Remembering A Pandemic: Radio of the 21st Century
by, May 9th, 2012 at 09:00 AM (1322 Views)
If OTR [Old-Time Radio] signified the Golden Age we are surely in the Silver Age of podcasting, yet somehow, the Golden Age of podio dramas. What a strange concept. Let’s jump in the old way back machine and take a look at the birth of the audio drama, how I discovered them and what they mean to me... because I know that's what you really want to know.
The Podfather: An Acknowledgement
Paris, France, 1881. Clément Ader gave us the Théâtrophone which was essentially opera and theater performances ‘broadcast’ over telephone lines to subscribers. Sounds an awful lot like a podcast, doesn’t it? The Godfather of the modern podcast was French and not Kevin Smith [The SModfather]. Ader also worked in the field of aviation, built the first telephone network in Paris, engineered the first stereo broadcast, and made significant improvements to Bell’s telephone system. If you’re unable to find the book linked above, take a quick read through information provided by the Wonderful World of Wiki.
That ought to drive somebody crazy. Le wink.
The radio was for our grandparents and parents what television was for us as kids. It was the ‘idiot box’ that we gathered around for a few hours in the evening—usually after dinner to either endure or enjoy the entertainment emanating from within. You may recall hearing your grandfather reminisce about Jack Webb playing hard-boiled “detective” Pat Novak in Pat Novak For Hire, or your grandmother swooning as she recalls Dennis Day singing on the Jack Benny Program! I know my grandmother used to.
Flash forward to 1990. I was thirteen years old, working on a report for my grade 8 Social Studies class. I had a small, white and grey dual cassette recorder by my head, listening to my favourite Duran Duran mix-tape. It was close to 9:30 in the evening; I remember that the sun had long since set—I would come in after it was too dark to play basketball any longer, as we did not have lighted courts in the park closest to my house. The fall air was cool; my bedroom window wide open and, without screens, my room was slowly filling with crane flies, which are loathsome creatures that God surely put on this Earth to torture me, for they resembled some horrific flying spider. Thanks, God. I often divided my time between writing, listening to music, and smashing the shit out of these intrusive insects—I have been permanently scarred by and to this day cannot sleep near an open, screen-less, window.
Due to my young age and relative inexperience with electronics—other than the toaster and TV, both of which seemed to work just fine without my involvement beyond pushing the button down or turning the dial—yes I had one of those television sets—I was unaware that tape recorders needed cleaning and regular servicing. As a result, I was crestfallen when I heard the ominous warbling of Planet Earth slowly turning evermore ominous and foreboding as the tape was wholly eaten by, what I had considered then to be, my most trusted of allies.
I was devastated and quite suddenly without music. Music that I would require to complete the task I had been so diligently working on—a project due in the morning, which had been put off for the last week and a half. I had no choice but to tune in the shit storm that was early 90s radio. After flipping through the FM band, and finding nothing that would satisfactorily take the place of my precious Duran Duran mix-tape, I switch over to AM. A band that was uncharted territory reputed to hold the secrets to the stock market, endless sports broadcasts, and religion. Talk radio. What had I done to myself? Why hadn’t I just bought a head cleaning kit when I was at the mall earlier in the day? For that matter, why hadn’t I caved in and bought that new Duran Duran tape?
Duran Duran’s 1990 release ‘Liberty’ is probably the lowest point in their career, and I am thankful that I didn’t buy that piece of shit, as I ended up using the money I would have spent on that abortion, to purchase a much needed head cleaning kit.As I slowly surfed across the band, something caught my attention. It sounded, strange and crackly and while it was quite normal for AM to provide some of the shittiest reception available, this seemed even more lo-fi than I would have expected. The people talking sounded old, in a way I was, heretofore, unfamiliar with. I had never heard an advertisement for Jell-O before. I’d seen a lot of commercials on TV, sure, but I’d never heard one on the radio. Nor could I recall hearing Jack Benny. I needed answers, and without the luxury of a home computer, I had only one option to get to the heart of the matter: ask Dad.
Unfortunately, he was asleep. I wasn’t about to wake him up, knowing full well that he was up at 4:30 every morning to go to work. My mother was no help. She was busy on the phone long-distance to her sister (my favourite aunt, incidentally) on the other side of the country. The larger part of my extended family resides east of the Rockies, here in the Great White North, sometimes known as Snow World or Canuckistan, but more often than not, simply called Canada.
Answerless, I returned to my room, shut my window, and listened, trans-fucking-fixed for the next hour and a half as Jack Cullen’s Owl Prowl carried through to its conclusion. The tail end of the Jack Benny Show—which I had initially tuned into—gave way to a 28 minute episode of X-Minus One that would forever change my life. It was in that half hour that I was introduced to science fiction in a way I had never imagined possible: sans Lucas.
