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Remember Radio?

By Donald Christiansen

When I ask that question I am not talking about the origins of radio as represented by the works of Marconi, Lee De Forest, and other notable pioneers. Nor am I referring to the advancements produced through the activities of radio amateurs, or even to the founding of the Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) in 1912. Rather I am remembering the days when radio had become the dominant and sometimes only means of bringing news and entertainment into the home.


In 1921 the Westinghouse station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, became the first licensed by the Department of Commerce to broadcast programs. A few months later RCA’s David Sarnoff, using a transmitter on loan from the U.S. Navy, broadcast the four-round Dempsey-Carpentier fight. It was estimated to have reached a few hundred thousand listeners, most of them believed to be radio amateurs on their own rigs.

In the early 1920s most receivers required headsets (earphones). But by 1922 the well-to-do could purchase the Westinghouse Aeriola Grand receiver for about $400 ($409.50 to be exact) and so enjoy listening via its built-in loudspeaker. The receiver featured additional amplifier stages needed to power the loudspeaker. A 6-volt storage battery (“A” battery) and battery charger were included with the purchase. The battery was needed to power the filaments of the receiver’s eight vacuum tubes. The charger was required to keep the battery charged. Unfortunately, during the recharging process, the battery acid would be agitated and might eventually seep through the battery case. I vividly recall the large blackened area of maple hardwood flooring in our living room, stemming from the “A”-battery spillover of my dad’s home-built receiver. Mom found it difficult to position a small rug to cover the blemish. A new oak floor was the ultimate solution.

Eventually the power transformer replaced the rechargeable battery, and, still later, the connection of filaments in series obviated the need for the transformer.

Early receivers used tuned radio frequency (TRF) stages. As more stations came on the air, the relatively limited selectivity of the TRF receivers made it difficult to tune in a wanted station without interference from other stations transmitting on nearby frequencies. TRF receivers were also difficult to tune, as each RF amplifier stage had to be tuned independently. The advent of the superheterodyne receiver with its superior selectivity and single-knob tuning helped overcome these shortcomings.

The Big-Time Networks

It was not until the broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, and later the Mutual Broadcasting System) were formed that the “golden age of radio” was made possible (and profitable!). Prior to that, informal nationwide links were set up (often for special events like a presidential address) via high-frequency telephone lines. With the advent of the networks, by 1930 some 150 stations availed themselves of 35,000 miles of AT&T lines.

The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was inaugurated in 1926 as a cooperative venture of RCA, GE, and Westinghouse. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) followed in 1927, and the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1934. Interestingly, David Sarnoff, a proponent of networking, initially frowned upon advertising support for radio broadcasting, calling it “unseemly.” But it soon became evident that commercial revenues were required to support the costs of broadcasting, and in particular the cost of creative programming.

Playing records over the air soon gave way to broadcasts of live orchestras and theatrical productions. Also weather and farm reports, sporting events, and news. The development of programs that caught the fancy of the burgeoning audience of network listeners began in the 30s. Historians, when asked to define “old-time radio” or “the golden age of radio,” often do it by listing a few of the classic shows. Invariably, it seems, “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “The Shadow,” and “The Lone Ranger” are among them.

‘T’aint Funny, McGee

Fibber McGee and Molly was created by a married couple of vaudevillians who made it big when signed by Johnson’s Wax in 1935 to do a half-hour, low-key comedy show on NBC. It was aired continuously for the next 18 years, then in re-runs for another six years. Fibber was described by one radio historian as teller of tall tales and an incurable windbag, and Molly as his long-suffering wife. They lived at 79 Wistful Vista, somewhere in small-town America. I remember it when it ran at 8 p.m. Mondays. Tuesday morning on the school bus someone would always say “How about when . . .?,” referring often to Fibber opening the hall closet door to retrieve some needed item, then having a noisy cascade of poorly-shelved stuff fall out. We all had our own visions of what might have been in the mix. Years later I learned that the effect was done live by a sound-effects man. A reporter at one of the broadcasts listed the items as golf clubs, a guitar, shoes, a briefcase, a pith helmet, a sword, a spear gun, a suitcase, and a broken clock—all arranged on a steep staircase, teetering precariously until the cue was given to release it all.

The Shadow Knows

“The Shadow” was a half-hour show that aired from 1932 to 1954. On Sundays at 5:30 my dad, mom, and I would visit my grandfather to watch (oops, I mean listen to!) “The Shadow,” courtesy of Blue Coal. The program opened with an eerie pipe organ, a frightening laugh, and the deep-throated introduction by the Shadow himself. “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

An introduction for first-time listeners included the following: “The Shadow, Lamont Cranston, a man of wealth, a student of science, and a master of other people’s minds, devotes his life to righting wrongs, protecting the innocent, and punishing the guilty. Using advanced methods . . . Cranston is known to the underworld as the Shadow, never seen, only heard . . . .” He had learned the hypnotic power to cloud men’s minds so that they cannot see him from a yogi priest in India. The only person who was aware of his dual character was his “friend and companion, the lovely Margo Lane.” Orson Welles played the Shadow and Agnes Moorehead, Margo Lane. At the end of each episode, when the killer was outed and facing the chair, the Shadow intoned: “The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay! The Shadow knows!” With radio, it was always easy to envision what was happening—even not seeing the Shadow!

