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On National Radio Day, an Old-Time Treat at San Francisco Airport

San Francisco International Airport Museum Exhibit (Wikimedia Commons)

Today is National Radio Day, and though we live in an age of 500+ cable channels, social media, streaming, and the like, radio continues to be a primary source of news and musical entertainment for tens of millions of Americans.

First becoming mainstream in the early 1930s, radio dominated American culture from the ’30s through the early’60s, before being eclipsed by television. From New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia reading the Sunday “funnies” (comics) on air, to ground-breaking genre shows including The ShadowSuspense, Fibber McGee and Molly, Amos and Andy, Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, and the like, families across the nation gathered in front of old vacuum-tube radio sets every evening for decades. Radio was the proving ground for modern mass media and comedy, with Edward Murrow reporting from wartime London and Jack Benny and Fred Allen, among others, creating new comedy styles that would soon migrate to the small screen. Not least important, radio also transformed national politics, with Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats making immediate and personal the most important issues of the day to millions of Americans.

I grew up listening to Chuck Schaden’s wonderful old-time radio show Those Were the Days, in Chicago in the 1970s, and nostalgia radio shows are still going strong. Perhaps one of the blessings of streaming is the ability to access huge digital libraries of old-time radio. Sites such as Old Radio World, OTR Network, and Old Time Radio archive, among others offer thousands of opportunities to return to those days of yesteryear.

For any travelers passing through San Francisco Airport, there is a wonderful exhibit on the history of American radio, located on the long breezeway connecting Gates 76-90 to the rest of the airport. The exhibit starts with surviving examples of some of the very first radios from the turn of the century, used by radio pioneer Charles Herrold, who began the country’s first regular broadcasts, from San Jose, just down the road from San Francisco, starting in 1912. Early crystal sets, elegant cathedral styles from the 1930s, solid dark bakelite cases, and massive table-top wood pieces like the Zenith Model 809 from 1934 crowd over a dozen cases on the breezeway. Of particular beauty are the Art Deco sets from the 1930s, sweeping, flowing shapes of chrome and deep blue glass, as well as the catalin radios, a variety of bakelite, but with brilliant colors and occasionally mimicking polished marble and quartz.

The post-war section of the exhibit records the beginnings of miniaturization and contemporary globalization, as hand-held transistor radios made possible the concept of personal entertainment — all one needed was a pocket for the radio and an ear plug, and no longer were families tethered together. Given that transistor radios emerged with the breakthrough of rock-and-roll in the 1950s, most parents probably thought it a fortuitous development. Though first made in America, transistor radio production was soon dominated by Japan, driving American companies such as Zenith and Philco out of the business, and opening up the age of Asian-produced consumer electronics.

Many of the radios on exhibit at SFO come from the collection of Steve Kushman, who heads up the California Historical Radio Society. What is on display of Kushman’s collection is truly impressive, along with the other pieces, and perusing this well curated exhibit of a still vital American entertainment medium is well worth passing the time between flights in San Francisco.

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