“the easiest way to get into radio,” wrote Fred Allen (or fred allen, as he signed those letters not signed “f.a.,” Faljek Prink, Mr. A., or other appellations), “is to become a quiz contestant. when it is your turn and you come to the microphone whip out a revolver, kill the master of ceremonies and take over the quiz program yourself. a lot of listeners will be grateful to you for killing the m.c. and good will is important if you hope to survive in radio . . .
“if you do not want to spend twenty or thirty years in the theatre getting ready to go into radio, you can cut down a few years through becoming a quiz kid and growing up in the business. another good and easy way to get into radio is to be born the son of a sponsor.”
I wasn’t a quiz contestant who shot the M.C. at the microphone. (I have wanted to shoot the occasional program director.) I wasn’t a quiz kid growing up in the business. (And, considering what enough of the real such kids eventually disclosed, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, necessarily.) Nor was I born the son of a sponsor. My father worked for Nationwide Insurance, and Nationwide had its share of commercials on the air in my childhood. (“The man from Nationwide is on your side,” an opinion of which my father’s elder brother thought so highly for its revealed truth that he walked out of Nationwide and went independent when the opportunity knocked.) But the syllogism would be:
a) Father works for Nationwide insurance.
b) Nationwide Insurance advertises heavily on radio.
c) Father’s are the children of a sponsor.
Beyond clients about whom I’ve forgotten long enough, my father’s contact with radio consisted of listening at the dining room table or in the car or, as best as I could tell, in his office. The home listening was probably the same as the car or office listening—music, news, baseball games. There were the occasional nights on which whole household huddled up by candlelight in Mother and Dad’s bed with a large portable transistor playing all night. Oh, we were big enough on family togetherness, but candlelight radio required extraordinary circumstances. The big Northeastern blackout of 11 November 1965 qualified.
By that time, too, the closest thing to classic radio I can now remember getting was a) what was left of Bob and Ray; b) what was left of Rambling with Gambling (there was a hell of a lot of it left, as things turned out); c) the news of one or another old radio star’s passing; or, d) old radio stars lingering on television still. (Circa 1965, that would have been Ozzie and Harriet, Jack Benny, Garry Moore, Bob Hope, Ed Sullivan, Robert Young—no, on second thought: Father Knows Best was canceled in 1963, and Young was still a few years from board certification, ABC’s in fact, as Marcus Welby, M.D.)
My parents were Saturday Review readers, but at age ten my reading was somewhere between school assignments and the sports pages. Thus I didn’t learn for years that a radio legend, Goodman Ace, was a regular Saturday Review columnist. When he wasn’t Perry Como’s head writer, that is. (The magazine was called, originally, The Saturday Review of Literature. Ace loved to say he thought it a complete coincidence that they dropped of Literature within a fortnight of hiring him in the first place.)
But I did spend a few of the 1990s in radio, mostly as a news anchor, news reporter, and occasional sports commentator. And I did it, entirely, for small-city stations that wouldn’t have rated even a mild rebuke from Henry Morgan. Bad Henry saved his ammunition for the big armadas—like NBC and Life Savers candy. (Not to mention most of his former co-stars, and practically anyone who got to within a nautical mile of his radius, if you have ever fallen upon his rather scabrous memoir, Here’s Morgan: The Original Bad Boy of Broadcasting. Howard Stern is just a pottymouth elk compared to that cape buffalo in a vacuum tube shop.)
The nearest I got to classic radio by my own hand and voice was twice:
1) During those 1990s, when I suggested and got the chance to crank out a New Year’s Eve show based on an ancient radio broadcast. During one of my frequent secondhand shop prowls, I had found a copy, on vinyl, of New Year’s Eve Radio Dance Party 1945, on Radiola Records. My primary interest then was adding to my blues and jazz library. The show piped live performances of Harry James, Count Basie, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Dorsey, Les Brown, Artie Shaw, Stan Kenton, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington, on an Armed Forces Radio Network hookup from their various New Year’s Eve hotel and ballroom dates.
(It also piped in Freddy Martin, Carmen Cavallero, and Guy Lombardo, none of whom could be accused of playing jazz. They had big bands and big followings, though. And if you could find a New Year’s Eve party in those or many other years without an auld lang from Lombardo’s syne, it was probably among the penguins in Antarctica, which seems a terrific waste of fine tuxedos.)
I rolled up a two-hour fiftieth-anniversary show that opened with an hour of other selections from the Radio Dance Party players, some of them, anyway, then the Radio Dance Party itself, closing with Benny Goodman’s haunting closing theme, “Goodbye,” and splicing in a few ancient radio commercials. (There was someone missing from the original Radio Dance Party. Major Glenn Miller would have been part of it, I’m sure, but for a previous rendezvous that Destiny’s mean widdle kid sister insisted he keep with and in the English Channel. I settled for making the Miller American Band of the Allied Expeditionary Force part of the pre-Dance Party portion of the show, thanks to a then-new set of their final recordings.)
Dearly would I love to say the show was an overwhelming hit. Realistically must I say it was barely a modest hit, in a modestly small city. And I would do it again tomorrow, assuming it was New Year’s Eve and I could catch another program director asleep at the board.
2) Well, as things turned out, I caught another program director asleep at the board in 2009. I was crazy enough to propose, and she was crazier enough to accept, that I write and perform a new program with an old-time twist. Namely, little sketches, little dialogues, complete with appropriate sound effects, while mixing in a smattering of blues, jazzy blues, and—on condition it aired originally on the date of each of our programs—an old-time radio show or two each week in the final half hour. And we got away with it for about a year, until hope of further sponsorship sprang away from eternity and we could no longer afford to mount the show.
Nostalgia had nothing to do with either exercise. I wasn’t even born when the Radio Dance Party bands were alive and working. Or when classic radio itself was in the prime of its life. And the nice thing about that is that I could listen to the music, or to the various quarter- , half- , or full hours of classic radio, without falling back wistfully to those good old days at the bathtub still, the soup kitchen, the Dust Bowlers’ Tour, the malt shop, Roseland, the canteen, D-Day, or the island beach wishing Jennifer O’Neill had cradle-robbed me instead of Gary Grimes in Summer of ’42.
I still listen that way. This is my second such exercise addressing classic radio. The first one was pleasant and nicely received, and I’m hoping personally that his one proves even more pleasant and even more nicely (and widely, not to mention profitably) received. As before, so now: With apologies to the journal that first composed the rhetorical formula I now derive, this journal stands athwart nostalgia, yelling “Art!”
That held then, and will hold now and forever, whether reviewing particular old shows’ episodes or any materials congruent to the day’s offerings. This journal is intended, to the best of my resources, to provide a kind of daily guide for your own indulgence in classic radio—not as clanking nostalgia but as living, breathing art.
Who knows? Between us, gentle reader, there might yet be a future radio script or two to come from these exercises. For a radio show that doesn’t yet exist. Except, perhaps, in the folds of my own mind and, perhaps, yours, too.