My name is Steve Darnall. I'm 51 years old and I live in Chicago. I am the publisher of Nostalgia Digest, a quarterly magazine about the Golden Age of entertainment, a position I've held since 2005. Since 2009, I've been the host of Those Were the Days, a weekly radio show dedicated to the Golden Age of radio.
I’m a radio historian for Museum of Broadcast Communications and a member of the steering community for the National Radio Hall of Fame. Perhaps my most recent experience with videogames was as the voice of Rock ‘N' Bowl which was some 25 years ago. Prior to that, I was on the frontline when Ms. Pac-Man struck a blow for women's rights. [Laughs.]
Is that a Simpsons reference?
[Laughs.] Exactly. I mean, I'm dating myself terribly but I actually do remember when those things were all relatively new: Space Invaders, Pac-Man, all those things -- and I think Ralph Bakshi's company, or maybe Don Bluth's company, had started putting together these sort of animated, interactive video disc adventures. Dragon’s Lair is the one that comes to mind. I do remember those things. But that said, I'm probably better versed in radio drama than I am in videogames at this point in time.
Oh, I guess my initial thought was how the two things might relate. Certainly just as there are ways to compare them, there are ways to contrast them. You know, it hadn't occurred to me that the videogames might have their roots in radio drama but the fact is an awful lot of 21st-century entertainment had roots in radio drama. I mean, the early years of TV owe an enormous debt of radio drama because up until that point it had been the only mass media in town.
Totally. And before we go further, I think among at least the audience for videogames, or people who make games, there will be some initial skepticism already this far in. Just the notion of approaching a conversation of comparing and contrasting videogames and radio dramas will seem dubious.
For people who are reading this far in and are already thinking, “This is a broken metaphor and a waste of time because videogames are not like radio dramas, why do you believe it’s useful to contrast one medium’s history and specifics to another?
Well, I think we've all been entertained by or interested in multiple mass media. I think anyone in the 21st century will admit to that. There are probably still a few diehards wearing straw hats and suspenders who refuse to listen to anything that wasn't recorded on a cylinder, but I honestly think those people are few and far between. In the digital age, at a time when everything is available to some degree or another, it's almost impossible to not find somebody who has an interest in multiple venues of entertainment.
And obviously if you can compare how they are similar, you can contrast how they're different. Every one of them's different. Radio's different from television, television is different from film, film is different from videogames. Although, as I understand it, that distinction is getting blurrier every passing year. [Laughs.] In a way, if you are able to contrast them, hopefully you find the things that make each one unique and make each one special.
The funny thing is that although today they may seem like they couldn’t be any more different, the earliest videogames were just words. That’s similar to radio dramas, but you were only hearing the words instead of seeing them on a screen.
Right. I think anything that's come along since radio probably owes a debt to it, in the sense that I think radio was the first medium to tell us just how important sound was. I know that sounds rather simplistic because oral storytelling has been going on for as long as people have been able to speak, but radio was the place where words and sound and music came together. I think even if you look at 18th-century theater, there were words and there was perhaps music, but I would guess there was less of an emphasis placed on the importance of sound.
Radio, I think, was the place where all three of those things came together to create an effect and I would suggest that any subsequent mass media -- whether it's films or television or videogames -- they've drawn from that example in the sense of utilizing all of the tools at one's disposal. In the case of videogames obviously you also have the visual element, but from what I do know of modern videogames, sound plays an important part. I mean, there are things being recorded at bone-crunching volumes, and in some cases they are literally bones crunching. [Laughs.]
Also too, it plays a pivotal role in the big push now for virtual reality. If you screw it up, people can get sick or completely disoriented.
I think of that scene in Amadeus where the king has outlawed music and dance being performed together, so all these dancers leap around in total silence. Yes, if there's a scene in which somebody is thrown against a building, and there was no sound -- it would look utterly ridiculous. [Laughs.] You would think you had gone deaf.
Or that it was unfinished.
Exactly. I think that owes a large debt to radio whether the videogame manufacturers know it or not because that's the place that first told us, “Hey, if someone is running we have to hear their footsteps, and if something is exploding we have to hear that explosion.”
When radio dramas were starting to take off, who was the audience for them and what were some of those earliest shows?
