Death of a notion; or, we’re (fifty years) late, so good night, folks: Old-time radio listening, 30 September

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: The Tip-Off Matter (CBS, 1962)

Suspense: Devilstone (CBS, 1962)

Mandel Kramer, the final Johnny Dollar, launching old-time radio’s final first-run broadcast hour . . . (Photo: CBS)

Perhaps it depends upon whom you read and how you interpret what they say. By the time tonight’s offerings finish their first-run performances, at 7 p.m. Eastern time 30 September 1962, the absolute last in both these series and in regularly-scheduled network radio as once a nation (and much of a world) knew it, will it feel as though network radio died of swift natural causes, a long and often painful illness, protracted suicide, murder . . . or, all of the above?

The responsibility of providing good radio programs belongs to the professionals in the industry, not the amateurs outside it. No amount of slavish obesience to public taste and no amoung of complicated machinery will produce a good radio program or even a popular radio program . . . Entertainment can’t be measured and it sneers at statistics. At best, the public can only set up certain loose standards, but even those can be destroyed overnight when a great creative intellect comes along and kicks them over and sets up his own new standards.

John Crosby, “Research and Hysteria,” New York Herald Tribune, 16 December 1947.

“The sameness was starting to look the same”—Fred Allen, here with his beloved Portland . . . (Photo: NBC)

Television was already conducting itself provocatively, trying to get radio to pucker up for the kiss of death. Young men with crew cuts were dragging TV cameras into the studios and crowding the old radio actors out into the halls. Even without the coming of television, radio seemed doomed. The audience and the medium were both getting tired. The same programs, the same comedians, the same commercials—even the sameness was starting to look the same.

Fred Allen, from Treadmill to Oblivion. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1954)

I give them a good, tight, fifteen-minute comedy show and what do they do? Expand it to half an hour and throw in an orchestra and an audience. Who the hell said a comedy show had to be half an hour—Marconi? Ida Cantor?

Goodman Ace, about CBS tinkering with The Little Show, which he helped a protege named Robert Q. Lewis develop, in 1947.

The arrival of I Love Lucy on CBS-TV October 15, 1951, signaled the true end of radio, symbolised by the face that a sturdy radio transplant, Lights Out, was sent reeling into oblivion weeks later . . .

People loved Lucy and TV, and decided it was lights-out time for radio, though a few shows valiantly remained on the air until 1962. What truly frightened radio was when one of its hottest shows, Stop the Music, plummeted in 1950 from the fourteenth spot in the ratings to sixty-sixth; not even rowdy game shows and gimmicky giveaways . . . could hold listeners’ once-loyal ears. Suddenly radio, like vaudeville before it, became the subject of not just good-humoured ribbing but pointed ridicule. On Jackie Gleason’s first TV show on the DuMont Network, The Cavalcade of Stars, he played an inept radio sound effects man, and on Jack Benny’s final radio program Mel Blanc portrayed a desperate, overeager sound man who keeps bursting in with silly irrelevant sounds just to insert himself into the show.

Gerald Nachman, in Raised on Radio. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.)

This sounds very self-serving, but I knew it would put radio out of business. I knew TV would take over, even at a time when successful owners of radio stations did not go into television, because they said it was too expensive.

Frederick Ziv, who first made his name syndicating radio shows (beginning with reruns of Easy Aces), recalling his entry into producing syndicated television shows in the late 1940s.

The shift to television did have one benefit for radio: an easing of pressure. The networks weren’t going out of business; they still had hours to fill every day, and every night, but ratings were of diminished importance as the 1950s wore on. Many shows that debuted during that decade went sponsorless, or sold spot ads, which in either case meant that an ad agency was no longer pulling the strings. The network hierarchy was simplified immeasurably. And in that relatively free atmosphere, some excellent radio shows were created . . .

Leonard Maltin, in The Great American Broadcast. (New York: Dutton, 1997.)

I was in television (by 1957) and I was working at NBC and Bill Froug, who was vice president of CBS Radio, called me and said, “We’re still doing [The] CBS [Radio] Workshop; we’re going to be doing it for thirteen more weeks, then it’s finished and that’s the end of all this stuff. Want a half-hour?” So I said, “Sure.” “What are you going to do?” “I don’t know yet.” He said, “Do whatever you want. You have a half-hour.”

Elliott Lewis, Mr. Radio himself, to Maltin.

