Before there were podcasts, when television was still in its infancy, the internet was unheard of, and streaming platforms were a distant dream of the future, folks listened to the radio.
When I was a child, my father introduced me to old radio shows. Many of these were detective classics, like Johnny Dollar, Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, and Richard Diamond, where the titular sleuths would embark on crusades to solve murders, thefts, and various other crimes, some with comedic twists, others far more grounded in the gritty tone of noir. These were proper radio shows, with full casts and a whole production team akin to a television show.
As an adult, though still on the recommendation of my dad and of the Radio Classics channel on SiriusXM, I went on to also discover radio shows like Suspense, CBS Mystery Theater, The Chase, Dimension X, Box 13, and many others. During the early phases of quarantine, back in March-May 2020, my job was closed to the public but salaried employees still had to work to fulfill online orders, and I binged some series in their entirety while doing so.
I’ll admit, some of these series are outdated, or contain content that is harmful, racist, or otherwise offensive by today’s standards (and should have been offensive back then, too, but we all know how 1930’s-50’s America was), and I don’t condone any of that. Hopefully, folks listen to those moments now and cringe at how out of touch they are, like I do. But, aside from those instances, I find so many of these shows engrossing, even now, so many years later.
Suspense, billed as “radio’s outstanding theater of thrills,” is a prime example of a show that features excellent storytelling capable of transporting listeners into another time and place entirely, even decades after their original air date. Many episodes will also be familiar to literature fans, such as the Agnes Moorehead-starring adaptation of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and adaptations of The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell and An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce, some of the most enduring short stories of all time. Stories from Ray Bradbury, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Carl Stephenson, also make appearances, sometimes multiple times.
Of course, nowadays we have podcasts, television shows, webseries, and so many other forms of media, so radio has fallen a bit by the wayside, at least the way it was in its original incarnation – but there is still something inherently special about the radio shows of yore. I listen to the Radio Classics channel when I’m driving, and it transports me to a new world, where I can envision these stories in my own way, aided by the voices and music and vivid storytelling. It lets the listeners imagine, much like books do, but compacts stories into half hour to hour long episodes. Suspense is a notable favorite, as it covers so many kinds of stories, from horror to drama to science fiction, but I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the detective shows, especially Richard Diamond, as his tales often featured comedic spins and songs from leading man Dick Powell, rather than dour, rain-drenched streets and hopeless musings from a beleaguered gumshoe. Dimension X, a show that focused heavily on scifi, features some classic stories and examples of early-days science fiction, a genre that has become so over-saturated in recent years that the older stories have been drowned out, but remain well worth a listen.
Radio may be a bit of a forgotten form of media – but the Golden Age of Radio should never be let to fall by the wayside. If you have satellite radio, I highly recommend the Radio Classics station – it also has comedies like Our Miss Brooks, and westerns, like Gunsmoke, if that’s your thing. Many of these shows can also be found on Youtube or in CD form. Radio may be a bit of a forgotten form of media – but the Golden Days of Radio should never be let to fall by the wayside.