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Old-Time Radio's Second Wind

By:  Justin DeFreitas Mar 13, 2014
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Old radio

It's often said that we are witnessing a golden age of scripted television. With shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad and House of Cards, audiences today are looking to TV more than movies for sustained, in-depth drama with fully realized characters.

It's the second golden age for a medium that, while struggling through a tumultuous time in terms of its business model, has proven itself especially durable.

The golden age of scripted radio, on the other hand, faded in the 1950s. And though it's unlikely to experience a second coming, old-time radio is experiencing something of a resurgence.

Today we associate radio with top 40 FM, NPR or the nonstop chatter of AM sports and talk. But from the 1930s to the early ‘60s, radio was dominated by scripted comedy and drama, often of a very high order, with the era's top writers, directors and actors taking to the airwaves on a daily basis. Just as vaudeville provided much of the talent for radio, television would count on radio for much of its early talent and programming.

"The modern sitcom was invented on radio," says Jon Folk, proprietor of Kansas City-based OTRCAT.com. "Soap operas were also originated by radio. And many of the great radio scriptwriters transitioned to early television."

Thanks to the Internet and digital audio technology, those classic shows are more accessible than at any time since they first aired. These long-neglected broadcasts are collected, curated and distributed by die-hard fans, hobbyists and homespun entrepreneurs.

For some it remains a hobby; for others, it's a business. And yet it's more than either: It's a valuable contribution to history, helping to preserve the daily soundtrack of a generation and a fuller portrait of a bygone era of American life.

Listening to programs from radio's golden age is like a portal to the past, says Jay Lichtenauer, who broadcasts old radio shows 24 hours a day via AM 1710 Antioch from his home in northern Illinois.

"You can make a connection to the culture of your own parents and grandparents," he says. "If you're interested in American history, with old time radio you are totally submerged in Americana."

Old-Time Radio's Initial Resurgence

Interest in old-time radio — known by enthusiasts as OTR — surged in the 1960s and '70s as baby boomers rediscovered (or perhaps failed to relinquish) the pleasures of childhood, and as old timers relived the good old days by listening to the shows of yesteryear. OTR became a hobby, its classic shows collected on reel-to-reel tapes, on the original phonograph discs cut by the networks and stations, and later on cassette and CD.

Old radio

Much of the pleasure of OTR is in rediscovering the intimacy of a medium you can listen to anywhere — in the car, at the beach, or, as virtually any radio enthusiast will attest, in the dark. With OTR, Lichtenauer says, "You can relax in a dark room, close your eyes, and let the story paint itself. Let it exercise your imagination."

"It's a cross between television and reading a good book," adds Folk. "Radio shows meet you halfway. You are able to enjoy the characterizations from great actors, the sound effects and great music, but you are given the freedom to use your own imagination."

Steven Kelez, who for many years made a living selling old-time radio shows on cassette and CD through his Radio Showcase business in Santa Rosa, Calif., says "listening to Jack Benny's show was like inviting some friends into the house. It's a wonderful medium."

But getting back to that old-time mindset does not necessarily come easily for modern listeners. "You have to be attuned to it," he says.

Kelez was among a distinct class of dealers that was concerned first and foremost with audio quality. The fidelity of old recordings ranges from pristine to abysmal, and poor audio is often exacerbated by dealers who sell badly preserved or degraded recordings. Kelez's Radio Showcase specialized in high-quality recordings; he took great care to clean up the audio and sell the best versions he could find. It meant higher prices, but for years he ran a profitable business selling cassettes and CDs by mail to discerning OTR fans.

For a time, the Internet helped to broaden his customer base, but gradually, streaming audio, the MP3 format and the Internet-fueled notion that media should be free upended his business model. The very tools that made OTR more accessible and appealing to a broader customer base undermined his ability to make a living. About five years ago, classic radio shows became so accessible and cheap that his business just dried up.

The Digital Era

Folk first turned to OTR as a way of passing the time on a long commute. "I began as a collector and saw a great need in the OTR community for a central location for all radio shows," he says. "At the time, most collections were scattered among private collectors and hiding in dust-filled basements. I created OTRCAT.com in 1999 to create a Grand Central Station, if you will, for old-time radio collectors."

Folk's site, which he turned into a side business in 2001, is well organized and catalogued, with brief overviews of each show, giving the OTR newcomer a good place to start. And the MP3 format makes it inexpensive to dive in. "MP3s allow for entire collections to be housed on one CD," Folk says.

He continues, "Interest has grown in the past 15 to 20 years. (MP3s) dramatically affected the availability of old time radio shows. With the quantity and quality of radio shows available, a resurgence has occurred like never before."

But this model too may be doubtful. It's hard to compete with free, and free is readily available. Many websites, most notably Archive.org, allow users to download shows at no cost.

"If you want to listen to a radio show, all you have to do is go online," Kelez says. The audio quality may not be great in a lot of cases, he says, but "you can find just about everything you want."

Streaming Audio and DIY Broadcasting

Lichtenauer has opted for another alternative: streaming OTR online, 24 hours a day. He isn’t running a business, per se, but the efficiency of his AM 1710 Antioch operation is certainly business-like, and it's a model that is increasingly accessible to the OTR hobbyist. Lichtenauer solicits donations to cover his expenses, which amount to about $4,000 a year.

It started a little over a decade ago, when he wanted to hear his own OTR collection through a recently purchased vintage radio.

"I decided to build my own AM transmitter kit and use an old computer to play old time radio shows,”he recalls. “I wrote the software to play what I wanted to hear." Not a fan of contemporary television, Lichtenauer had created "a new substitute. I could turn on any radio in the house and hear my own old- time radio collection."

Lichtenauer launched his home radio network in 2003, then put it up publicly in early 2004. His software plays shows that correspond with today's date in history, selects show and filler music of appropriate length to fit the schedule, and updates the program guide on AM 1710's website. Today he broadcasts via transmitter to homes within a one-mile radius of his own, but also streams online around the world. His station's bandwidth accommodates about 1,500 listeners at a time.

The broadcast may be automated, but Lichtenauer still puts a great deal of work into the audio quality, making sure his collection is listenable and enjoyable by cleaning up files, improving the sound, and buying the best quality shows he can find from OTR dealers.

And a lot of care goes into the metadata, the information that accompanies each show. Lichtenauer makes sure that all his shows have the correct episode titles and original air dates — details that frequently fall by the wayside in the high-volume world of MP3s.

The "Theater of the Mind" may have faded from the media landscape, dissipating back into the air from which it came, but the shows have endured, socked away in closets and garages and basements for decades. They have stubbornly survived from format to format while waiting to be discovered by new generations.

Sure, Folk says, his clientele includes older collectors revisiting their past, but he also sells to museum directors, educators, even long-haul truckers looking for something to make the miles tick by more quickly. And many younger listeners are tuning in, too, he says, "simply because it's good entertainment."