block of a variety of radio programs. This included occasional bits of vintage radio, most notably five-minute episodes of Fibber McGee and Molly.

However, NBC’s greatest contribution to this era came in April 1955 when they launched a science fiction series called X Minus One. The series ran only seven weeks and advised listeners if they wanted to continue hearing the program to write in. That says a lot about the reluctance of Network radio to go into Science Fiction. However, luckily for science fiction fans, interest was high and the series returned to radio and continued to air until New Year’s 1958. It adapted the works of great science fiction authors like Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov. It would be re-aired as part of NBC’s Monitor series through the 1970s and there would be a brief attempt to revive the series with new episodes.

Another Science Fiction anthology series began to air over Mutual called Exploring Tomorrow, which aired for 55 weeks twice a week from December 1957-December 1958. It also adapted a similar high quality number of stories. It’s not as well-remembered as X Minus One. The production is hurt by the fact circulating examples of the series have much poorer sound quality than X Minus One and there are far less of them.

Mutual continued to try to be competitive in the world of radio drama into the late 1950s. It became the new home of the long-running radio hit Counterspy and also brought over Gangbusters and another Philip H. Lords program Treasury Agent. They also launched programs of their own, but few of them are in circulation among listeners.

ABC also aired a program called Police Blotter at least into 1957.

However, by 1960, except for an occasional bit of radio drama on Monitor, the sole home of mainstream network radio drama was CBS. On Yours Truly Johnny Dollar on September 25, 1960, the show featured an episode “The Five Down Matter.” The episode celebrated five years of the series revival and continuance. At the height of the golden age, anniversaries or episode milestones passed without notice, or perhaps just a comment after the episode. However, surviving five years when great programs were failing deserved celebrated. Johnny Dollar featured Bailey and all of the most memorable supporting characters from his five-year run.

Five weeks later, Bailey’s run on the show came to a sudden and unceremonious end without on-air acknowledgment. The series moved to New York without either Bailey or the supporting cast.

November 1960 would be brutal. CBS canceled nearly every remaining radio drama. It gave the remaining soap operas a month to wrap up their storylines. It canceled the radio version of Have Gun, Will Travel. After that November, all that remained on the radio was Gunsmoke and Yours Truly Johnny Dollar. 

The Golden Age of Radio’s Final Months

Yours Truly Johnny Dollar acclimated to New York with an entirely different feel to the series and Bob Readick in the lead. In June 1961, CBS radio line-up had one last shake-up. Gunsmoke ended and Suspense returned to the air in New York. This meant all of CBS’ radio operations would be centered in New York and would rely upon actors it worked with on its daytime soap operas. Mandel Kramer, a veteran radio actor, and a supporting character on the TV soap Edge of Night became the last actor to play Johnny Dollar.

For the next 15 months, both programs carried on as best they could. However, on September 30, 1962, both programs aired their last episode on a day that is considered the end of the Golden Age of Radio. But what exactly ended? And how has the legacy of the Golden Age of radio endured since?

We’ll talk about that in our next installment.

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