“Coherent about the incoherent”—John Crosby. (Photo: New York Herald-Tribune)

A radio columnist is forced to be literate about the illiterate, witty about the witless, coherent about the incoherent. It isn’t always possible. My drawers are stuffed with notes about programs which are neither bad enough nor good enough to warrant comment of any sort. They hover, these programs, in a sort of nether world of mediocrity and defy you to compose so much as a single rational sentence about them.

John Crosby, introducing Out of the Blue: A Book About Radio and Television. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952.

The rating system alone has brought radio to the low state which it now enjoys and is rapidly bringing television to a state equally as low. Programs are judged almost solely by their ratings. Because of the ratings a new, fresh, well-written, well-produced program has little or no chance if it doesn’t garner a high Nielsen. With one or two courageous exceptions, if a program has run thirteen weeks and has a small rating—or maybe twenty-six weeks and in some rare cases thirty-nine weeks and the rating is still small—the program is dropped and marked No Sale. One of the best comedy programs of radio, Fibber McGee & Molly, spent several years being developed on a Chicago station before it hit the networks, because the sponsor and the advertising agency had faith in it and rating didn’t matter. But sponsors these days and advertising agencies and networks are not that patient. On with the big rating shows, and may the devil take the hindmost.

CBS exec: “I’ll tell you a little secret, Mr. Ace—we don’t have anyone who understands comedy.”
Goodman Ace: “I’ll tell you a little secret—that’s no secret.” (Photo: CBS)

Goodman Ace, in “The Same Old Rate Race,” Saturday Review, May 1951.

Radio could not survive because it was the byproduct of advertising. Ability, merit, and talent were not requirements of writers and actors working in the industry. Audiences had to be attracted, for advertising purposes, at any cost and by any artifice. Standards were gradually lowered. A medium that demands entertainment eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, has to exhaust the conscientious craftsman and performer. Radio was the only profession in which the unfit could survive. When television belatedly found its way into the home, after stopping off too long at the tavern, the advertisers knew they had a more potent force available for their selling purposes. Radio was abandoned like the bones at a barbeque.

Fred Allen, in Treadmill to Oblivion.

Those are only a few of the predictions, lamentations, and valedictories regarding tonight’s bittersweet end. Now, listen . . .

Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar: “The Tip-Off Matter”—A state prison inmate Dollar (Mandel Kramer) helped send up for safe-cracking a decade earlier now wants to make amends because Dollar helped his brother stay straight—the inmate (Joseph Julian) wants the sleuth to stop a killing tied to the earlier crime, whose $100,000 haul was never discovered. Additional cast: Jackson Beck, Jack Rimes, Bob Maxwell, Peter Fernandez. Announcer: . Music: Ethel Huber. Sound: Walter Otto. Director: Fred Hendrickson. Writer: Jack Johnstone.

Suspense: “Devilstone”—Timothy Martin (Christopher Carey), staying on his family’s Irish estate and enjoying the good life otherwise, discovers the hard way the changes and unravelings of life when he inherits his uncle’s retreat . . . and rents it to travelers, learning the hard way it has a reputation for being haunted, which amuses him because he believes haunted houses “went out” a century earlier. Additional cast: Neil Fitzgerald, Gilbert Mack, Walter Grise, Reynold Auburn, Frank Milano. Announcer: Stuart Metz. Music: Ethel Huber. Sound: Walter Otto. Director: Fred Hendrickson. Writer: Jack Johnstone, writing as Jonathan Bundy.

How strange, sad, and surreal, that these two shows, outlasting every other classic radio drama, comedy, serial, semi-serial, you name it, should put paid to an era that in 2012 would seem an American pop cultural blink. Written and directed by the same two men, scored by the same woman. As if to say the medium that made the original broadcast networks had finally run out of fuel and drillers alike; that it managed at last to spend the attention and affection of a public now starving for immediate gratification; and, that the very thing that made it the presence, companion, informant, and entertainer it was for just over three decades, had little if any place any longer in the American home: the imagination.

The theater of the mind.

The motto of The CBS Radio Workshop.

In radio, the listener was the casting director and the set designer and the cameraman and everything else. In television, it’s all done for you—here it is, accept it or leave it . . . Radio was the theater of the mind—as opposed to television, the theater of the mindless.

Hal Kanter, who wrote for Command Performance, The Alan Young Show, The Don Ameche Show, Philco Radio Time, The Jack Paar Show, and other classic radio entries.

We must have been nuts, baby. How did we let radio get away from us?

Bob Hope, to Kanter, in 1965.

If radio would stop taking its own pulse every five minutes, it might get well.

John Crosby.

We’re running a little late—about fifty years late. So good night, folks.

Your servant.

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