American Story Time
The ebb and flow of audio broadcast entertaiment narratives through time
I can remember it like it was yesterday. My father and I were in the car driving home from his girlfriend’s house in Pennsylvania. He told me he had something special for me to listen to during our hour and half ride home to New Jersey. I was about eight years old at the time. We always drove home through this one town in New Jersey with a lovely old red mill with a huge water wheel attached. The town is Grover’s Mills, NJ.
As we approached the town, my Dad pulled off the road near the mill and pressed the “play” button on the cassette player. A crackling noise came through the speakers of his Mitsubishi Galant and the announcer started talking. The anchor sounded like he was in the car with us and quickly painted a picture with words.
At first, I thought it was just a news update breaking in on a radio station playing the type of music my grandmother liked. After a few minutes, the news made another update explaining the Princeton Observatory was reporting that aliens have landed in Grover’s Mills, New Jersey. I looked at my father with a ton of questions bubbling at my lips. He instructed me to just listen. The newscasters continued to describe the event occurring in great dramatic detail.
My father explained what I just listened to was Orson Welles’ dramatic reading of War of the Worlds on CBS radio preformed in October of 1938. I couldn’t believe that what I just listened to was dramatic reading of a story. It sounded so real, like I was listening to a live news story as it was happening. To be honest, I was a little spooked. My father explained that that’s what most people thought at the time of its original airing. He explained that people back then panicked, thinking the attack was real. I was captivated and in awe that radio could be so powerful. I asked my father why radio no longer hosted shows with entertainment stories. He replied quite simply, “I don’t know.” That wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to learn everything I could about Grover’s Mills and radio broadcasts. I guess that’s when I caught the broadcasting bug.
When I returned home from the weekend with my father, I went directly to our office and looked for our CD-ROM encyclopedia program. I researched everything I could about early radio. At the time we didn’t have Google. Now, the internet and satellites have changed the way we research and even the way we listen to the radio.
In the 1900’s radio wasn’t just a mode of transmission; radio was an event the whole family took part in.
Henirich Hertz was the first to discover that electric waves could be transmitted wirelessly in the 1880’s according to the Federal Communication Commission. It was his initial discovery that provided the foundation for the radio. However, it was Nickola Tesla in the 1890’s that invented the Tesla coil and induction coil used by radios. Then Guglielmo Marconi began using electro magnetic waves and created short distance broadcasts in his backyard. His first real public demonstration of this accomplishment was when he broadcasted the American Cup yacht races from sea according to the Public Broadcasting Service. The rest you can say was history.
Radio continued to modernize through the ages, in 1927 Congress created the Federal Radio Commission to regulate broadcasts according to Mark Goodman at Mississippi University. Goodman explains it was Herbert Hover that pushed the initiative because radio was a “public utility” and entered the homes of the American public. The Federal Radio Commission’s name was later changed to The Federal Communication Commission in 1934 after the passing of the Communications Act that same year, according to the FCC.
Radio shows like Amos and Andy, Prairie Home Companion, and The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes had weekly installments that engrossed listeners with every episode. The presence of storytelling on radio shows as entertainment waned after 1962. The last real radio drama was a series called Suspense that came to end in September 1962 according to National Public Radio. The driving force behind its demise was the advent of television and its increasing presence in American homes during that decade.
While radios are still common today in homes and cars, satellite radio has risen in popularity. However, shows with dramatic readings by actors and creative story telling, aside from newscasts, have largely remained off the “airwaves.” The invention of podcasts have changed everything, bringing back story telling to the masses. Popular shows Serial and American Life have reinvigorated storytelling through audio broadcasts.
When I first listened to Serial, it was the same feeling I had back in 1994 listening to the War of the Worlds broadcast. While listeners weren’t listening to recreated moments, we were listening to events and conversations as the story unfolded. I binged on the series and listened to six episodes, one right after the other. I couldn’t get enough.
While it may be hard to determine if storytelling is making a resurgence, the popularity of podcasts creates a medium in which story telling can once again thrive like it did in the Golden Age of Radio.