Well, in the very early days of radio, going back some 90-odd years, the audience was largely curiosity seekers. When there was no real formal structure in the medium, anybody could broadcast anytime. There was total chaos on the air waves.
Also, no advertising.
Of course. And if you had a 10,000-watt transmitter or a 50,000-watt transmitter, you had free reign. Eventually radio got a semblance of structure; the National Broadcasting Company was founded in 1926 and that was the first time anyone had linked different stations together throughout the country to bring them all the same thing. And then in the 1930s, the Telecommunications Act tried to make sure that you wouldn’t have multiple stations competing for the same wavelength in a given city. I think to some degree there were people in the early years who were simply curious about this new technology and this phenomenon of sending sounds through the air.
By the early 1930s, of course, it was becoming more commonplace and I think in large part because of the Depression. You know, if you have the option of staying home and listening to something for free, you're probably going to take that over paying money to go see a movie or a play, or to buy drinks at a nightclub.
One of the very earliest successful radio dramas goes back to 1929. It was called The Rise of the Goldbergs and it was a serialized adventure of a Jewish family in New York City, written and created by Gertrude Berg, who played Molly Goldberg and she was actually very intent on realism in sound effects. There are stories that if there was a scene where Molly Goldberg was cooking eggs, Gertrude Berg wanted there to be real eggs in a real pan over a real fire. So you would get that same sound.
One of the very famous examples -- and it’s going to sound ridiculous saying this in a talk about sound -- but one of the most famous examples of that was an episode in which Molly Goldberg had to give her daughter a shampoo and she did that. She gave a shampoo to that actress, Roslyn Silber, on the air. You're probably thinking, “How much sound will you get out of someone getting a shampoo?” And the answer is not very much. But then the character says, “Ma, there's soap in my eyes.” That's a natural response to getting a shampoo on live radio. [Laughs.]
I think one of the really famous instances of how sound played a part in telling stories was a show out of Chicago called Lights Out. This was a horror program that aired at midnight on Monday nights, because this was a time when they probably figured any parent with an ounce of responsibility would have their child in bed by midnight on Monday night. And so the creators, Wyllis Cooper and his successor, a very famous writer and director named Arch Oboler, would really go out of their way to create scenarios that lent themselves to gruesome sounds. Then, of course, came the challenge of finding ways to bring those sounds to life. One of the very famous ones is a story called “The Dark,” and I think even audiences that don't know old-time radio know this story. It's about a fog that turns people inside out. I know The Simpsons made an allusion to that in one of their Halloween specials.
I was about to say that, thank you. [Laughs.]
I remember laughing my head off seeing that.
And of course, it fell to the sound effects people to come up with the sound of people being turned inside out. It was simple enough: They soaked a rubber glove in water and then turned it inside out. It was not only that rubbery, expanding sound, but it was also a real wet sloppy sound.
I think those are some of the very early obvious examples, anyway.
With radio dramas, before it was all organized into commercial networks, what dictated which shows became more popular and why did they become more popular than others?
I'm not sure I know what made a show popular other than the sheer novelty of it.
I don't think there was the same focus on popularity in the pre-network days, in part because the
very idea of radio was so new and novel. In the early and mid-1920’s, there were still plenty of
people who didn't have one. There were certainly attempts at original drama and countless
adaptations of popular stories and plays, but there was no ratings system that I'm aware of.
It’s just interesting to think about and trace what has continued on from those days to today. I think of Amos ‘n’ Andy, for example. Growing up, I remember my dad had tracked down DVDs of recording of the earliest TV version of Amos ‘n’ Andy. If you remember the radio’s Amos ‘n’ Andy, you’ll know one big difference from that to the TV version. I mean, you know who Amos and Andy were played by on the radio, I assume, right?
Right, they were both white actors.
Representation is an increasingly big topic and issue in videogames. You mention the desire and specificity of expectations in sound effects, but there wasn’t a corresponding energy for that behind representation radio. Is this just because this form was a holdover from vaudeville in some ways?
I think there’s some truth to that, absolutely. I mean, most of the big stars of early radio came from Vaudeville or burlesque or the minstrel show, where dressing up in blackface was par for the course.
Well, and it should also be said in the days of vaudeville there wasn’t only blackface. There was also Irish-face and Asian-face. Different ethnicities and cultures had their versions of it. I would continue and elaborate further but I think you understand.