Hi-Yo, Silver

With the William Tell Overture, hoofbeats, and gunshots in the background, we knew what to expect at 7:30 every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday night. The announcer would confirm our expectations with this: “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi-Yo, Silver!’ The Lone Ranger!” If you were a faithful fan you would be able to mouth the rest in sync with the announcer: “With his faithful companion, Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early Western United States. Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice. Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!”

The show first aired in 1933 and continued until 1954. Its writers were instructed that its hero’s grammar must be exact: he must make proper use of ‘who’ and ‘whom,’ ‘shall’ and ‘will,’ and ‘I’ and ‘me.’ He could not smoke, drink, or use profanity, and never shot to kill, but only to “maim as painlessly as possible.”

Clueless law enforcement officers would ask “Who was that masked man?” as the Lone Ranger rode off into the sunset with his signature cry, “Hi-Yo Silver. Away!”

Kids could always detect those who deceptively claimed to be fans of the Lone Ranger by asking them the name of Tonto’s horse (it was Scout), or Tonto’s complimentary description of the Lone Ranger (“kemo sabe,” presumably meaning “faithful friend”). Anyone who thought the hero’s call to his horse was “Hi-Ho Silver” was clearly a fraud.

And Much More

As the 1930s began, radio had drawn families together as never before. One historian, David Nye, described radio as a “replacement hearth” that clustered the family together to hear “crackling reports” from great distances. By 1934, three of every four households boasted at least one radio

The program choices seemed endless. (On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio is an 822-page compilation of radio shows by John Dunning.) Just a few you may remember:

  • “The A&P Gypsies” (1923-1936). Six-piece ensemble grew into a 25-piece orchestra (dressed in gypsy costumes!) featuring exotic gypsy music.

  • “Lum and Abner” (1931-1954). Down-home comedy. 15 minutes until 1948, 30 minutes 1949-1950; one to six episodes per week. Lum Edwards and Abner Peabody owned the Jot’Em Down Store in Pine Ridge, Ark. Local characters included Caleb Weehunt, Squire Skimp, Snake Hogan, and Grandpappy Spears. Pine Ridge was patterned after the 200-population town of Waters, Ark., which, in 1936, officially changed its name to Pine Ridge.

  • “Vic and Sade” (1932-1946). Comedy landmark, with Mr. and Mrs. Victor Gook and their adopted son, Rush, plus his school chums: baseball enthusiast Blue-Tooth Johnson; Smelly Clark, long-distance spitting champion; and Rooster Davis. Vic’s lodge was the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way, where he was the Exalted Big Dipper of the local Drowsy Venus Chapter. Sade belonged to the ladies’ Thimble Club. Her nemesis was Miss Applerot, a fellow member.

  • “Clara, Lu, and Em” (1930-42, 45). Radio’s first soap opera.

  • “Ma Perkins” (1933-1956). Daytime soap opera.

  • “Amos ‘n’ Andy” (1928-1955). Classic comedy, 15 minutes in its early, most popular days, estimated 40 million audience.

  • “The Goldbergs” (1929-1945, 1949-1950). Serial comedy drama, 15 minutes daily through 1945.

  • “The Metropolitan Opera” (1931-present). Longest-running classical music program in history. Broadcast live to more than 300 U.S. stations, plus stations in 40 other countries.

  • “The Adventures of Ellery Queen” (1939-1948). The usual half-hour mystery was stopped just before the culprit was revealed and a panel of “armchair detectives” invited to guess the outcome (Orson Welles, Ed Sullivan, Jane Russell, and Gypsy Rose Lee among them—and they were usually wrong).

  • “The Aldrich Family” (1939-1953). Half-hour teenage sitcom in which 16-year-old Henry creates comedic chaos.

  • “The Bell Telephone Hour” (1940-1958) Symphony orchestra concert series.

  • “Pepper Young’s Family” (1936-1959). Originally “Red Davis,” begun in 1933.

  • “Professor Quiz” (1936-1948). The first radio quiz show; winners received “25 silver dollars.”

  • Then there were the band remotes, the telegraph-aided baseball game re-creations, and the Hope, Benny, and Marx Brothers comedy shows.

Did I miss any of your favorites?


  • Radio Enters the Home: How to enjoy popular Radio Broadcasting. Complete instructions and description of apparatus, Radio Corporation of America, 1922.

  • Dunning, J., On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, Oxford University Press, 1998.

  • Lewis, T., Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, Harper Collins, 1991.

  • Terman, F.E., Radio Engineering, McGraw-Hill, 1932.

  • Hawes, R., and P. Straker-Weld, Radio Art, Greenwood Pub. Co., 1991.

  • Nebeker, F., Dawn of the Electronic Age: Electric Technologies in the Shaping of the Modern World, 1914 to 1945, Wiley, 2009.

  • Radio Guide , published weekly, 1933-1940.

  • Moyer, J. A., and J. F. Wostrel, Radio Construction and Repairing, McGraw-Hill, 1931.

  • The AWA Journal, quarterly publication of the Antique Wireless Association.

Note: The photograph at the top of this article is of the Isis Model 20, a post-vacuum-tube and post-“Golden Age” radio known appropriately as the “Radio” radio. 10” x 3” x 2 ½,” its four AA batteries are housed in the “R,” the speaker in the “O,” and circuitry between the two. Volume and tuning controls are hidden by recessing.


Comments may be emailed directly to the author at donchristiansen@ieee.org or submitted through our online form.


Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. You can write to him at donchristiansen@ieee.org.


Copyright © 2012 IEEE

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