As we began to talk about producing High Fidelity Opera, I was reminded of the old radio plays and series that were—and still are—regular features on a radio station I listened to while living in Cincinnati. That was my introduction to old-time radio, and I loved the nostalgic idea of sitting with the entire family around a radio and listening to a story being spun, an orchestra playing a concert, or great literary works being read.
High Fidelity Opera was created to remind us of the golden age of radio, with its clever mashup of playwright Norman Corwin’s The Anatomy of Sound—a virtuoso showcase of special effects—and two short American operas that could have been heard in conjunction with a program like The Anatomy of Sound, Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeves, or Our Miss Brooks.
The sheer variety of radio programs from the 1920s to the 1960s is astounding: everything from celebrity gossip, news, classical concerts, quiz and variety shows, soap operas, detective and true crime stories, Westerns, and comedies. Broadcast radio lost is dominant position in entertainment with the advent of television and then the arrival of multi-purpose portable devices, but the appetite for all those genres, and other genres that we didn’t even know existed until recently, has taken a new form, in podcasts.
There are thousands of podcasts. You read that right: thousands. Just looking at the selections available at Player.fm, Stitcher, Earwolf, AppleiTunes, and GooglePlay is dizzying: every genre listed in the previous paragraph is represented.
Situation comedy, once represented by Burns and Allen, The Jack Benny Program, The Life of Riley, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, is readily available in podcast as The Bunker or Wooden Overcoats.
Westerns were a hugely popular genre on radio, with Gunsmoke, Death Valley Days, Red Ryder, Hopalong Cassidy and The Cisco Kid; you can now listen to Drift & Ramble and Powder Burns (its central character, Sherriff Burns, is blind, allowing the listener to interact with events and people the same way as the protagonist).
While radio news was the source for news about everything from the beginnings and ends of wars, the deaths of presidents, and other significant subjects, the modern 24-hour news cycle naturally dictates that there are hundreds of news podcasts. You may focus exclusively on politics, science, finance, sports, or international news. Personally, I’m thankful for daily reminders that not all news is bad, in The Good News Podcast–ironically, it’s produced by Cards against Humanity, the famously dark-humored (and definitely R-rated) card game.
Wouldn’t it be lovely if classical music and opera were broadcast as frequently as they were in the 1930s and 1940s? The Bell Telephone Hour, The Voice of Firestone, Ford Sunday Evening Hour, The Fred Waring Show, and NBC Symphony Orchestra were regular fixtures on broadcast radio; while many public radio stations still play classical music, The Metropolitan Opera Saturday Matinee is one of the few surviving national classical music broadcasts on radio (and its Guild also sponsors a podcast featuring lectures). But I’m happy to know that Opera Box Score and Breaking Glass podcasts are out there. Box Score focuses on opera news topics and sometimes features a quiz; Breaking Glass asks the question: What social responsibility does an arts organization have beyond its artistic mission? *
Above, Arturo Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
Drama was also very well-represented in the golden age of radio; great works of literature were read in serialized form or adapted as radio plays. A radio show such as The Mercury Summer Theatre of the Air, General Electric Theater (hosted by Ronald Reagan), or Author’s Playhouse could feature literature or original plays. Norman Corwin, who wrote The Anatomy of Sound, was an award-winning pioneer in radio and inspired later writers Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek), Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) and Norman Lear (All in the Family). Corwin was one of the first to use entertainment to comment on serious social issues.
Americans also enjoyed their pulpy dramas, science fiction, and dark detective stories: The Shadow, Dick Tracy, The Crime Club, Doc Savage, Murder at Midnight, and The Mysterious Traveler, among many others. There’s plenty of pulp on modern podcasts too, with Welcome to Night Vale, Steal the Stars, Sword and Scale, Accused, Murderino, and, in the true crime genre, Serial and Making a Murderer.
Above: “What evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow Knows…”
There’s a great selection of podcasts of people discussing all kinds of things, from Fantasy Football Weekly to The History of Food; and combinations of things, like jazz and vegetarianism, in, you guessed it, The Jazzy Vegetarian. You could probably do an internet search for your particular area of interest and find a podcast to match. There’s even a podcast about podcasts from the BBC, In Pod We Trust.
Above: Laura Theodore is The Jazzy Vegetarian.
These days, podcasts are generally enjoyed one person at a time, with headphones, but it’s not at all impossible to imitate the days of gathering around the radio if you want to share a suspenseful story on a rainy night, obsess about Seinfeld, listen to last Sunday’s homily, get a crash course in philosophy, or listen to guest speakers at the New York Public Library. Best of all, though, if you still long for the days of Jack Benny, Zero Hour, Gunsmoke, and The Lone Ranger, many of the old radio shows are now available–via podcast.
* There are also great classical music podcasts (not necessarily focused on opera). You can do an internet search to download any of these:
Classics for Kids
That Classical Podcast
At the Organ
The Great Composers Podcast
Anna’s Baroque Bon Bons