You are right. I mean, a century ago there was ethnic humor of every stripe, performed by people of those ethnicities and performed for them. I think about characters on some of the big comedy shows like the Jack Benny Program there was a character, a Jewish character by the name of Schlepperman. There was nothing malicious about that characterization, but you can hear it and think it is representative of a caricature that is harder to find in 21st century America. The idea of ethnic or racial representation in a medium was a debate that went on for years. Even in the 1980s, it seemed like all the African-American characters in movies and television were playing pimps or prostitutes.
I will say there were certainly shows that were written and created by African Americans. One of the most famous was this show Destination Freedom which came out of Chicago. It was created by a great writer named Richard Durham and sponsored by The Chicago Defender. These shows tended to be more regional than national and I'm not sure I'm the best person to tell you why that was.
You're talking about a radio program?
A radio play, yeah. And you know, when you're talking about national budgets and national broadcasting, you're also talking about national money. There's a very infamous soap opera sponsor who told one its writers, “Bigots buy products too, so you don't want to offend them.” [Laughs.]
Vernon Jarrett, who was a terrific African-American columnist here in Chicago, he talked about this, the fact that you know, he knew black people who liked Amos and Andy, it's not that they were mutually exclusive, it's just that in that time if you wanted to listen to African-Americans on radio, Amos ‘n’ Andy was unfortunately kind of the only game in town.
Which is ridiculous. You know, it's like if the only movie that represented cars was Mad Max, you'd have a very different perspective on what cars were for. [Laughs.]
What did audiences in those earlier days want? The binary in videogames tends to come down to people either want artfulness or adventure. Was this the same back then or was there broader demand for broader things?
I think artfulness and adventure is not the worst metaphor in world. There were certainly shows aimed at young audiences, and I'm only half-joking when I say with national broadcasting you had to reach a national audiences, and that was both good and bad. Something else to think about: A lot of the people who founded those radio networks, the people who took them to prominence, many of them were Jewish. That was a time when if you were Jewish, one of the keys to survival was assimilation. I don't want to suggest there was some racial subtext to the programming that was put on because I'm not qualified to say that, but I imagine they were eager to present something that would be both popular, and as you say, artistic if at all possible. But it also meant that in the quest to be popular you were going to put on stuff that catered to the broadest possible audience, and economically that was still largely a white audience.
Keep in mind that in a third of the country, there were restaurants that wouldn't serve people based on the color of their skin.
We know better today, to consider other people's feelings who are unlike us. “Know better” is almost not quite the right way to say it, because we should have “known” all along.
That's absolutely true.
I think radio did play large role in that. In the years before radio, people were not necessarily aware of cultures other than our own. In Chicago, you hear stories about neighborhoods where people never left the neighborhood, not because of fear but because everything they needed was there: There was a doctor, there was a grocery store, there was a movie house. If you wanted to see Gone with the Wind it would come to your theater. You didn't necessarily need to go and see it somewhere else.
And in smaller towns of course, before the interstate highway system was setup, you really couldn't be sure that the brick road you took out of your town wasn't going to become a dirt road when you got to the next town. There was no uniformity in that respect. So for a lot of people, it was not easy to get out and see the world, compared to today. And if you're in a small town in Arkansas, or for that matter in Illinois or Indiana, you weren't getting a lot of external stimulus in the days before radio. You didn't necessarily think twice about “Is this offensive to black people or Irish people?” because you'd never met any.
Radio was instrumental in taking us around the world, particularly during the second world war. It was after the war that a lot of radio people really thought long and hard about racial caricature. Obviously, Amos ‘n’ Andy continued for many years, but there was also a great African-American actor working for him Eddie Anderson who played the valet Rochester on Jack Benny’s program. Now in the early years that he was on the Benny show, the Rochester character was given jokes about shooting craps and getting into knife fights and all the things that you would associate perhaps with some caricatured idea of African-Americans. After the war, Jack and his writers made a very concerted effort to pull away from those jokes. A lot of people came out of the war thinking, “We've just fought somebody who was trying to separate people along religious and racial boundaries. We can't do those jokes anymore.” In that sense, it was an eye-opening experience and radio played a part in that as well.
