Radio Days


While my father trudged through the French winter, fearing he would not survive the war, it was my mother who died of lupus in sunny Pasadena where we had settled for her health.  My grandmother, who had been taking care of her, was afraid to tell a five-year-old the truth.  So she took me back to San Francisco, assuring me that my mother would soon follow.  As the weeks wore on, I was left to piece things together for myself. 

One rainy night, by a window in our small apartment, the truth surfaced in my mind.  My grandmother struggled for what must have been an hour with my screaming rage and fits of crying.  But then she had an inspiration.  On the table was a wooden box that curved to a peak, looking almost churchlike with its ornately latticed façade, yellow-brown grill cloth, and soft amber light behind the tuning dial.  Providentially, it was time for my favorite program, The Great Gildersleeve.  Out flowed the familiar voices with their usual foibles and predicaments; and I began to dissolve into the perennial world of Gildersleeve’s Summerfield—Mr. Peavey’s drugstore, Floyd’s barbershop, Birdie’s kitchen, and Uncle Mort’s living room.  And with the rain at the window, the low lamp in the corner, and the room filled with my radio family, the ugly, war-torn, food-rationed world, where not even one’s own mother could survive, seemed just so benign as to permit falling asleep.

To see my grandmother’s remedy as incommensurate with the depth of the crisis would be to misjudge the transportive power of radio.  At a time when the world was still far way, radio was the nerve center of the nation, the hearth in every home.  And if it brought the world into the home it also allowed the home a life of its own.  Unlike television, radio was not only unintrusive but a warm companion for creative projects, allowing one to cook, paint, peruse magazines, play games, or paste scrapbooks.  Yet radio dramas were no less gripping than their TV descendants.  Free of incessant ratings, weekly characters could persist across two generations of listeners, becoming so familiar that audience laughter broke all records when a holdup man had to repeat “Your money or your life!” to the miserly Jack Benny, who finally replied, “I’m thinking it over!” 

Television leaves little to the imagination, but radio tapped our personal imagery—our secret terrors and private dreams.  Though I never saw them, I have vivid images of Nick Carter and Captain Midnight, while TV figures are soon forgotten.  Television reveals the physical setting, but radio voices seemed to emanate from the very hub of the world.  One imagined Bob Hope standing in a vast arena before thousands of people, eclipsing at that moment all other earthly events.  The familiar voices filled drab days in suburban kitchens and long nights in lonely cities.  The brief era of radio was a bridge between the isolated imagination and the advent of the mass mind, swallowed into the all-pervasive, homogeneous world of television. 

In that transitory interlude, parts of an older more personal world could persist within a burgeoning technological society that had yet to reach critical mass.  Poised between modern and postmodern, the heyday of radio spanned that moment in the twilight of innocence when we seemed to have it both ways, a brief balance of both worlds that can never be again.


  1. Paul Prince says

    Hey, it’s still Radio Days. Radio lives forever in Wyn’s real life as well as in mine. So, maybe there is less left to ones imagination in today’s talk/sports/country music radio, but it’s still the original broadcasting. Did I mention live streaming radio stations instead of trying to tune in those distant 50,000 watt stations? For some this blog may be nostalgia, but it’s as real today as ever.

    • Wyn Wachhorst says

      There are a few good things on radio now, particularly on NPR. But otherwise, one of the essentials of old-time radio was sound-bites longer than two minutes–usually a half-hour, long enough to absorb the listener in some narrative, one that would persist and grow deeply familiar over a span of years. Radio now is 90+ percent quasi-informed talk and pop-music. And the music is 90+ percent puerile.

  2. Reid Isaksen says

    I remember fondly those great radio shows of the 50’s. They were a very important part of my youth.

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