Theatrical Productions: Radio

Figure 1.--Bobby Breen appeared on American radio shows. This is, however, a sceen from "Rainbow on the River" (1936) which recreated a studio scene.

As is often the case, war is often a catalyst for technological advance. And radio was one of the technolgies accelerated by World War I. Radio beginning in the 1920s became a major media forum. There were many radio shows with child parts. Of couse as there was no video component, the actors were not costumed. Juvenile parts were not always even performed by children. Some visdual images appeared in the media. hWile radio itself is of only minor importance in theatrical performances, it needes to be mentioned, both to complete the theatrical survey and as a precursor to television. It was, however, of huge economic and historical importance importance. Virtually every American in the 1930s had aadio in the home. The same was not true in Europe, even in Germany one of the most prosperous countries. Hitler made a major effort to increase radio ownership, but faced low wages (which he kept low to furher his rearmament program) and the lack of mass production. This difference was to have huge consequences in World War II.

Radio Technology

Great advances in technology often ocvcur during or as a result of war. World War I was no exception. The need for improved communications resulted in considerable advances in telecommunications, including radio. Commercial radio broadcasts began after World War I. The broadcasts started in America first (1919-20). Broacasts in other countries soon followed: Australia (1921?), France (1921), England (1922), Germany (1923), New Zealand (1923), Switzerland (1923), and Austria 1924). Early radio listerners used broadcast "detectors" (crystal sets) to receive the broadcast. The basic detector obtained its energy from the transmitted signal. Only headphone reception was possible. possible. Boys are always interested in technology. For some reason girls were much less interested. (This has not changed greatly. In our modern age, boys show a much greater interest in compouters than boys.) Soon a popular activity for boys was building a crystal set. An additional source of electricuty was not needed for a basic crystal set. There were exceptions. A detector with rectifier material needed additional bias voltage. Good detectors had the ability to separate transmissions and were capable of long-distance reception. The great advantage of the crystal detector was the "current-free" reception. The crustal set was, however, replaced by vacuum tubes receivers. These receivers are radio sets were much more sensitive and selective. hey also offered the advantage of greater volume. Crystal set listening was an individual experience with headsets. Radio sets with added voltage and vacuume tubes has a speaker which could be heard by the whole family. Radio became a family experience. Radio sets were large (becauseof the vacuume tubes) and very expenive. Gradually the expense and the size came down. Through the 1930s, however, many families had radio sets on their living rooms that were larger than modern televisions. Television when it came used the same vacuume tube technology. Basic radio technology did not change until the late 1950s with the appearance of the transistor. Other major changes in radio are taking place in the 2000s with digital satellite radio and computer reception.

Country Trends in Radio

HBC's primary interest is in popular enrttainment. In America this meant commercial radio broadcasting. This of course comes from an American perspective, the only radio that HBC is currently familair with. In many European countries, the Governments controlled or actually owned the broadcast networks. HBC remembers listening to a wide range of interesting radio parograms as a little boy, including Amos and Andy, Fibber McGee and Mollie, Gang Busters, Gunsmoke, The Jack Benny Show, The Lone Ranger, The Shadow, and many others. Radio was, however, the exact opposite of the silent films in that it was very difficult to cross international boundaries because of the language prioblem. In addition different countries had far different policies concerning radio and programing. In most countries there was far greater Government control than in America. The extremes of course were the totalitarian countries (Fascist Italy, NAZI Germany, and the Soviet Union). The radio indistry and programing in other countries fell between these two extremes. Of course in America and other countries, the advent of television changed the nature of radio programing. Virtually every American in the 1930s had aadio in the home. The same was not true in Europe, even in Germany one of the most prosperous countries. Hitler made a major effort to increase radio ownership, but faced low wages (which he kept low to furher his rearmament program) and the lack of mass production. This difference was to have huge consequences in World War II.

Amateur Radio

While HBC in the theatrical section, is primarily interested in commercial radio, some other aspects of radio have to be considered. Here we are primatrily speaking of America because we know little about similar trends in other countries. In the early years of radio it became a verybpipular activitiy for boys (girls were rarely as interested) to build their own radios. Parents could buy "crystal" radio sets for their sons. Boys also persued an interest in short-wave ham radio whch allowed them to communicate with other people all over the world. Mostly boys formed a youth subculture around ham radio. This is similar, in part, to the opportunity provided by the internet today. These of course are better included on the HBC activities section. A wonderful book about whole boy hobby and do-it-yourself culture in the first decades of the 20th century with information about radio is. Steven M. Gelber, Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

Radio Sets

Commercial radio began after World War I in the 1920s. Soon an endless flow of free entertainment flowed into homes in Europe and the Uninted States. Nothing like it was ever availble in homes. It affected domestic life. In many homes the radio was out in the living room and became the center of home life after dinner in the evening. Radios varied in size. Some were relatively small table top sets, but they had to be big enough to accomodate vacuume tunes. Others were huge pieces of crafted furniture. Many home photographs from the 1920s-40s show the family gathered around the radio listening to a favorite program. Many Americans during this period also remember listening to President Roosevelt's Fire Side Chats, carefully schedulled so the family could listen after dinner. It was also around these sets that most Americans learned of Pearl Harbor.

Old Time Radio

There is a great interest in old-time radio. Many people still remember the programs they listened to as children. I only know of American programs at this time. I certinly remember the programs I listened to in the late 40s and early 50s. There was the Long Rangr" and "Phiber McGee and Molly". "The Long Ranger" was a real favorite. I had a small radio in my bed room abnd after being put to bed would listen to "The Shadow" and Gangbusters". I doin't recall a lot of child charactrs on these prgrams. Then we got a television and radio became old hat. There are quite a few old time radio sites on the internet. HBC readers interested in the topic may want to persue some of these internet old time radio links.


Broadcast Journalism


HBC is just beginning to collect information on radio. one of the most interesting references uinclude: Susan Douglas, Listening In. Other good sources are: Susan Smulyan, Selling Radio and Michele Hilmes Radio Reader.


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Created: May 7, 2001
Last updated: 3:41 AM 2/10/2013