I’ve never thought about it like that. That's a good point.
As we know, the wheel of racial justice took a long time to spin, but after the war was over, the idea of harkening back to the minstrel show roots of American entertainment was very much downplayed. And even on other shows that hired African-American actors, they were still largely playing maids and domestic servants but there was an effort to make them more realistic, as opposed to some broad stage-show version of what they ought to be.
How much attention to you pay to the news coming out of the tech world? Is that on your radar at all?
Probably not as much as it is on yours.
I wouldn’t expect you to necessarily, I was just curious because it can potentially open up some other things for us to talk about. What I’m mainly curious is to hear you contrast business leaders and industry leaders of radio’s heyday like Rockefeller and even the non-Rockefellers of that day to, well, Steve Jobs is dead, but people like him or who want to be like him today and are in that strata. How are they different from their correlates of today?
I think in terms of labor and management, I would guess things are different. I mean, in a global economy and with the global technology, a videogame producer probably has the option to go anywhere in the world to hire artists or voice actors and pay them what will fit within the confines of a given budget. In radio, particularly 70 or 80 years ago, that was the dawn of the actor's unions. Broadway had Actors’ Equity, which had formed earlier in the century. In the 1930s came the American Federation of Radio Artists. Before that, a lot of sponsors and producers didn't think anything about saying to an actor, “We want you for a show on Monday night, but you're going to need to be available for the entire week in case we call rehearsal”
Of course, that would mean terrible things for an actor; you couldn't actually go do other shows during the week because you might be needed.
So, I think that the forming of the union and the networks’ recognition of the union was very important in that regard. It also meant that a radio actor could get a job that would guarantee them some kind of a living, you know? They may not be rich, but being radio, you could go do three or four different things a day or a week and that way you could get rich.
Again, I'm not privy to how the videogame companies do business in that regard; that's just one thing that comes to mind. I would also suggest that the people running the radio networks in the 1930s really seemed genuinely interested in using radio as a tool to educate and to inspire. I mean, yes, they'd have comedians like Jack Benny or Joe E. Brown or Eddie Cantor, but they would also devote specific times of the week to unusual and at the time, very innovative programming. Programming that would perhaps never garner a mass audience but still deserved some kind of audience.
In the Big Band era, NBC made a point of broadcasting the Metropolitan Opera. Now, you could argue that opera lovers are a relatively small market if you look at the nation as a whole. But David Sarnoff, the head of NBC, thought it was important that the world get to hear the Metropolitan Opera and for that we can thank him. CBS had a weekly show called The Columbia Workshop which was, figuratively speaking, a radio laboratory where new writers could premiere new works, where unusual methods of production could be employed. And they realized that it may not make them rich but it would demonstrate to people the importance of radio.
The Federal Communications Commission formed in 1934 and the primary purpose of it was to ensure that radio was acting in the public interest. And so that meant it couldn't be entirely about being commercial all the time, or appealing to a lowest common denominator all the time. And the people in charge of the networks respected that. The Paleys and the Sarnoffs were very prominent families for whom owning a network would be like owning a Rolls Royce; a chance to say to the world, “Look, we want to show you this is as good as this stuff gets.”
Anyway, that's one thing that I think really did distinguish management in the radio days and I think to a lesser extent in the television era, certainly with the various anthology dramas of the '50s. I can't say whether that approach is shared amongst the companies that produce videogames.
Was it sexy to be on the radio? Were radio stars analogous to movie stars of today?
It could be. I mean, part of the appeal of radio of course is what you can do with your voice, and if you can make yourself sound sexy yes, you can have audiences think you're sexy.
I just mean for the performers, was it glamorous?
Well, yes and no. It was not glamorous in the sense that they were like rockstars, although there were a few that were. Certainly there were radio trade publications. There were radio fan magazines, so if you wanted to see the cast of The Shadow, they'd have a picture of them.
Were there conventions as well?
No, that came later. There may have been fan clubs and organizations. Certainly in radio, one of the enduring and famous aspects of shows aimed at younger listeners was the sense of participation. Little Orphan Annie was sponsored by Ovaltine for many years and of course if you've seen A Christmas Story, and I think everyone on earth probably has by now, there's a very famous scene about Ralphie saving up for the Orphan Annie Decoder Ring so he can decode the announcer's secret message. So in that sense, there was some participation that had a benefit for the sponsors, too. Because if they got enough people sending in enough proof-of-purchase seals, then they would know how many people were listening to their show.
