Growing up with radio

by Bill Monson

Growing up in the 1940s, I listened to radio by the hour. From the 7:30 morning news on WGIL to the late night band remotes from Chicago's Aragon and Trianon ballrooms, the Monson house reverberated with radio.

Don McNeill's Breakfast Club, Fred Waring, and Arthur Godfrey in the morning; soap operas and children's action serials in the afternoon; and a cornucopia of comedy, drama and music in the evenings. Radio fourteen hours a day, seven days a week!

Why didn't I grow up warped?

Because radio was family fare. We could all listen to it together. If my sister Sue or I didn't understand something -- like a strange word on Information Please or an obscure pun by Charlie McCarthy -- we could ask Dad and Mom and have it explained (though we sometimes had to wait till the end of the show). The networks had censors to see that there was no off-color material. Sex was around (hubba hubba!) but not vulgar. Body parts and bodily functions were not mentioned. Lamont Cranston and Margot Lane may have traveled together -- but they had separate rooms.

Ironically, most of the programs on network radio were produced by their sponsors' advertising agencies, who sought to associate the sponsors with the best talent and entertainment and avoid offending potential buyers. From the mid-30s to the early 60s, radio (and later TV) were dominated by such ad agency shows; and with network continuity censors riding herd on them, the programs were safe for young and old alike.

Not that they were bland, either. There were stereotyped characters and vaudeville shtick, but the best programs featured first-class writing. They depended more on wit than shock; and when I replay some of my old tapes or LPs, I still marvel at the wordplay on shows like Fibber McGee & Molly and Fred Allen.

There were violent shows, of course. You could not do Gangbusters, Mr. District Attorney or The FBI in Peace and War without violence. But the actual crimes were not detailed: no ''how to'' on radio and no gory descriptions. Mostly sound effects and creepy music.

Speaking of creepy, the ''nightmare'' shows like Arch Oboler's Lights Out were after most kids' bedtimes. Inner Sanctum was earlier, but its ghouls and goblins usually proved to be human, and its host Raymond always took the edge off the horror by his cornball humor (a technique borrowed by Alfred Hitchcock and also Tales of the Crypt for TV). The Whistler and The Mysterious Traveler could get pretty tense, but Mom usually told Dad to change the dial if they did. He would, but not before Sue and I complained. (We were as gore-minded in the 40s as kids are today.)

After the war, network radio got tougher. Adult, they called it. Dragnet, The Lineup and Gunsmoke led the way; and there were others like Broadway is My Beat, Box 13 (with Alan Ladd) and Pat Novak, for Hire which were as noir as any Hollywood movie of the period. The competition with television was responsible, and it led to a fragmentation in programming. Families watched TV with its Milton Berle and Lucy; adults without TV sets listened to radio.

By the 1950s, network radio was dying; and in the 1960s, radio became a juke box with some news and sports. Television was king -- but the fragmentation in programming soon dominated in TV, too. The networks called it ''demographics.'' There were shows for kids, family shows, and adult shows. And as the nets took control from the ad agencies, they weren't always as careful about content. Oh, they could still censor scripts, but there was no way to control the pictures that directors made of them until afterward -- and some networks used violence to gain viewers (prime example: ABC's The Untouchables). Senate hearings on TV sex and violence have been a regular occurrence since.

Today, with cable leading a march to the gutter, almost anything goes. There is still a dial (or clicker) for television sets, but with large numbers of pre-teens having sets in their own bedrooms, a parent has to be fleet afoot to control what youngsters see.

I don't think our society is the better for it.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online August 22, 2001

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