Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Endorsement: Old Timey Radio

God help me, I love radio drama. Perhaps it's the top-of-their-games voice actors, maybe the efficiency expert in me loves the idea of creating an entire half-hour of entertainment using only scripts and mics. In any event, I have discovered that I can stream Radio 1710 Antioch to my iPhone, giving me access to a 24-hour stream of this stuff. As I write this, I'm enjoying Dana Andrews in I Was A Communist For The FBI. Fun, paranoid stuff. Surprisingly complex as well.

Anyway, I'm starting to get a picture of dramatic engines that drove the medium for so long. I understand that this is a skewed vision because most of the shows I'm hearing are post-war episodes, indeed, post-television. Maybe this was the real golden age of radio, but more likely it's just that these episodes survived better because of improved transcription methods. Still, the common themes remain.

Amnesia - you don't see a lot of amnesia nowadays, but it was a very common problem 50 years ago. You couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting an amnesiac, who would then forget you had done it. People were continually waking up in alleys, not knowing who they were, where they came from, and who that person they had apparently just killed even was. Whatever was causing it, I'm glad the problem cleared up. I only wish I could remember how!

Orson Welles - the man was perfectly suited to radio, more so than even movies or stage. Why? Welles had a short attention span. The idea that you could just hop into a cab and be on the air in 15 minutes, sometimes without rehearsal, and not worry about makeup or lighting, then grab a check and get the hell out, was heaven to a guy like Welles. His whole career would have been different if he could have relied on a steady radio paycheck but sadly, the medium let him down. Welles starred in both Harry Lime and The Shadow as steady gigs, but tellingly the latter ran longer than a season and Welles moved on, leaving the character to lesser lights.

Science Fiction - weirdly, science fiction ages worse than ANYTHING. Every time someone on Space Patrol refers to their "miniature Space-o-phone" it makes you cringe. Robots run on vacuum tubes. The plot of one show revolved around a space port security officer having to review the Venus vacation snapshots and home movies of every tourist, which was time-consuming because they had to develop all that film. Don't get me started on computers.

Good is Rewarded, Bad is Punished - time after time, a whole episode of Suspense or The Whistler is devoted to the planning of a perfect crime, which unravels due to the protagonist's bad execution. The weed of crime bears bitter fruit! The path of wrongdoing ends in a trap set by justice! I think the intention is to teach people to not commit crimes, but I'd argue that it taught people to just be very very careful when they're doing it.

Running Gags Work - the Jack Benny Show and Fibber McGee and Molly got laughs based on premises that had been established in the thirties. So when you marvel at the two minute audience reaction to Jack Benny's famous response to "Your money or your life!" ("I'm thinking!") remember that the setup took twenty years to write.

Put Down That Gun! - I must have heard this said three dozen times in the last week, and you know what? Nobody EVER puts the gun down.

Sexy Women Have Low Voices - What's up with that anyway?

Commercials - they just used to be easier to figure out, that's all. Nowadays commercials are enigmae, often not even deigning to mention the product. Then, a roomful of people would just shout at you for a minute about how good this car battery is, or this soap, or this cigarette. It was the golden age of direct messaging.

There Is No Such Thing As... - Sex. Bodily functions. Ambiguity. A good communist. Homosexuality. Silence.

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