What were those magazines like, the fan magazines about radio programs?
Oh you know, things like Tune In and The Radio Guide. If I'm not mistaken, Radio Guide was started by Walter Annenberg, the man who later started TV Guide. They were devoted to different markets. That is to say, there might be a national publication but they would publish a Midwest version and they'd list the schedules for the Chicago-area stations -- not dissimilar from that TV Guide did later. And again, to carry that further, The Radio Guide, would have articles and features about shows and performers, there would be photo spreads --
What kind of stories? Do you remember offhand?
You know what? I’m actually looking at one here from July of 1939 and there's a cover story about Kate Smith performing for the king and queen of England. But there's also various tidbits of news from here and there and everywhere. There's an article about Kay Kyser, the band leader, there are letters to the editor about various articles. There's also letters of inquiry: “What can you tell us about So And So who appears on Buck Rogers?” That was clearly the antecedent to what became TV Guide later.
You mention that sense of participation and obviously that's something that videogames and radio have in common. I think, too, that's a general fan thing. You spend time with a thing, you build a relationship with it, and you want to talk about it or express your feelings about it with other people.
In videogames, often, it can manifest itself in ways where if you want to put it diplomatically, you would say is entitled. But it's entitlement that goes beyond what I think is reasonable, of having a working product. It gets very granular and, really, the only word is entitled. Were radio fans the same way? Was_Little Orphan Annie_ getting reviewed by fans picking apart the quality of microphones used and whether each syllable was enunciated correctly?
Good God, no! [Laughs.] That would have been unbearable!
Keep in mind, this was a time when very few of us in America were aware of what went into producing a radio show. I'm sure had all this been done in this day in age, that would have been entirely different. I'm sure there are people doing audio drama today whose work does get minutely picked apart -- both good and bad in the sense that if you're doing the equivalent of a radio drama today, I'm sure there's somebody who’s saying, “Oh my God, I know what CD they used for their music!” [Laughs.] There are people who will insist that prerecorded sound effects are a blight on humanity and they need to be real and happening at that moment.
No, I'm not sure there was that devotion to minutiae. I mean, one of the things that comes to mind is something George Burns talked about. When he and Gracie Allen went to radio they were doing largely an extension of their vaudeville act where Gracie was what they called the dizzy dame and George was the straight man. And there wasn't any emotional connection to it.
Then he realized that over a period of a year or two the ratings had gone down a little at a time, and that was a source of great concern. Because if it's huge one week and down the next, you can attribute it to something happening that week. But when it's going down a little at a time it means that more and more people are tuning out. And it was that development that led George Burns to realize that the problem with the show was they were actually a middle-aged married couple who were still pretending to be a couple of 30-year-olds in vaudeville. That's when the show became the situation comedy that succeeded and then went on to television that most people are familiar with.
I will add, too, for people reading this who aren’t familiar: This wasn’t a case of them being lazy. Oftentimes, vaudeville performers would get a tight five minutes and then just perform that the rest of their lives.
George Burns, who loved talking about vaudeville, remembered that he and Gracie Allen would book three days out of town just to break in a new punchline. Of course, radio, you didn't have that luxury and when you're producing shows on a weekly basis on live radio, as they were, you don't often have the luxury of ruminating over what succeeds and what doesn't. I mean, you might in terms of, “Gee, that joke worked, that joke didn't,” but you might not be thinking in terms of, “Is the entire concept of our show a mistake?” [Laughs.]
To answer your question in a very long-winded way, I think that in the era we're talking about -- the 1930's and maybe even in the 1940’s -- radio was still so new and was bringing us so many new things that it was less likely people were going to pick it apart the way that an internet culture would today with a videogame. I think most people at that point probably figured, “Well, if I don't like it, I'll just go do something else.” [Laughs.]
Is it just digital culture has it made us more entitled or is this just something we as humans have always done when we're presented with a nice, free service?
