Step back from the home-theater system for a moment and try to wrap your brain around this one: Just a couple of generations ago, high-tech “home entertainment” consisted solely of words and sounds delivered to the household via a static-plagued monophonic speaker.  Even if you remember it firsthand, you might be starting to wonder if it really happened at all, or if the idea is just a trick: something that was dreamed up and implanted in the collective unconscious—a “Lost City of Atlantis” of broadcasting history.

Well, it did happen: The all-too-brief Golden Age of Radio spanned the most pivotal decades of the American Century: the 1930’s through the 1950’s.  Nowadays, many young people in their teens, 20’s, and even 30’s cannot fathom the idea of dramatic presentations created solely for the audio realm; without a corresponding image, they are cast adrift, unable to focus on the content of what they are hearing.  Yet during the Golden Age, young and old people alike had no trouble conjuring images in their minds to accompany the rich soundscapes emanating from their bulky Crosley sets.  Three major networks—CBS, NBC-red, and NBC-blue (later to become ABC)—fed this “theater of the mind” with thousands of high-budget comedy, drama, and news programs.  Some of Hollywood’s biggest names (Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille, James Stewart, Cary Grant) readily contributed their directing and acting talents to the medium, and other aspiring stars such as Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten used radio as a launching pad for successful movie careers.

Of course, not all of it was really golden.  Then as now, soap operas and tabloid journalism frequently grabbed high ratings.  It must be said, however, that even the trashiest shows stimulated the imagination, for the fact remained that, regardless of a show’s content, the listener was still responsible for creating the images.

Not surprisingly, many distinguished writers and poets quickly came to appreciate the imaginative possibilities of audio drama.  In The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States, 1933-1953, Erik Barnouw describes the evangelical zeal of early convert Archibald MacLeish:

MacLeish [wrote] a sort of manifesto, calling on poets to recognize in radio a medium made for their needs. . . . If the poet could examine radio—commercial radio—he would find it had developed tools “which could not have been more perfectly adapted to the poet’s uses had he devised them himself.”  Let the poet not look hopefully to the stage.  The eye, said MacLeish, is a realist, whereas the ear “is already half poet.”

Here we see the real strength of radio, and what was irrevocably lost when America became a TV culture.  Radio required active, not passive, engagement.  It was in many ways a true collaboration between artist and audience, and a deeply personal one at that; two family members could sit side by side listening to Gunsmoke, each having a completely different mental picture of what Matt Dillon looked like.  But when Gunsmoke, like so many successful shows of its time, made the transition to television, that personal experience was destroyed.  Each viewer could now see for himself that Matt Dillon was the ruggedly handsome James Arness.  And once Mr. Arness’s Marlboro Man characterization hit the screen, the dulcet tones of William Conrad (the actor who had portrayed Dillon on radio) became a distant memory.

As the television boom of the 50’s began to sap radio of its audience, a number of shows besides Gunsmoke made the transition to the new visual medium—Dragnet, Suspense, Lights Out.  Yet, in nearly every instance, the “upgraded” version proved inferior to its predecessor.  W. Ralph Walters, an avid collector who tirelessly works to preserve and disseminate old-time radio shows, explains that, with television, “you no longer have a vested interest in the entertainment beyond voyeurism.  You don’t have to work for anything . . . and you’re given fewer opportunities for contemplation.”

Some stories are simply not meant to be visual.  The power of the famous Suspense play “Sorry, Wrong Number” derives from the terrifying scenario of a lonely woman overhearing (because of a crossed phone line) her own murder being plotted.  Almost the entire story takes place over the telephone, as the protagonist makes increasingly panicked calls to the operator and the police, attempting to relate what she has just heard.  Such a tale could not be conveyed in any other medium.  Indeed, the entire horror genre—which relies so heavily on suggestion, on what is not seen—went into a virtual free-fall after its transition from books and radio to TV and movies, a nosedive from which it has never righted itself.  The slasher films so popular today are more disgusting than frightening.  For true visceral terror, the numerous plays Arch Oboler wrote and directed for Lights Out are still unmatched.  This is because Mr. Oboler understood something that has been lost in our modern era of special effects, bloated budgets, and unrestrained bad taste.  As he told Leonard Maltin in The Great American Broadcast,

I didn’t write about . . . monsters with dripping talons and grotesque faces from the special effects department walking down streets and looking for prey.  I wrote about the terror we each have in us.  The woman who let us down, the man who left us, the boss we hated, the opportunity that we missed, all the terrors, the monsters within each of us.  That’s what I wrote about.  And those things don’t change.

The saddest thing about the demise of classic radio in America is that it needn’t have happened at all.  Radio drama and comedy continued on in Canada until very recently, and, in England, the art form still flourishes.  Indeed, the popular BBC 7—a station devoted exclusively to dramatized audio productions and spoken word—has seen its budget increase exponentially since its on-air debut in 2002.

So why did radio suffer such an ignoble fate in the United States?  A full explanation would take up a book or more, but the short answer is greed.  At the dawn of the television age, the parent company of NBC (the largest network) was RCA (the Radio Corporation of America), which also happened to be the single largest manufacturer of nearly all early television sets.  The RCA-NBC conglomerate decided to do a full-court press on the public, diverting most of NBC’s resources (including almost all of its radio profits) into television programming, while simultaneously rushing millions of sets onto the market at affordable prices.  This synergistic ploy worked brilliantly; American families, flush with postwar prosperity, bought the sets en masse and tuned in to view NBC-monopolized programming.  David Sarnoff (president of RCA) and his cohorts made a killing.  Not wanting to be left in the dust, the other networks quickly began to line up advertisers and develop their own TV shows.  For a time, CBS managed to keep one foot in the radio camp and continued to create and fund a number of extraordinary series well into the late 50’s; eventually, however, money had the final say: Dramatized radio had ceased to be profitable, so CBS cut it loose, airing the final episode of Suspense in 1962.  Thus, a generation of talented writers and performers disappeared from public view.  While a photogenic few were able to make the transition to the boob tube, the majority found themselves out of the entertainment business for good.

In America, TV had been billed as a replacement for radio—a new and improved entertainment device designed to render its predecessor obsolete.  This tactic worked all too well, pushing radio out of the living room and onto the dashboard.  Darren Callahan—an author who has written a number of radio-revival plays for NPR—notes:

[R]adio is not where the American public goes first for anything.  Not for advertising, drama, music, comedy, news, anything. . . . If on-air comedy and drama died like the dodo bird, it’s us [sic] who blew it off for decades and then wondered where the hell it went.

We are a mob culture, and, as a mob, we followed RCA right over the technological precipice.  In England, which was slower to recover from the ravages of war, the shift toward television happened more gradually.  There, television was promoted as a new household device that could coexist peacefully with the old stalwart.  Consequently, 57 years down the road, a new radio show in England is viewed as a perfectly acceptable form of modern entertainment, whereas, in America, any attempt to stage a contemporary radio production is regarded as a novelty, a nostalgia exercise.

This country’s transition from one information medium to another may at first glance seem a mere footnote of history, secondary in importance to the wars and global developments that have engaged each generation’s attention.  That is, until it dawns on us what we truly gave up when we turned our backs on radio.  For America, post-Golden Age, is no longer able to sit still and listen.