Capturing My Imagination
In 1951, Galaxy Magazine published a short story by Fritz Leiber, a German/American science fiction writer. In 1965, X-Minus One chose that story for dramatization in their broadcast of A Pail of Air. That story completely and totally changed the way I saw science fiction. Granted, to this point I had only been exposed to science fiction through film, as my literary ventures tended to lean toward detective/mystery novels. I was a big fan of The Hardy Boys then and remain so today. Franklin W. Dixon—pen name of Canadian author Leslie McFarlane—was a big influence on me as a storyteller. A big enough influence for me to dedicate my first detective novel to, as well as naming one of the supporting—yet pivotal—characters after him.
Don’t ask where you can buy a copy; it isn’t finished… yet. Mind you, not for a lack of trying. The first draft is currently sitting at 72,000 words (I went back during a bout of writer's block and cut the first five chapters) and I'm just coming to the beginning of the second climax. I've been unable to keep my focus locked on it due to pain medication. Percocet is a wonderful thing, but it can make it very difficult to write coherently. As you are, undoubtedly, very aware of at this moment.
So, the simple act of me neglecting to take proper care of my electronics, proved to be the catalyst for the love affair with Old Time Radio Dramas that persevered the following decades. I heard them all. I loved them all.
Suspense, which produced some fantastic dramatizations includingSorry, Wrong Number starring Agnes Moorehead, and A Passage To Benares. Escape offered some brilliant adaptations like Country of the Blind by H.G. Wells. Inner Sanctum Mysteries gave us bizarre tales like Death Is A Joker. Mystery In The Air with host Peter Lorre with announcer Harry Morgan, whom some of you may remember as Colonel Sherman T. Potter from M*A*S*H, gave us unnerving visions of horror and mayhem like Edgar Allan Poe's classic The Black Cat. The Mysterious Traveler was a wonderful storyteller as The Man From Singapore depicts. Richard Diamond, Private Detective staring Dick Powell and Virginia Gregg was one of my all-time favourites. I loved that show, for obvious reasons—it was a detective comedy/drama, which was right up my alley, the episode House of Mystery stands out among the rest as being one of the funniest.
Jack and Frank: Contributing to the Delinquency of a Minor
Every night, Jack Cullen would spin a bunch of records from singers and bands that I had never heard of; stuff that was well before my time and not at all to my taste. But, weekdays between 10:30 and 11:45 it was the very best of Classic Radio Drama on CKNW 98. I fell in love with radio during the fall and winter of 1990. I even grew to hate weekends! Weekends meant that I had to spend two days without hearing another thrilling episode of Suspense!, or hear the next part of episodic shows likeI Love A Mystery whose central characters—Jack Packard, Doc Long, and Reggie York—were eternally in peril and I loved the 20 episode Temple of Vampires which found the trio in some South American jungle, fighting off terror and danger with each 15 minute episode.
Old Time Radio inspired me to flex my creative muscles into areas I had not considered venturing. I’d never entertained the notion of being a writer. I had never imagined that I could be as transfixed listening to people talk as I could be by the most engaging Indiana Jones film, or the latest exploits of Joe and Frank [Hardy]. A whole world of possibilities stretched out before me.
Inspired by the stories I was listening to, I soon began to write stories of my own. Several were submitted to my English teacher for extra-credit—she was particularly fond of me after I had started whistling the theme from The Whistlerone day during class. The rest of my class thought I was on crack when the two of us started calling out the names of shows and actors from a time and medium that they were completely unaware of.
Every night—Saturday and Sunday excluded—I was recording hour after hour of the golden years of radio, slowly compiling shoebox after shoebox of 90 minute TDK, Sony, and Maxell cassette tapes. It was a labour love that was abandoned, after an incident during a move from one house to another, when my giant box of dramatized goodness vanished without a trace. I simply didn’t have the heart to begin rebuilding. Shortly afterward, CKNW changed formats, going strictly talk—assholes.
Jack Cullen finished his career on CKST in Vancouver—which is now TEAM 1040 (for those who are interested)—but his show was never the same for me. He signed off on April 27, 2002 at St. Mary's Hospital in New Westminster. Jack Cullen was 80 years old. He will be missed, and I will always remember him as the man who introduced me to my future. Rest in peace, Jack, and thank you.
Thank you all for reading, and I hope that you enjoy the links I've provided. I've enjoyed taking this trip down memory lane with you. Feel free to share your own first time with OTR! I would love to hear about it!
Osiris—once called the Prince of Darkness—
enjoys long walks on the beach, dramatic
readings of technical manuals, and having
uncomfortable conversations with strangers.
Look for the next issue of Discovering A
Pandemic, tentatively titled "Recovering
From A Pandemic: Pills! Here!" on May 16^th.
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