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Old Time Radio Shows Are Not Dangerous For Society

June 14, 2020


Our home where old-time radio still lives.

I started listening to old time radio shows on Wisconsin Public Radio when I was a teenager.  In those years they aired on Saturday nights.  I loved them so much that I searched them out in other formats, and in the computer and iPad age have sources where I can listen to them often.   I have even, over the years, given old time radio shows in CD form as Christmas presents.

This weekend is was announced that WPR is canceling its long-running weekend program “Old Time Radio Drama,” with station officials citing the “racist and sexist material” present in many of the plays of the Golden Age of Radio.  I am deeply dismayed about this move.  I grew up listening to the radio, as we did not have a television in our family home during my formative years.  The connection I have with radio makes this news truly concerning.

To read that “despite significant effort over the years, it has been nearly impossible to find historic programs without offensive and outdated content” is the most over-reached and broad-brushed stroke in an attempt to appear in fashion with the current ‘dialogue’  during this protest season.  I can assure my readers of being able to find hundreds of hours of material without any reason for anyone to feel upset.  To have WPR hide behind such a blatant disregard for the facts about old time radio concerns me.

Long time readers to this blog know my deep regard for radio, ‘those magic airwaves,  the longest-running radio show,  the theatre of the mind, and my years at WDOR radio where I was that friendly voice that farmers listened to as they milked cows, and women tuned into for music as they did household chores.  (Damn!  I have just surely somehow smeared the agriculture industry and anyone making homemade baked goods!)

I want to pull out just two examples…..and I could write all night on my blog…of what can be aired that runs counter to the claim made by WPR.

New World A’Coming (1944-57) was broadcast on New York radio station WMCA.  The show was based on the work of nationally-known black journalist Roi Ottley.  New World A’Coming was frequently narrated by African-American actor Canada Lee, and showcased the work of other leading black artists (Duke Ellington wrote the theme song). NWAC was a powerful and politically incisive program that aired political and racial issues in the US military and on the home front. After two seasons, the program expanded its focus to include other minority groups.

Destination Freedom was a weekly radio program produced by WMAQ in Chicago from 1948 to 1950 that presented biographical histories of prominent African-Americans. The show was the brainchild of African-American journalist and author Richard Durham. He began this series over the NBC Chicago outlet in July 1948, with scripts emphasizing the progress of African-Americans from the days of slavery to the ongoing struggle for racial justice.  Airing in Sunday-morning public-service time, the series built a steady audience in the Midwest with inspirational stories of social progress, earning strong support from Civil Rights organizations, and offering employment to a wide range of African-American performers.

I find it dismaying that WPR seems not able to place the programs and content into historical perspectives so to have them able to be broadcast for information as well as entertaining value.  I find it equally troubling that a public radio audience is not intellectually able to hear these productions and place them in context.

What irritates me about the tone of the message from WPR is that anyone not knowing better would assume by the over-generalization of the announcement that all old-time radio is pure racism and sexism.  Making such a statement would be akin to claiming that since Schumann was schizophrenic that all composers are mentally ill.  I am sure that is not the message on public radio’s classical station.  (But this is only the start of the week, and given where we are as a nation tonight…..)

Jack Benny and Henry Aldrich and Arthur Godfrey and Burns And Allen and Hollywood Star Playhouse and………the treasure trove that is old time radio should not be shoveled into a box and closed off from new audiences.  For example, The Great Gildersleeveis priceless. The seamless placements of commercials as was often the case with radio shows are just another reason to enjoy listening.  The theatre of the mind is something we do not talk about much anymore as computers and hand-held gadgets dominate, so why does a young person need to use imagination?  Ending old time radio on WPR will deprive some young minds of knowing the power of radio.  That is truly sad. 

As for me and this home, I leave my readers with this fond memory from listening to old time radio.  Late one night James reached over for my arm and wordlessly said “are we done laughing for tonight?”



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