American History and a Window into a Different Country
As 2020 becomes even more surreal, with the news of the president’s coronavirus diagnosis, any opportunity to get some relief from the daily battering is welcome. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the culmination of a four-year project of reliving World War II in real time, broadcast on Chicago’s Saturday afternoon old-time radio program, Those Were the Days. A few commenters rightly lamented that I only publicized the effort as it was winding down.
To make amends for that late notice, here’s another chance to listen to radio history, as the same show, hosted by Steve Darnall on WDCB, celebrates radio’s centennial over the next weeks. The show’s website is here, and episodes are available online for two weeks in the station’s archive. Starting tomorrow, October 3, Those Were the Days will be rebroadcasting some of radio’s most historic and important shows to celebrate the medium’s 100th anniversary. Tomorrow, for example, Darnall will replay the most famous radio program of all time, Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds, along with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first fireside chat, from March 12, 1933.
It is hard to overstate radio’s impact on American society and history, both good and bad. It all began on November 2, 1920, when Pittsburgh’s KDKA went on the air as the first commercial radio station, a part of Westinghouse Electric’s competition with Radio Corporation of America (RCA), a subsidiary of General Electric. KDKA is still on the air in Pittsburgh, the only station to have a “K” designation east of the Mississippi, where all broadcast stations begin with “W.” Not being a radio historian, I have to say that Wikipedia’s page on KDKA was pretty informative for the casual reader.
From Pearl Harbor to JFK’s assassination, most Americans first heard breaking news (and many still do) on radio, while families gathered religiously every week to listen to radio’s comedies and dramas. Staples of American culture, from The Shadow to the Lone Ranger, began on radio. Without radio, there would have been no rock-n-roll revolution, no Elvis or Beatles, which transformed popular culture, or a few decades later, the talk-show format that transformed politics. Radio drove commercialization to new heights, helping create America’s modern consumer society. And for those who think that social satire began on television with Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, or even later with Saturday Night Live, listen to Bob and Ray or an episode of the Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street from the early 1940s to see just how cutting edge American comedy could be in an era often portrayed as mannered and milquetoast.
In coming weeks, Those Were the Days will broadcast many radio firsts, from the first episode of The Shadow (with Orson Welles as the title character) and King Edward VIII’s abdication (both on October 17), to the 1937 live broadcast of the Hindenburg disaster and the last episode of the long-running series Suspense, from 1962 (both on October 24). For those who are interested in a full episode guide, Darnall publishes a quarterly Nostalgia Digest, which in the current issue also includes an article on the highlights of radio history.
Those Were the Days itself has been around for half of radio’s history, being started in 1970 by Chuck Schaden, who is still active despite retiring a decade ago. Darnall keeps the show mercifully free from politics, making it even more welcome as an oasis against the relentless bad news that hits us every day. As a living part of America’s story, radio continues to link and divide us. Listening to these famous broadcasts maybe helps to connect us with that history, and for that, we should thank Darnall and his team once again.