“When you get something like MTV, it’s like regular television. You get it, and at first it’s novel and brand new and then you watch every channel, every show. And then you become a little more selective and more selective, until ultimately… you wind up with a radio.” David Lee Roth
My Grandma twirled the knobs of her square table radio eager to discover if a woman by the name of Helen Trent could find romance after age 35. If Grandma really wanted to know, so did I. The nights we spent sitting on her couch, listening to radio programs like The Romance of Helen Trent, Ma Perkins, and my favorites The Lone Ranger and The Shadow shaped my entire attitude toward radio. Today, I don’t feel nostalgia toward radio as one of the ingredients that constitute a warm, fuzzy past. Today, as my grandmother’s loyal, loving granddaughter, like Helen Trent, I am still actively romancing radio after 35.
Helen Trent Proved that Romance Doesn’t End at 35
Helen Trent spent her 7,222 soap opera episodes trying to prove that romance in life doesn’t have to be over for a woman of 35. They were called soap operas because most of their sponsors and advertisers were soap companies like Ivory Snow or Duz. Helen believed that “the romance of youth can be extended into middle life and even beyond.”
Helen Trent’s creators, husband and wife duo Frank and Anne Hummert, saw her as the pinnacle of virtue in a black and white world. Helen Trent didn’t smoke, drink, or swear, and her intentions toward the string of men that she did find romance with were purely matrimonial. Soap operas like Helen Trent reflected society’s morals and manners and occasionally even led society in changing those morals and manners.
Ma Perkins Was an Independent Widow
Helen Tent personified romance after 35, but Ma Perkins was the soap opera that Grandmother would probably have traded grandpa and everything else to hear if she had to make a choice. From what my untutored mind could gather,Ma Perkins was a widow who ran a lumberyard in Rushville Center. Her son-in-law, Willy Fitz, helped her with the lumberyard and her son and two daughters provided her with enough worry for four soap operas. Before she passed on to that big stage in the sky, I discovered that Ma Perkins had been on the air for 27 years, for a total of more than 7,000 broadcasts. I’m positive that Grandma didn’t miss one of them. Ma Perkins set a standard and example for being an independent minded and independent living woman.
Television Captured Radio Audiences
In the 1950s, radio reached a zenith of excellent programs, state of the art technology, and large audiences, although television was beginning to make inroads into its audience. The list of radio stars including Ozzie and Harriet, Jack Benny, and Gracie Allen and George Burns making successful transitions to television is long and multi-faceted. Radio program formats like soap operas, situation comedies, quiz shows, sportscasts, successfully transitioned from radio into television. By the 1960s, television had co-opted most of the radio audiences for drama, sports, and news programs, leaving music and talk radio formats among others.
Music was the only thing I listened to on the radio in the 1960s. My beloved grandmother died and I believed our radio connection had died with her. The decades since then changed my mind about radio, its role in society, and its role in my personal life.
Drama and History Lives on the Radio
One of the positive impacts that radio made on society is that in its early days it became a center for the family. The picture of a family gathered around the radio in their living room and enjoying its entertainment isn’t pure nostalgia. The picture is a largely realistic depiction of the radio as an information and family entertainment center from the 1920s to the early 1950s.
In its early years the radio served as an instrument of family unity and it shaped and reinforced social attitudes. It also reflected changes in business and society in general. The evolution of advertising brought about the end of broadcast cultural events like plays and concerts being uninterrupted by commercials. The commercials themselves often influenced the programs, like Blue Coal did The Shadow and the various soap companies the soap operas. The Lux Radio Theater seamlessly segued its commercials into the dramas that it broadcast and the dramas into the commercials, often with the stars of the drama doing the Lux commercials.
Radio news broadcasts of the 1930s-1950s chronicle history in a living vibrant manner that no textbook or television broadcast can reproduce.Radio sports broadcasts are just as immediate. Listening to the speeches of Adolf Hitler and the Fireside Chats of Franklin Delano Roosevelt brings a sense of immediacy to history. William L. Shirer and Lowell Thomas broadcasting European events from the 1930s and 1940s bring life changing events into the personal lives of listeners. Lowell Thomas intoning, “This is London,” with the sounds of bombs in the background, brings the Blitz frighteningly alive for me.
Radio Exercises Our Imaginations
Radio can revive and reconnect Americas with their imaginations if they want them to be revived and reconnected. It exercises the imagination to have to carefully listen to voices and provide our own mind pictures instead of fastening our vision on a screen and have the images do the thinking for us.
The War of the Worlds was broadcast on October 30. 1938, and its affect on the country powerfully illustrates the after effects imagination, both hysterical and real. It is the fictional drama of a Martian invasion of earth, but broadcast with such realism that enough people believed it to cause a panic in the United States.
Radio can help our society and the people in it rethink the impact of imagination or the lack of it on our lives.
Radio Transcends the Narrow Prisms of our Own Experiences
The fact that listening to the radio shaped the American psyche socially, politically, and economically seems obvious to older generations of Americans, but the MTV, CNN, ESPN and Internet generation must still be convinced. Perhaps one of the most powerful instruments to convince them is the Internet itself. There are old time radio networks broadcasting on the Internet as well as a wealth of individual old time radio programs available for listening.
Although some of the old radio programs sound antique to modern ears, they provide an illuminating window into the habits and customs of an era. They provide close-ups of celebrities like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez, Jack Benny, and Red Skeleton and fun retrospectives of dramas like Inner Sanctum, The Shadow, and the Lone Ranger.
Radio Links Us with Others in World
Radio has a global voice, yet preserves local dialects and customs. If it isn’t possible for an intellectual explorer to travel to travel to every country in the world and learn its language and customs, radio provides a good substitute. If its executives program conformity and generic thinking, radio can segregate people. If its executives program multicultural ideas and diversity, radio can free people from cultural insularity.
Listening to the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and BBC 4 expands my intellectual horizons and gives me a glimmer of understanding of how other countries in the world besides America work. I listen to people from other countries talk, and find out what their worlds are like. I can listen to their literature and religion and their peer into their everyday lives by listening to their radio broadcasts.
Radio Links Us to Ourselves
Listening to the music from The Romance of Helen Trent brings tears to my eyes and my grandmother to my side once again. Radio is an important link to my grandmother, a link that still connects us across the ether of generations, space and time. Radio links our past, our present, and our futures.
Douglas, Susan J. Listening in: Radio and American Imagination, University of Minnesota Press, 2004
Finkelstein, Norman. Sounds in the Air, iUniverse, 2000
Hilmes, Michele, Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio, Routledge, 2001
Nachman, Gerald, Raised on Radio. University of California Press, 2000