Before the advent of television in the late 1940s, radio was the most popular mass medium in America. During radio's "Golden Age" from 1929 through the end of World War II, radio's comedy-variety, soap opera, and drama programs were a part of the daily lives of most Americans. Unlike movies, radio brought mass entertainment directly into the home and radio stars like Jack Benny, Gracie Allen, and Orson Welles became familiar presences within the family's private space. For the first time, listeners across the country planned their schedules around the same programs and personalities; for example, movie theaters were forced to pipe in the popular Amos 'n' Andy program in 1929 because so many people did not want to leave their homes and miss hearing it. Radio programs functioned as tools of assimilation for many Americans, defining "American" identities through voices. Radio nationalized ethnic, class, and regional accents, creating recognizable standard blueprints for how "Black," "Irish," "rich," and "rural" were supposed to sound. As radio historian Michele Hilmes has written: "In speaking to us as a nation during a crucial period of time [radio] helped to shape our cultural consciousness and define us as a people."
Radio drama emerged in the late 1920s with the formation of national networks and the subsequent commercialization of the industry. In the Radio Act of 1927, the United States government endorsed commercial over government ownership of radio by favoring the networks in allocating wavelengths. Because national networks provided advertisers with the opportunity to sell their products to a mass audience, the government's decision ensured the dominance of mass culture over high culture and educational programming on radio. In order to appeal to this mass audience (especially to women, whom they recognized as the primary consumers within the household), advertisers relied on personalities and programs that seemed to have popular appeal. Throughout the 1920s, music and talk radio had been radio's primary fare, but in 1929 the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) began daily broadcasts of a radio minstrel act that had become quite popular in the Midwest, Amos 'n' Andy. It was the network's first attempt at a fictional serial program, and radio was never the same again. The tremendous popularity of Amos 'n' Andy convinced advertisers that audiences wanted more narrative programs, and "radio drama," the common inclusive term for radio fiction programs, began to take up more and more network time.
The evolution of radio drama is rooted in the tension between the advertisers and the networks. To make the most money and attract the broadest audience, radio programs had to appeal to the masses without alienating the middle-class family audience. Advertisers thus took a new "lowbrow" approach to advertising, developing programs that emphasized the most pleasurable and stimulating aspects of popular culture like "gag" humor and "shocking" stories. At the time, mass culture was associated primarily with the working classes and the street culture of recent immigrants. Moviemakers and vaudeville entrepreneurs had worked hard to attract a middle-class family audience by toning down their bawdier aspects, but the dominance of mass culture on radio was still a cause for concern among the middle classes. It was the responsibility of the networks to maintain cultural standards before the public in order to keep their licenses; they had to avoid public attacks from the morality-minded who worried about the effects of low-culture programming on society. To avoid public criticism—and hence maintain their monopoly (and their profits),—networks developed two different kinds of radio drama: popular drama, produced by advertisers, and commercial-free "prestige" drama, produced and sustained by the networks to appease their critics. Although these two forms developed separately, by the end of the 1930s they had each begun to take on aspects of the other, blurring the line between popular and high culture.
Popular radio drama drew on a variety of mass culture forms, including pulp fiction, comic strips, and vaudeville. Pulp fiction anthologies of short stories had become immensely popular in the United States from the 1890s to the 1920s with the development of cheap printing techniques and national distribution systems. The "pulps" were usually first printed in magazines, and they offered audiences the predictable satisfactions of standard genres: romance, western, crime, detective mysteries, and horror. Pulp fiction had been the major source of advertising before radio; with the advent of radio drama, advertisers were able to simply shift their sponsorship to a different medium. Pulp fiction genres became well known on radio: programs like The Shadow, Gangbusters, and Gunsmoke were developed from mystery, crime, and Western pulp fiction, respectively. Romance genres aimed primarily at women were soon segregated into daytime, and became popularly known as soap operas because soap companies sponsored them. Comic strips were also popular sources for radio programs, particularly children's serials like Little Orphan Annie. When radio took over these forms, it made them more dramatic. The crime-fighting Shadow, for example, became much more a man of action than he had been in written form, and the constant sound of riot guns in the "real-life" crime show Gangbusters produced complaints from parents who charged that the guns frightened their children.
