This week's THROW-BACK THURSDAY topic arises from a remembered conversation of years ago, on the subject of "The Golden Days of Radio."
That conversation had begun in an area coffee shop, where an elderly woman at a table nearby noticed the orthopedic collar I was wearing for a sprained neck. Leaning over amiably toward me, she asked, "Honey, is that thing going to do you any good?"
I laughingly replied, "Well, it keeps my head from falling off," and she responded with a story.
"You may not be old enough to remember the years before television," she said. "In those days families gathered around the radio and actually seemed to WATCH it while they listened to it...
"Anyway, one night we kids were home alone, and there was a scary story on the radio about a girl who always wore a ribbon around her neck; she never took it off. I still remember how the story ended. When that girl got married, her handsome husband insisted she take the ribbon off. And when she did... her HEAD fell off!"
That drew a hearty laugh from both of us, but she reminded me that was an eerie program for the children of those more genteel times. "Our parents surely would have disapproved if they'd known we were listening to such a story," she admitted. "But they were away from home for a bit, and so we listened to it anyway. After the show was over, we were so scared, we could hardly wait for them to get back home."
I enjoyed this woman's detailed description of the fancy carved-wood floor model radio she "watched." It was as big as the floor-model TV consoles that would come along in later years, she said.
I CONFESSED TO HER that I was more than old enough to recall the days before TV. I and my own siblings would sit in a circle like cowboys around a campfire, "watching" a small radio Dad and Mom had placed high up on a shelf in the kitchen, so only they could reach the dials---thereby giving them control of any subject matter that might reach our tender ears.
Still, we raised our faces high and gazed into that story machine as raptly as we'd later look into the television screen. And like this woman, my siblings and I also had our round at foiling parental programming efforts.
One program we kids all wanted to hear was Gangbusters, strictly forbidden for us because of its violent gangster story lines. When Mom and Dad stayed late one evening during a visit across town to our grandmother, we commandeered a ladder from the garage and climbed to the shelf to turn the radio to---you guessed it---Gangbusters!
We were immediately drawn in by the dark tones leading to the story, but by the time it was over, we were terrified and our house seemed to have acquired some suspicious sounds we hadn't noticed before. I don't think any of us kids slept easily that night, but we had learned a lesson. We couldn't go to Mom and Dad for comfort in our fears, for they surely would have learned what we had done behind their backs.
ON SCHOOL-DAY MORNINGS, we kids would wake up to the songs of Happy Hank; that program's motive was to get us moving and in good spirits before we went to school. Then we'd hurried home from school to catch our favorite radio adventures with Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, The Lone Ranger, The Green Hornet and others. We memorized the lead-ins and could sing all the advertising jingles.
Mom, like many housewives, often tuned in on the 15-minute afternoon soap operas (Ma Perkins, Portia Faces Life and Stella Dallas) so-called because they were always sponsored by soap companies.
And our entire family laughed together with the comedies---Amos 'n' Andy, Fibber McGee and Molly, Baby Snooks, Life of Riley, Jack Benny, Red Skelton.... We also sang and tapped our feet with radio's big-band, pop and country music concerts...
There were dramas for all ages, and one of my favorites was an evening program for the entire family---"Dr. Christian, where the audience writes the script." I actually sent that show a script when I was 8 or 9 years old. The manuscript---in childish scrawl filled with marks from my eraser---was rejected, but the rejection letter was kind and filled with encouragement and good advice.
Without the images that television would later paint so graphically for us, we radio-watchers were limited only by our own imaginations. The characters formed in our minds were always handsome, beautiful, larger than life, and we were often disappointed when we saw a photograph of any of the actors; they seemed so ordinary!
THESE WERE THE days of no TV, no 24-hour news, no weather channels or cell phones and no internet; when the commercials were fewer and shorter and usually singable; when you heard the news succinctly and periodically; when bulletins broke in only when necessary; when the big news stories weren't beat to death over and over through the following hours, days, weeks, months...
Many of today's growing cult of old-time radio buffs don't seem old enough to have such interest in what they refer to as the Golden Age of Radio---an era many of them could not possibly have witnessed. Their own nostalgic movement encompasses an era from 1929 to, perhaps, the early 1960s. I came along in 1940 and remember that "Golden Age" as vividly as I recall the exciting days of early television.
When TV did arrive, it was generally accepted that it would spell the end of radio, but radio changed gears and the world kept room for both. Radio switched from story machine to music machine. That made it a favored accessory for our automobiles, though for some time it was a luxury too expensive.
Radio is still evolving. It still soothes or energizes us with music of every genre. It gives us drive-time talk which we can respond to with our cell phones... It talks sports... Through satellite radio, it also spews out smut...
But these days, at least for me, it's mostly a music machine that wakes us every morning with a bit of news and weather, laced with genial conversation while we linger over coffee.
It provides good company for our dog when he's in the house alone; he likes the sound of music and the human voice.
I hope radio will also be around forever. And I think my dog does too.