I barely missed the golden age of radio. But I caught it on the rebound.
When Uncle Sam put me to some little use in Germany in the early 1970s, keeping democracy safe by standing guard duty and typing reports, the Armed Forces Radio Network regularly aired a variety of old radio programs.
Those little half hour American dramas, most of them originally broadcast before I was born, provided welcome breaks from “Flipper” and “The Beverley Hillbillies” dubbed in German on television and constant polka bands and disco, then in the infancy of its unfortunate run, on Bavarian radio stations.
It stands to reason, I guess, that having grown up watching television shows on the trio of networks in the late 50’s and early 60’s I would feel an affinity for the radio programs that preceded them. Because many of them – “Father Knows Best”, “The Jack Benny Show”, “Gunsmoke”, “Dragnet”, “Ozzie and Harriet”, “Death Valley Days”, and others – had all been on radio first.
So when I listened to the older versions, either in the barracks in Germany or later on tapes from used book stores, I was already comfortable with the characters and their situations. Though I did struggle with William Conrad’s ominously deep voice as the marshal on “Gunsmoke”. James Arness was the only Matt Dillon for me, and my allegiance was resolute.
In 1979, when I was a young, single teacher, I rented a beach house down at Matagorda for a summer, thinking it would be the perfect place to write a book. Which I did. But it was so bad I finally judged it beyond salvation and sentenced it to death, so it was relegated to the trash bin, all three hundred or so pages of it.
But that summer was wonderful anyway. The portable TV received nothing but static on its rabbit ears, but my storm radio came in clear as a bell. Back then a station in Houston ran the CBS Radio Mystery Theater every night at ten. They were hour-long whodunits almost certainly recorded while the actors read the script aloud for the first time, but I enjoyed them every night sitting on the screened-in porch with all the lights off, watching the glistening reflection of the moon and stars dancing on the gulf.
It was a good way to end a day of fishing, walking along the beach, reading my way through a box of books I’d brought, and working hard on what would turn out to be a valuable lesson in how not to write one that people might actually consider reading.
I’ve met a good many folks over the years who share my fondness for radio plays and vintage programs from a bygone era. And we’re pretty much in agreement that one of the reasons for our fascination is that listening to a story makes you use much more of your imagination than having all the work done for you in a movie or on television.
When all you have is the spoken word, a few sound effects, and perhaps a bit of a musical soundtrack, you’re forced to conjure everything else. You have to imagine what the characters look like, how they move around, how they’re dressed, what the setting looks like, what the weather is doing, and all the rest.
When I taught freshman English I always introduced my classes to Mr. Sherlock Holmes in a recording of a radio play from the 1930’s, then I had them read one of the adventures in the textbook. The mother of one of my students donated an old wooden radio cabinet, its electronic innards long gone. I put a portable cassette tape player inside the cathedral-shaped contraption and made the kids watch the radio while they listened to Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce become Sherlock and Watson as carriage horses clip-clopped along the cobblestones in foggy Victorian London.
It might have been nothing more than a welcome recess from reading for some of the students. But it may have planted those characters and that place in the minds of others, sending them off on a lifetime of reading enjoyment.
And little did I know, back in those wandering days of my sometimes misspent youth, that if I’d paid better attention to the pacing, characterization, ironic twists, and other elements of those concise radio stories, I would have made a better job of that rambling novel I churned out of my typewriter every day.
Can we learn to write more effectively from more sources than we might have imagined? Personally, I think the answer to that is elementary, my dear Watson.
(Part of this was first published as a newspaper article)