The last days of radioÊ It is not often that the death of a great cultural phenomenon can be precisely dated. Gerald Nachman, though, does it with pinpoint accuracy at the end of his Raised on Radio: On the night of September 30, 1962, when the last network radio show, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, went off the air, the voice of radio big-time, old-time radio, the home of comedy, drama, music, and news was stilled forever.
Nachman was, as his title says, raised on radio he caught the last few years of its golden age, from the mid-1940s to the very early '50s and the glory of his book is that, in the preceding 500 pages, he captures what a marvelous, diverse voice it was. The book is not simply an exercise in nostalgia. It is an entertaining and informative book that should be of interest to anyone interested in American cultural history, an even better volume than last year's The Great American Broadcast by Leonard Maltin, which was no slouch.
The problem is, where to begin? Except for sports, the author is so thorough, and both passionate and clear-headed, about his subject that he leaves little room for carping and too much to praise. Perhaps the best thing to do is to mention a few of his particular strengths.
His chapter on radio's paramount wit, Fred Allen an engaged and committed satirist laced with outrage and a bleak outlook could hardly be better. Likewise, a related chapter on radio wise guys, including Henry Morgan and Bob and Ray (about whom Andy Rooney has the best comment: A lot of people think, as I do, that they appreciate Bob and Ray more than anyone else does ). This chapter also has a beautiful six-page analysis of and tribute to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
Another superb chapter is that devoted to Jack Benny, whom Nachman aptly calls the Anticomedian. So secure was Benny in his talent and popularity that he allowed a whole show to be written with only one line for him. He was also a rare mensch in a business dominated by paranoid tyrants (including Red Skelton, who, contrary to his public persona, was mean and selfish).
One of his longest and most heartfelt chapters is devoted to Valued Families, not only the much-analyzed Ozzie and Harriet and Aldrich Family, but the far-less-noticed Vic and Sade. In this quirky and absurdist comedy, set in a woozier Winseburg, Ohio, Sade would go to washrag sales but only to browse. Ray Bradbury said Vic and Sade collected the lint, loose change, paper wads, keychains, and chewing gum of daily life. Then there are all the fascinating factoids that a reader can pick up. Abe Burrows, who wrote Duffy's Tavern, was the father of James Burrows, who helped create television's Cheers, which Nachman calls a yuppified Duffy's. Harry Einstein, the vaudeville clown known on radio as Parkyakarkus, was the father of Albert Brooks.
And there's the occasional penetrating perceptiveness, such as Jo Stafford's comment on the effect her haunting voice had on servicemen during World War II: Something about my sound made them glad to be sad. But enough. If the end of radio was abrupt, it was not precipitous. Nachman points out that radio's decline began when television's ascent began, roughly around 1950.
But the advent of television need not have been a fatal blow, as the example of Britain demonstrates. In that green and pleasant land, radio thrives even in the shadow of television, with a smorgasbord of dramas, sitcoms, quizzes, documentaries, lectures, and more, and all for an annual tax of about $150, which, were it tried in this country, more than a few politicians would surely declare an intolerable burden on the hard-working American taxpayer.
Radio also declined because, in response to television's deluge, it began desperately grasping at straws that hadn't a hope of saving it, such as game-and-giveaway shows. Henry Morgan called Stop the Music the final nail in radio's coffin. One of the keenest insights Nachman makes is that radio died because it failed to develop its real strength the spoken word. Reading and radio share one invaluable effect to which passive television is largely immune: the active engagement of their audiences. Nachman's insight should, therefore, offer a lesson to what are clumsily known as the print media, which, in hot pursuit of ever more dazzling TV-style design, are in danger of cutting their own throats by failing to develop their real strength the printed word. Roger Miller is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.