Certainly the most successful of radio's popular programs were comedy-variety shows. In the early 1930s, as the Depression put more and more vaudeville theaters out of business, vaudeville players made increasing use of radio and became the medium's biggest stars. These programs combined vaudeville "gag" humor with nightclub performance, linking the different sections together through one central personality and continuing, familiar stock characters. The Jack Benny Show was the most popular of such programs, running from 1932 until 1955; Benny starred as the miserly, childish, vain star of a radio program called The Jack Benny Show. Like other popular comedy-variety programs such as Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and The Bob Hope Show, The Jack Benny Show relied on ethnic and gender stereotypes widely used in vaudeville. Radio programs differed from vaudeville, however, in that vaudeville shows were much more fragmented and often adapted to local tastes; radio comedy-variety, on the other hand, offered audiences a more predictable narrative structure and consistent characters in order to foster familiarity between players and listeners. Programs that attempted to be more spontaneous or have a more satirical edge either failed to attract a significant audience or, like comedian Fred Allen's show, were streamlined to fit the Benny formula.
While popular drama got much higher ratings with listeners than prestige drama, the latter had a significant impact on the evolution of radio drama because of its technical and artistic innovations. Because prestige drama did not have the constraints of commercial sponsorship, its producers could experiment with sound effects, acting styles, language, and traditional narrative structure. Programs like the Radio Guild adapted classical plays for radio audiences, while The Columbia Workshop produced original scripts written for radio by some of the country's best known writers, among them Archibald MacLeish, William Saroyan, and Dorothy Parker.
The most famous name associated with radio prestige drama is Orson Welles, whose 1938 adaptation of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds caused a nationwide panic. Welles' Mercury Theatre of the Air program featured radio's first repertory theater, and Welles was the first prestige drama auteur, serving as writer, director, and leading player in most of the program's productions. Welles was also known for his imaginative use of the medium; War of the Worlds was so convincing in part because Welles borrowed techniques from radio news programs, giving his program the semblance of a news broadcast. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Welles continued to do radio work in both sustaining and sponsored programs, but his name was always linked to "high culture" although he often used material from more popular sources; for every dramatization of A Tale of Two Cities, Welles offered a Dracula or a Sherlock Holmes.
Two other famous names associated with prestige drama were writer-directors Norman Corwin and Arch Oboler. Corwin, who worked for CBS, pushed the boundaries of the radio drama form, developing new radio-specific genres like the "radio opera" (musical-documentary-dramas) and adapting poetic works like Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Edgar Lee Master's Spoon River Anthology for radio. Oboler, who worked for NBC, focused on realist drama and psychological horror. He is best known for his Arch Oboler's Plays series and his original scripts for the horror series Lights Out. Oboler's work often explored the supernatural, taking his listeners into settings where they could not ordinarily go; his characters were haunted by ghosts, buried alive, or made bargains with the devil. Where Corwin's work focused on language, Oboler's work exploited radio's potential to unnerve. The war interrupted Oboler and Corwin's experiments, and like other radio writers, they turned their attention to patriotic themes. While prestige dramas were never again given the airtime they enjoyed in the late 1930s, the influence of these dramatists became more obvious in commercial drama during and after the war.
One of the most popular radio genres of the 1940s was the suspense program; programs like Suspense, Inner Sanctum, and Mystery in the Air were very much products of the radio drama which proceeded them. Unlike most radio genres that originated in pulp fiction, suspense programs shared with prestige dramas a reliance on scripts produced originally for radio. They also utilized several of the techniques of prestige radio programs, including first person narration and interior monologue, psychological complexity, the use of dreams and fantasy, and a preoccupation with the supernatural. Like Oboler's plays, they foregrounded psychological horror, but their context in an uncertain postwar America meant that certain subjects like wartime traumas and sexual tension came to the fore. The most famous and popular original radio play was the Suspense play "Sorry, Wrong Number" (1943), written by Lucille Fletcher and starring Agnes Moorehead, which focused on an invalid wife who overhears a murder plot on the phone and does not realize until the last few moments that she is the intended victim. The success of this program influenced radio dramas throughout the 1940s; plots continued to emphasize mistrust between the sexes and feature bizarre, often graphic violence.
As television came to dominate the postwar era in the late 1940s and early 1950s, radio drama faded in significance and popularity; the rise of the disc jockey in the 1950s ensured the resurgence of popular music as the medium's dominant entertainment. Radio drama's lasting influence is most obvious in the content and structure of television programming, which lifted its stars and genres directly from radio fiction, but commercialized radio was distinct from television in its greater acknowledgment of ethnic and class differences. Although both television and radio served to homogenize U.S. culture, much of radio's mass-culture programming remained rooted in the humor and worldview of the nation's underclass, while television's fiction programs moved away from the culture of the urban masses to appeal primarily to middle-class nuclear families.
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