I think that digital culture plays a part, if only in the sense that it allows anyone with an opinion an immediate forum. In the days when print journalism was our dominant force of communication -- and we're talking about a newspaper that comes out once a day, or a radio fan magazine that comes out once a week or once a month -- it gives you a little more time to collect your thoughts, but it also means that if you don't present those thoughts in that week or two then maybe nothing comes of them. Of course, during the war years there was so much else to think about that I'm sure very few people were thinking about “How can I pick apart this show?” There were critics whose job it was to do that, and critics, then as now, very often position themselves or consider themselves to be more intelligent than the population as a whole and so a show didn’t always receive a rapturous response. As with television, as with videogames, ultimately people have the option of whether they want to like it or not.
Now that we're on this subject, you've got me thinking: one important distinction -- and I think it's very important -- is that radio was free. And all of us who've been in a business where we've asked people for money understand that when people put that money down, they have an unspoken right to like or not like what they’re paying for. That's not to say all criticism is equal and that's not to say that all criticism is justified or even welcome, but I would be willing to suggest where videogames are concerned, if there's something about it you don't like, and you've just spent 20 or 40 dollars on it, you'd probably like to vent that frustration to somebody. And of course the digital platform gives you the whole world, and of course, if you think you're the only one with that opinion you can probably search far and wide enough to find other people who share that opinion.
When people were moved to take pen to paper and mail it out the door, what were they writing about these radio shows?
Well, when you first approached me about this, one of the things that came to my mind was when radio produced shows like Lights Out -- and subsequent mystery shows like The Inner Sanctum and The Hermit's Cave that were intended to be frightening -- there was some uproar about violence on radio.
I know, when you're talking about a purely auditory medium it sounds crazy, doesn't it? But the beauty of radio was that because you didn't see anything violent happen, you were forced to imagine it happening -- and if any of us are asked to imagine something violent, we're all more likely than not to create a picture that's far more visceral than actual violence.
Which is why we usually don't see the monsters in the monster's movies.
Exactly. And you know, “The Dark” was a famous example of that but there's also an amazing story from Lights Out called "It Happened." This young woman is a school girl in Paris, she's bored with her school mistress and she wants to see the gay nightlife of the city, so she breaks away from the group. She encounters this gentlemen who’s promising to show her a grand time, and it turns out it's an embittered ex-partner of her father.
So what he's actually planning to do is kidnap her and hold her for ransom. Well, she breaks away by killing him, then she flees and finds herself in the sewers of Paris. Someone's leading her down this dark hallway and, of course she finds water underneath her feet. And it turns out he's a guy who makes necklaces out of human bones.
All of us go through life and say at one time or another, “Well, what's the worst that can happen?” This is a scenario in which the worst thing always happens and if you were listening to that show and got to envision some woman driven mad because she was trapped in the sewers with a man who made necklaces out of human bones -- that's incredibly visceral!
And I know, of course, videogames are no stranger to criticism over levels of violence.
Did people get upset about fairy tales being too violent? Some of those earliest fairy tales are not at all the way they are being told today.
I think the shows that dramatized those tended to be more sensitive in that regard. They realized they were aiming for an audience of children.
And are you saying those letters that people were writing were complaining or they were not complaining --
Very often it was “Oh what's to become of our youth if they're listening to this meretricious garbage!” [Laughs.]
There was a radio show called Suspense that eventually moved to television and just to show you how the right hand can get the left hand into trouble: Apparently, on the television version of Suspense there was a character who was drinking a glass of blood. Well, this created a hail storm of protests and it caused the people who produced the radio version of Suspense to think, “Maybe we should pull away from the concept of gothic horror for a while.”
So they ended up doing some very imaginative stories based on current events. At one point they even did a two-part adaptation of Othello. Which of course has its own share of violence--
I was going to say, yeah. It does.
But it gave you Richard Widmark as Iago and that was pretty cool. I don't know that is was necessarily -- the letters were not necessarily all complaints, just as they were not necessarily all fulsome with praise. There were also letters that said, “Hey, can you tell me about the actor who plays so and so? I don't know anything about them.” And they didn't say this, but there was no World Wide Web with a tribute website created in Wales about actor Z, you know?
So we’re talking about instances where people are complaining to a third party not involved in the production. Obviously, the internet makes it easier to complain directly to the source or the perceived source. In videogames, there’s a lot of harassment, but it isn’t unique to videogames. It’s a larger part of internet culture, but there’s a thing called Gamergate. Have you heard of that?
