There’s something indelibly charming (even a little romantic) about vintage radio programming – especially those produced during the ‘golden age’ of radio. Thanks to the hard work of dedicated individuals a great many of these shows can be discovered and enjoyed by new generations of listeners.
Editor’s Note: The best way to engage this topic is by reading through the entire article before clicking any of the links. It is also helpful to understand the distinction between the terms “Old Time Radio” and “Golden Age Radio” which have evolved connotations among vintage radio aficionados, collectors, historians and preservationists. But that’s for later on.
Where to start
A good entry point to the vast (often disconnected) world of ‘Golden Age Radio’ is The Digital Deli Too, where the hobby of collecting and cataloging radio shows is presented in splendid fashion. Here you’ll see how good research, painstaking effort and love of the medium result in detailed biographies and expansive, often fascinating program logs. Once you’ve found a good show to start collecting pay a visit to The Digital Deli’s program log archive to learn about the show’s background and the actors & producers who brought it to life. Each article features album art and delightful vintage photography. In my view an excellent resource for serious (or even casual) collecting. From a hobbyist standpoint their Introduction to Golden Age Radio Research is highly recommended reading, and may instill a greater appreciation for the challenges associated with preservation.
Actually, the above works swimmingly in reverse. One could spend many enjoyable hours exploring Digital Deli’s program logs and come away with a list of shows to go out and search for (in terms of downloadable audio files).
The initial challenge of discovering shows to fit personal taste can be a little intimidating. I offer a few suggestions from my personal collection further down. There are also privately curated collections that offer a user-friendly place for browsing and discovering new shows, arranged to let visitors browse or search by genre. Just a few hand-picked samples of what’s out there.
Should you discover an appreciation for a curator’s hard work, consider making a small donation to help offset the cost of hosting these timeless, quality programs.
Starting a Collection
The above resources offer an excellent venue for discovering shows, but there is arguably one resource that offers the most comprehensive repository of vintage radio programming. Archive.org is a great place to dig up collections of specific shows. In other words, once you know what you’re looking for this can be an excellent resource for finding the best audio sets of that particular show. Think of archive.org as a special hosting site where curators have uploaded their collections so that folks like you and me can come along later to download and enjoy them. Searching by name (usually the name of the show) is a good way to engage the database. This will bring up a list of results similar to what comes up with a traditional search engine. The thing to understand is sometimes there are multiple results for the same show, since oftentimes different contributors upload their own unique collection. It’s worth comparing different collections as some may offer a better description or background information on the show, while others will have more episodes encoded at a higher bit rate. Usually there’s an embedded audio player built into the page which is great for sampling a show, while further down individual tracks (even album artwork) can be downloaded as well.
Tip: Some files have poor audio quality. Most don’t. If you get a bad one don’t assume the entire collection is bad. Keep sampling until you get to the good ones.
This wouldn’t be “Fessic’s Favorites” without listing some of my favorite Golden Age Radio highlights. Understand these are just a handful of gems I’ve discovered so far, with possibly many more yet to come…If you happen to sample one of these, keep in mind that not every performance is a guaranteed knockout. But the good episodes of a given show are a lot of fun. With a little digging there’s a treasure trove of great programming to be found.
My Favorite Husband – The radio precursor to I Love Lucy, starring Lucille Ball & Richard Denning. The show didn’t hit its stride until around Episode 14 or so; then it really takes off. An alternate source of episodes can be found at Archive.org here.
Our Miss Brooks – Screen actress Eve Arden stars in this delightful situational comedy about an English teacher in 1950s American high school who’s keen on winning the affections of the school’s biology teacher. Meanwhile, she can’t quite manage to stay out of trouble with the principle, played by Gale Gordon.
Lux Radio Theater – Or perhaps classic films are more to your taste. In the days before television, motion pictures brought stars to life, and people to theaters. But at home everyone had a radio, and this was the medium that the big networks would use to bring the experience of motion pictures into the home. Enter Lux Radio Theater, featuring adaptations of Film and Broadway plays, averaging 58 minutes and notable for their extravagant production values and the biggest stars from Stage and Hollywood. An alternate collection can be found here at archive.org. Notice that performances are listed according to year with links for 1936-1952. The others are (1953) (1954) and (1955).
NBC University Theatre – And if you find Lux Theater an appealing format, and don’t mind less lavish production values, then NBC University Theatre has produced several fine adaptations of classic novels. It’s a little bit like listening to the audiobook versions of those old titles in the Literature section of the library or book store. Alternate collection at archive.org.
The Adventures of Philip Marlowe – A hard-boiled private detective and one of radio’s classic characters. The storylines and talented voice actors don’t skimp on melodrama and that’s what makes the show so fun. He’s good at his work, and a sucker for the ladies, many of whom are more cunning than their male cohorts. Be aware that some of the earlier episodes suffer in audio quality. An alternate collection and stellar program log.
