The Corner

Culture

Celebrating a Century of Radio

( BrAt_PiKaChU/Getty Images)
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.

Most Popular

Immigration

What Now for Trump’s Border Wall?

The verdict on the U.S.–Mexico border wall President Trump promised to construct is decidedly mixed as the year comes to a close. The “big, beautiful wall,” as Trump referred to it, reached 400 miles in length by the end of October, when the Department of Homeland Security held a ceremony hailing the ... Read More
Immigration

What Now for Trump’s Border Wall?

The verdict on the U.S.–Mexico border wall President Trump promised to construct is decidedly mixed as the year comes to a close. The “big, beautiful wall,” as Trump referred to it, reached 400 miles in length by the end of October, when the Department of Homeland Security held a ceremony hailing the ... Read More
White House

A Justified Pardon

President Trump’s pardon of retired General Michael Flynn, who fleetingly served as his first national-security adviser, was a justified act of clemency. You don’t have to be a fan of how Trump has wielded his pardon power (often recklessly and on behalf of friends and supporters) or believe that Flynn was ... Read More
White House

A Justified Pardon

President Trump’s pardon of retired General Michael Flynn, who fleetingly served as his first national-security adviser, was a justified act of clemency. You don’t have to be a fan of how Trump has wielded his pardon power (often recklessly and on behalf of friends and supporters) or believe that Flynn was ... Read More
Culture

New England Journal of Medicine Pushes Reparations

Reparations would grant African Americans government benefits not paid to other Americans to rectify the awful sin of slavery and the "peculiar institution's" residual harm. It is a favored policy of hard progressives, so of course, the New England Journal of Medicine -- which regularly promotes left-wing causes ... Read More
Culture

New England Journal of Medicine Pushes Reparations

Reparations would grant African Americans government benefits not paid to other Americans to rectify the awful sin of slavery and the "peculiar institution's" residual harm. It is a favored policy of hard progressives, so of course, the New England Journal of Medicine -- which regularly promotes left-wing causes ... Read More

The New GOP

Ronald Reagan was dubbed the “Great Communicator.” Donald Trump might well be labeled the “Great Accelerator.” U.S. politics was polarized before President Trump, with both coalitions motivated mostly by fear of each other. We have gotten more polarized since Trump rode down that escalator. The Upper ... Read More

The New GOP

Ronald Reagan was dubbed the “Great Communicator.” Donald Trump might well be labeled the “Great Accelerator.” U.S. politics was polarized before President Trump, with both coalitions motivated mostly by fear of each other. We have gotten more polarized since Trump rode down that escalator. The Upper ... Read More

The Imaginary Trump

Like Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump is man who represents the age in which he lived. Whatever you may think of the age. Jackson embodied a generation of men who had risen and made their mark in a young country. He represented their desire for greater representation, even if it had costs for slaves and Indians. He ... Read More

The Imaginary Trump

Like Andrew Jackson, Donald Trump is man who represents the age in which he lived. Whatever you may think of the age. Jackson embodied a generation of men who had risen and made their mark in a young country. He represented their desire for greater representation, even if it had costs for slaves and Indians. He ... Read More