Oh, yes! Yes I did.
It’s also nothing new. There were riots over the opera. I think the earliest instance of fandom crossing over and attacking a creator was Arthur Conan Doyle after he --
Do you know about this?
He had Sherlock Holmes go over the cliff with Moriarty.
I had read this report or recounting, where people were yelling 19th-century insults at him on the streets. Calling him a brute, which I’m sure was a lot more traumatic in those days than today. There’s more recent instances of that, too, with soap opera fans in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Where there instances like this in radio?
I'm not sure there were to the same extent. Partly, I think, because as a purely auditory medium, radio allowed you some degree of anonymity. So if you were playing the murderer on a soap opera or mystery show, you could leave and you'd look like every other person on the streets of Manhattan. I'm old enough to remember the television miniseries Holocaust, where Michael Moriarty plays a Nazi guard and for weeks and months afterwards, people would come up to him in restaurants saying, “Oh, I hate you!”
Of course, he's an actor and I think people eventually got the hint, but that said, there were certainly people who were prone to taking these things more seriously than was merited. Mary Jane Higby was an actress in New York and did a lot of soap operas, and in her autobiography, she told the story about coming out of the studio one day after one of her shows, and a young woman accosted her and grabbed her by the arm and said, in effect "Your best friend is trying to kill you!" And of course she's talking about the soap opera. [Laughs.]
That kind of passion isn’t always expressed negatively, even when it is disconnected from reality. Again, in the instance of soap operas, fans would mail care packages to actors who play impoverished characters.
Oh absolutely. I mean, how many people sent curtains to Audrey Meadows so that Alice Kramden could put something in The Honeymooners apartment? But you're right; if some character’s dog was sick, letters would come in saying, "If he wants a puppy, let us know!"
I think too that we hadn't yet as a society broken down the wall between performer and audience. There were so many photo shoots in those days of glamorous actresses frolicking on the beach in Santa Monica -- and of course if you were in Independence, Missouri, you're thinking, “Wow, that looks like the greatest life ever!”
I don't think it was until maybe the 1950s, when you had people like Marlon Brando and James Dean who were clearly not interested in playing the celebrity game that you had this notion that there wasn't such a huge difference between star and audience -- and for better or worse, that kind of fell to the wayside. That said, there were certainly people who would write to complain about some joke they thought was in poor taste. Fred Allen was a satirist who would make jokes about current events. His response to people who would complain -- whether it was listeners or the network censors -- was: “Where the hell were you when the page was blank?” [Laughs.]
I want to ask you about Orson Welles. With War of the Worlds, there was a whole fiasco that I think people know about, but I don’t think people necessarily remember the apology tour he did after. Can you talk a little bit about that for people who aren’t familiar?
He gave a press conference the next day, where he did have to very sheepishly admit that this had gone far beyond anything he had imagined. But being Orson Welles, I also imagine the moment it was over he probably had the broadest grin on his face, thinking “My reputation is assured!” [Laughs.]
Well, Orson Welles was certainly good at self-promotion. I would not suggest in a million years that the purpose of the broadcast was to make Orson Welles a star. I don't think anyone had that idea going in.
In fact, the story goes that until a few days before the date of the broadcast, the writer, Howard Koch, was having real trouble adapting War of the Worlds for radio and there was a possibility that they might throw it out and adapt Lorna Doone instead -- which of course, would not have been quite as famous or infamous. I don't know whether it was Welles, Koch or John Houseman -- the producer -- who hit on the idea of presenting the invasion of Mars as a series of news bulletins but certainly Americans in 1938 were getting used to the concept of radio bringing them news from around the world. And of course a lot of that news was not good.
So in the fall of 1938, when you're hearing about Hitler invading Czechoslovakia and this peace treaty with Britain which turns out to not be a peace treaty and what appears to be an unstoppable German army, a lot of people are listening very intently to the radio, concerned that this war may someday come to them. What War of the Worlds did so remarkably is that it took the vocabulary of modern broadcasting and it turned it on its ear. That, to me, is the real accomplishment of that play. Admittedly, it may sound dated or stilted 75 years later when we know it's a play, but to hear it in the context of that time, it’s clear that they had the vocabulary of broadcasting down cold and that's what made it terrifying. It was not hyperbole, it was not delivered in a larger-than-life manner, it was the matter-of-fact style of news reporting at that time. Frank Readick, the actor who played newsman Carl Phillips -- the one who reports on the meteor that landed in Grover's Mill, New Jersey -- he actually prepared for that part by studying Herb Morrison's reporting of the Hindenburg explosion.
