The past month’s focus on podcasting has finally brought audio communication full circle. Older listeners are finally witnessing a resurgence of voice as a medium for news and stories, and many view the return to the spoken word as one of the more positive changes to be wrought by digital technologies in a long time.
Radio was once the dominant broadcast medium in the United States, and perhaps around the world. In the days before television, a radio was the best way people could get up-to-date information, and sitting around the radio listening to now-classic drama, suspense and comedy shows was a nightly family ritual.
These days may be long gone, but these classic shows still exist, and now you can download yesteryear’s most popular entertainment content. Amusingly, some are even available as podcasts. So let’s take a quick trip back in time with our iPods.
What is OTR?
Old time radio (or OTR) is the general term for radio shows broadcast before television took center stage in the 1950s. The heyday of radio was in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, but the creative opportunities afforded by the visual format and growing audiences quickly compelled broadcasters and writers to move their best ideas over to television and movies.
Consequently, many of the top names of the time may still be familiar from other media: Abbott & Costello, The Saint, The Shadow, Burns and Allen, Sherlock Holmes, Flash Gordon, Dragnet, Father Knows Best, and Charlie Chan were all popular radio shows, some adapted from books or later to become successful television shows or movies. Orson Welles’ famous 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, as just one example, created panic in many parts of the United States, as listeners thought this fictional reportage was fact. Today, it’s a movie – again.
OTR web sites, forums and mailing lists are surprisingly abundant, showing the great organization of fans of the classic radio niche. RadioLovers, Radio Days, or the Wisconsin Public Radio OTR site begin to suggest the breadth of recordings available for your enjoyment.
Many OTR sites offer files in MP3 format, so you can download shows and add them to your iTunes music library, then sync them to your iPod. You may feel like you’ve entered a twilight zone of entertainment, as you hear a different tone of suspense, drama and comedy, but, like many people, you might just get hooked on this old, yet effective story-telling style. The Old Time Radio – Free OTR Show Downloads site offers links to a variety of shows on other sites, and functions as a kind of portal for downloads. Episodes of shows such as Batman, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and many more can be found by quick searches of this site.
OTR shows have jumped into the podcasting arena as well, providing an interesting marriage of old and new technologies. You can listen to Old Time Radio Rides Again!, Radio Memories, Vintage Radio Shows.com, and botar’s old time radio. Radio Memories has the most extensive podcast, and actually contains a number of thematic podcasts, such as Western Wednesday, SciFi Friday, Radio Detective Story Hour and much more. This podcast alone gives you a thorough overview of the OTR landscape and provides dozens of shows for you to listen to covering every genre.
But is it Legal?
One should always be wary of “free” audio content on the Internet, and OTR is no exception. However, unlike music, radio shows (before 1978) appear not to be protected by copyright. While these issues are complex, and it is ultimately up to lawyers to hash this out, RadioLovers gives a fair explanation of why most OTR shows are not copyrighted. You can follow links on this page for more information, but it seems – and the lack of legal action seems to bear this out – that these old shows are indeed in the public domain.
Not So Old-Time Radio
Radio dramas went into decline after television came around, but one essential voice flourished in the 1960s and 1970s: Jean Shepherd. While Shep, as his fans call him, worked in a variety of formats from all-nighters to weekend morning shows, his best period of work was on the New York radio station WOR, where he would preside for 45 minutes every evening from 10:15 to 11:00. Shep would tell stories, talk about current events, comment on reader mail, and generally ramble, in what could be seen as a forerunner of many of today’s podcasts. But he did it better.
His unforgettable stories of growing up during the Depression and of his army days were some of the foundation of the 1984 movie A Christmas Story, about a kid who wanted a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Jean Shepherd has lots of fans, and the Flick Lives web site is a perfect portal for discovering this artist’s work. In addition, hundreds of recordings of his radio shows, made by listeners on home tape recorders, are available from the Shep Archives site, which currently contains more than 1,500 shows.
Jean Shepherd influenced another well-known storyteller, Garrison Keillor, whose stories in the Prairie Home Companion radio show have a great deal in common with Shep’s tales of youth.
The History of Radio as the Future?
Listening to some of this old time radio makes it hard to avoid speculating on the relationship between podcasting and the classic radio medium. While most OTR available is dramatic in nature – stories – the majority of podcasts are either individuals talking about things that interest them or people interviewing others. Jean Shepherd is closest to the individual podcaster, with his unique way of talking directly to each of the listeners out in radio-land. Many podcasters would do well to listen to his techniques and learn from one of the great masters of radio, and those who have been enjoying the existing content of podcasts might want to check him out as well.
In the meantime, a huge selection of old shows is available if you want to vary your listening. From Sherlock Holmes to Abbott & Costello, Flash Gordon to Dragnet, the variety of radio shows from the Golden Age is astounding. Tune in and see how your parents or grandparents spent their evenings. You might just end up filling your iPod with a new – well, old – type of audio.