Picture
When trumpets were mellow
And every gal only had one fellow
No need to remember when
'Cause everything old is new again


I remember my parents and their friends talking about the radio programs they listened to in their youth. In the 1930s and 40s, before television, broadcast radio was the popular medium that brought entertainment and news to American households. Though music was a large part of what was broadcast, it was usually not recorded music, but live broadcasts of performances. Beyond that, entertainments were the same popular fare, as on television in later years: dramas, comedies, soap operas, even game shows made up the daily programs of broadcast companies like CBS and RKO.

When I was a teenager, I received a Christmas gift of several record record albums (the pressed vinyl type) of old radio programs and so got a sampling of what my parents' generation listened to. A lot of the actors in these programs were familiar to me because many were still making appearances on the TV of my time--George Burns, Jack Benny, William Conrad, Orson Welles, and others. And a lot of the programs were classics that were later redone as TV programs and movies--The Lone Ranger, Flash Gorden, The Shadow, Tarzan, Gunsmoke, etc.

And people got their news via the radio, probably more so than newspapers (although many people of that generation seemed to have been fanatical about their newspapers). Some news broadcasts and broadcasters achieved fame--the eyewitness account of the Hindenburg disaster, the abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936, Winston Churchhill's broadcasts during the London bombings, and Lowell Thomas' broadcasts from his world travels.

Radio was the medium of the twentieth century that chronicled life between the world wars and through the second one. It did so even more than film--though WWII was heavily filmed--because radio was ubiquitous in western households, especially in the United States. People followed the war news on the radio, taking reassurance from voices they came to trust. These were usually male voices that resonated as strong, paternal figures like Edward R Murrow and even President Roosevelt (hard to imagine a US President as a reassuring figure, but such were the times).

And speaking of voices and drama, my records included the complete dramatization of The War of the Worlds featuring the voice of Orson Welles. This was a reworking of H. G. Well's classic science fiction novel about an invasion from Mars that was presented as if it happened in the present day and reported on by radio news. It was broadcast on Halloween of 1938 and was so true to the nature of the news broadcasts at that time, that many people who caught only portions of it, believed that an invasion from Mars was actually underway (this may be a comment on the naivete of the time, but I doubt we're much better now).

People I knew who had experienced radio of those decades tended to speak of it with a wistful nostalgia. I think this was partly due to radio being the "voice" of those turbulent times and partly because of the nature of the medium. Radio, when it's not just blaring music and ads, is intimate in a way that video mediums can't be. It's a comforting voice that feels as if it's speaking to you alone, prompting you to imagine the speaker and the actions he or she describes or conveys only by sound.

Radio never went away with the advent of television, but it changed to being mostly a platform for selling music to the public. Then slowly, over the last decade, it came back, somewhat, to being something more. Actual news and talk shows (mostly from the political right) found niches in broadcast radio and some were quite good, but I still didn't see in them that intimate quality or drama of radio's heyday.

Then I discovered podcasts. For the longest time, I had heard about them but never investigated. I became curious when my sons mentioned they were popular among the college set and I was thinking of ways to connect my fiction work with an Internet-based audience. It seemed podcasts were a natural for ipod and smartphone users since they were easy to produce and very "portable."

Podcasts are just recordings facilitated by personal computers into sound files that can be played back on any device that can read them--computers, ipods, ipads, smartphones, even CD players. The podcasts themselves are "radio broadcasts" of people doing interviews, or speaking their blog posts or otherwise reading their written works, or just speaking from their soapbox.

Where I really appreciate podcasts is on my commute to my day job. My car stereo will play mp3 files it finds on a flash drive inserted into its USB port. Every week, I download my favorite podcasts and play them during my commute. A lot of people must do this because most podcasts are 40 minutes to an hour in length--the average US commute time. This allows me to fill a lot of mandatory "free" time with some inspiring and though-provoking talk instead of the constant popular or oldies music, or propagandic news and banal, far-right chatter.

What I like to listen to are interviews of interesting people talking about interesting things (as I judge them, anyway). These are among my favorites:

Dreamland. This is Whitley Strieber's show where he interviews people about topics on the fringe. These topics are UFOs, Bigfoot sightings, ghost encounters, hidden history, and the paranormal in general. It's intelligently done and Whitley brings his experiences and erudition to every episode.

The Kunstlercast. This is James Howard Kunstler's podcast and is generally my weekly favorite. James is a colorful speaker and writer, and most always has an interesting guest speaking about subjects that include sustainable living, peak oil, and high-tech collapse. His interviewees have included notables of this genre like Richard Heinberg and Dimitri Orlov. This podcast especially captures that intimacy factor in the format of it's introduction of folk music that would be at home in a 1930s broadcast. James' voice also has a timbre reminiscent of the old programs, though he will at times use language that would never have been broadcast back then.

Citizen Radio. Speaking of language you would never hear in the 1930s, you'll hear a lot of it here, with wild abandon. This is a podcast by Jamie Kilstein and Alison Kilkenny. They are married and he's a stand up comic and she's a writer who has been published in The Nation. Their banter can get hyper and is on the level of today's stand up comics, so there's a lot of the F-word thrown around. But they talk about current events from a decidedly left-end of the political spectrum, with a lot of humor thrown in. They are an acquired taste, but I've become a fan.

Writer's Voice. I love this one. Every week, an author or two (fiction and nonfiction) is interviewed and they talk about their book and what it's about. This makes the subjects very far-ranging, from politics, to romance, to family relations, to sustainable living (James Kunstler had a good interview here). As an aspiring writer, I love to hear those episodes where an author talks about the writing process, but the discussions are most always inspiring whatever the subject. The main hostess, Francesca Rheannon, is a very capable and informed interviewer.

So it seems to me that the current advent of Internet-based podcasts has recaptured some of the flavor of old time radio, especially in the interview-based podcasts. What I haven't seen, so far, is a return to "radio show" drama. I don't count audiobooks. I mean a dramatic work (an "audio play") or situation-based comedy. There may be some out there but I haven't run across them and there's certainly nothing like the old "Mercury Theatre on the Air" doing drama. I'll bet there's a podcast niche for drama done intelligently with contemporary themes.

As I proceed with my Dentville stories and website, I would like to find a place to use podcasting. Maybe audiobooks or even dramatic works of my short stories.

That would be a neat thing.





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