Old-Time Radio (OTR) or The Golden Age of Radio is a term used to refer to radio programs that were broadcast during the 1920s through the late 1950s (with some outlying programs produced earlier and later) in the United States, as well as the United Kingdom and Canada and some other countries.
The end of the OTR era was marked by the final CBS broadcasts of Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar on September 30, 1962. Also known as: "radio nostalgia," "golden age radio," "silver age radio," etc.
Although American radio now broadcasts very little radio drama, radio comedy, mystery stories, and adventures these genres continue at full strength on British and Irish stations, and to a lesser degree in Canada. South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries around the world also have large audiences for regular broadcasts of radio plays. In the US especially, OTR programs, and new productions as well, are today much more popular, and more easily available, on recordings than over the air.
Before the expansion of television in the mid-1950s, radio was the most popular home entertainment system across the United States. Initially, radio was regarded as a "low" medium and not well respected by American media corporations. With the rise of the movie industry, America's appetite for mass entertainment grew, and soon the breeding ground of vaudeville was serving radio as well as movies.
The audio theatre art form was actually invented before radio, developing in the 1880s and 1890s on early wax recordings. The first examples were recordings of vaudeville sketches, sometimes modified for the medium, but original audio pieces were being created well before Reginald Fessenden first broadcast sound over the radio on Christmas Eve, 1906.
Early radio shows reflected vaudeville origins and usually featured variety shows with music, slapstick or ethnic humor, and often suggestive situations. As the medium matured, sophistication increased. By the mid-1930s radio featured all the genres popular in other forms of American entertainment: comedy, drama, horror, mystery, romance, music and so on.
Among the best-known of the early radio performers were comedians: Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Amos and Andy, Abbott and Costello, and Fibber McGee and Molly. The Lux Radio Theater included adaptations of Hollywood movies, performed before a live audience, often with the same stars that appeared in the original movies. Later shows included highly successful suspense series such as the aptly-named Suspense, Escape!, The Mysterious Traveler, Inner Sanctum and many others.
The best known writers and directors during the Golden Age of Radio include Norman Corwin and Arch Oboler.
Most American radio network programs were presented live, and they were often re-performed for listeners in Western time zones. Network policy did not permit the broadcast of recorded programming during most of the OTR era. For a variety of reasons, however, many programs were recorded as they were broadcast. In some cases, the recording was made at the point of origination (usually network studios in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles). In other cases, it was made at an affiliate station. For example, a program originating at CBS in New York might be recorded off the network circuit at WJSV in Washington. A relatively few surviving programs were recorded off the air ("airchecks"), usually at a recording studio, since home recording equipment was uncommon during the OTR era. Before magnetic tape came into use in the early 1950s, the format was normally 16-inch diamater "transcription disks" (also known as ETs, for "electrical transcription"). Most of the OTR programs in circulation among collectors – whether on tape, CD or MP3 – originated with these ETs.
During part of the OTR era, the Armed Forces Radio Service (later Armed Forces Radio and Television Service) obtained copies of network radio entertainment programming for distribution to AFRS radio stations serving U.S. troops overseas. The programs were edited to delete commercials, and disks were pressed for shipment to stations. Many OTR shows have survived only in the edited AFRS version. (Some exist in both original and AFRS formats.)
A relatively small number of surviving series were recorded for syndication. These programs were typically distributed to stations on transcription disk, and the station would then play the program on the air at their convenience. Like syndicated television programming today, different stations played the programs at different days and times.
Vintage radio is fondly remembered by most Americans of the right age for at least a few trademark sounds, phrases and events: the famous broadcast of The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles' Mercury Theater on the Air, which caused a panic in New York City; the "creaking door" which opened each episode of Inner Sanctum; Jack Benny's famous call for "Rochester" (and the famous answers of Eddie Anderson, as much a star of the program as Benny himself); the clipped speech of Jack Webb on Dragnet; the call of the Lone Ranger: "Hi-Yo, Silver!"; the cackle of The Shadow: "Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows..."
Two especially useful external links for finding more resources relating to old-time radio are http://www.old-time.com and http://otterprojectonline.info (http:www.otterprojectonline.info).
Selected OTR programs by genre
- Let's Pretend
- Mickey Mouse Theater
- Espionage & foreign intrigue
- Cloak and Dagger
- David Harding, Counterspy!
- I Was a Communist for the FBI
- The Man Called X
- Secret Agent K-7 Returns
- Spy Catcher
- Top Secret
- Jerry Haendiges' site (http://www.otrsite.com/) (largest collection of series logs)
- RadioGOLDINdex (http://www.radiogoldindex.com) (largest collection of episode descriptions)
- Old Time Radio fan site (http://www.old-time.com/)
- otr.com fan site (http://www.otr.com/index.shtml)
- Shoutcast Old Time Radio streams (http://www.shoutcast.com/directory/?s=old+time+radio&numresult=25)
- Live365 Old Time Radio streams (http://www.live365.com/cgi-bin/directory.cgi?quality=0&searchfields=TAC&genre=search&searchdesc=old+time+radio&x=12&y=11)
- Oneword Radio (http://www.oneword.co.uk/frameset.htm)
- BBC 7 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbc7/)
- Wisconsin Public Radio - Old Time Radio Drama (http://www.wpr.org/otr/)
- Old Time Radio Researchers Group (complete collection of series logs) (http://www.otterprojectonline.info/)