It’s Higgins, Sir! – When the Roberts family inherits an English butler, played by Harold McNaughton, their ‘White suburban America’ lives suddenly become infused with comedic moments.
The Adventures of Maisie – Ann Sothern reprises her film role as Maisie Ravier, a struggling actress from New York who employs her wit and charm to help others, and still manages to get herself in some pretty tight spots. The definitive program log, lovingly and painstakingly curated by The Digital Deli Too.
The Roy Rogers Show – Quintessential American Hero of the old west, solving crime and bringing in the bad guys. One of the original singing cowboys from the 1940s and 50s. Action, adventure, fisticuffs, and some of the zaniest Post Cereal commercials this side of the Rio Grande. Those familiar with Woody’s Round-Up from Toy Story will notice a resemblance.
Others worth searching for:
- Any episode of “Command Performance” variety show
- The Big Show, hosted by Tallulah Bankhead (NBC)
- Anything with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope
- Box 13 Detective series, starring Alan Ladd
- The British comedy “Men From the Ministry” (notes)
- In Person with Dinah Shore (sings for the soldiers)
- Journey Into Space radio drama (produced by the BBC)
- Benny Goodman live performances
Check the date at the beginning of this post for updates
Here’s something to try; when dinner time comes around leave the television alone and queue up one of these old radio shows instead. If you were fortunate enough to pick a good one I can almost guarantee it will be a more enjoyable, stress-reducing experience than the usual alternative such as the evening news or a modern TV show. Tip: These also work great for long commutes.
Refining a Collection
Once you’ve found a few shows worth collecting an accurate program log for each show becomes an invaluable guide. The Digital Deli Too has, in my view, the most reliable collection of program logs available on the internet. They may also have the best methodology in terms of vetting information about individual shows, often sacrificing ‘completeness’ for accuracy. In fact, it was here that I used to point to a few alternative program log sources, but have since arrived at the conclusion that this may be the one true source for programming information with a high probability of accuracy. Besides that the website itself is a pleasure to peruse. But in all seriousness the two folks (I don’t actually know them) who run this site have won me over, in particular with their candidness and dogged pursuit of, as they say it, ‘provenanced’ and documented research. To find out more what I mean scroll to the end of this page and have a read.
So, before delving too deeply in some of the alternative sources, such as some of those listed below, bear in mind what you’ve hopefully learned up to this point about the [current] state of things within the Old Time/Golden Age Radio community.
RadioGOLDENdex – Need more information about an artist or particular show? The RadioGOLDINdex allows for cross-reference searches by Program, Artist or Date.
Old Time Radio Program Logs – Featuring a curated collection of program logs and reviews by Stewart Wright, Frank Passage and friends in downloadable text file format.
20th Century Radio – Donation supported streaming radio. Rather than offering downloads in MP3 format, the folks at 20th Century Radio have set their focus on cleaning up old (and some newly discovered) radio shows to make them fit for broadcast once again. Start the player in the upper left of the home page and enjoy a regular schedule of programming via internet connection. Please Note: I have not been able to get the player, which requires the Flash plugin, to work on any mobile web browsers.
Angel Radio – Billed as ‘Radio for Older People by Older People…’ but that’s only because they happen to have a wonderful cast of volunteers who play genuine records up through 1960 and offer their own memories of the time. Music for listeners of all ages.
Crystal Radio – Soothing background music for studying and relaxing, any time day or night.
Old Time Radio Researchers Group – Representing one of the oldest communities of classic radio enthusiasts committed to keeping old time radio alive. Enjoy OTRR’s collections of classic artwork and old movie posters, or dive into the e-zine archive, a monthly publication in pdf format. It’s still being produced.
JJ’s Newspaper Radio Logs – As suggested, the focus here are the sources where many listings and air dates were first published.
The OTR Plot Spot – With a focus on Science Fiction, Fantasy, Thrillers and Adventures. Special features to be found here are the curated Plot Archives, custom album art and Listening Booth, where programming is rotated on a regular basis.
Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans – Just as the title suggests, the focus here is on quality scans of old movies and celebrities from film and radio. The site also hosts radio show audio files and movies summaries.
To gain an appreciation for the hobbyists who curate so many of these classic radio archives the short essay, “Where Do Old Radio Shows Come From?” by Dave Goldin is an insightful piece. Along with personal anecdotes, it reveals the small miracle by which so much classic programming has survived to the present day.
Important Disclaimer: It seems like a handful of folks out there (hopefully none of the sites referenced here) have attempted to monetize their collections by selling ‘CD compilations’ or charging for access. I don’t pretend to understand all the nuances of (or the legal gray areas associated with) old media that may or may not reside in the public domain…but am fairly certain people shouldn’t be making money beyond recouping hosting fees. If, in your own searching you happen across a site that sells old radio shows my suggestion is to move on, because most (if not all) of these old programs are available [somewhere] for free. The main difference is that one must be willing to download digital audio files as opposed to getting a disk in the mail, an increasingly minor distinction in the age of digital media and open source content.