And so he basically took the timbre and the tone from that, and the fact that he's doing this like it's a real time news bulletin -- and we were not yet jaded enough as a society that anyone would think, “I wonder if that's a real news guy?” -- makes it all the more startling. Particularly when he's reporting on this creature that's firing flames at people and then the sound is just cut off and there's four or five seconds of silence -- which of course you should never have on radio and that's equally terrifying.
That's sort of the background of it and you're right, by 8:30 people have fled into the streets. People are calling their radio stations, either in a panic or in a fury. I always say the great irony is a lot of people who are listening to this and convinced that the Martians are attacking have fled their homes, or hidden themselves in the closet of the bathroom or run out into the street, or run to their church to pray for salvation and they miss the ID that was scheduled for around 8:39 Central Time, where they announce: “You are listening to the Mercury theater's production of The War of the Worlds.” Timing is everything.
Obviously it made Orson Welles a celebrity and there's a reason it's still the most famous radio broadcast of all time.
Do you think it's important that he apologized?
No, I mean it was probably the only thing to do, but I think it was more important that he and his program showed people how easy it was to be manipulated by false information.
Right, as opposed to fake bulletins.
I mean, I think one thing is what we've talked about earlier which is that the opportunities to voice an opinion are greater than ever, even an incorrect or ill-informed opinion. Seventy-five years ago, there was enough of an infrastructure at the radio networks that if a character or an actor got something really menacing -- I mean if somebody had written to this actor or this actress care of CBS or NBC and said “I'm going to kill you” or “I'm going to rape you,” that letter probably would have been intercepted and the necessary action would have been taken. I suppose we can thank the fact that back in those days police departments were appropriately funded.
I think the other thing is that radio listeners were a broad and varied audience. I mean young people listened, children listened, adults listened, the elderly listened to different things at different times perhaps but they all listened. There was something there for each one of them. Videogames, I'm guessing, don't enjoy that breadth.
It’s trying to get there.
This is part of the friction.
Yeah, I worked in comic books in the 1990s and there was the standard joke you had two kinds of readers: adolescents and arrested adolescents. [Laughs.]
Radio was part of the culture, whereas if you're talking about videogames or comics or any of those things, I think you're talking about a subculture. And with any subculture, you're going to have people who perhaps aren't aware of the culture around them -- aren't aware of social or behavior mores.
That’s an echo of what we were talking about with vaudeville before.
I don't want to over generalize because this is not an audience with whom I'm familiar but I know, for instance, if you're in that subculture very often you're aware of -- how can I put this? You're aware of how lonesome that can be. Clearly these are things that do not appeal to the entire population and there may be specific reasons for that, but with the fandom may come a self-consciousness about the fact that you're in this subculture.
Well, maybe to steer back more towards your wheelhouse and still explore similar territory -- with the things we were talking about, it spurned on and also gave more focus to the existing feminist movement within videogames. Is there an analog in radio for the feminist movement of videogames today?
I think any feminist movement in the game business should be encouraged. I don't think that was such an issue in radio but of course that's partly a context of the times. Certainly radio had women working as writers, as directors, as sound effects technicians, but they weren’t likely to hold positions in, say, network management. We have to remember that this was an era where it was not common for husbands and wives to both work and for a lot of women in America their job was raising a family.
In a way, there was no need for them to work because the breadwinner made enough money to raise a family but that said, there were not nearly the discussions that were had in subsequent decades about whether or not this was the way to live, the only way to live, and what other options were available. That was far more prominent in the 1950’s and '60s. There were certain examples of intelligent working women in radio; Eve Arden was the star of Our Miss Brooks where she played a put-upon school teacher. But even there it was sort of like, “All right, they can teach in school…” but there were comparatively few instances where they would be running a corporation. So in that respect, the dialogue was different and the opportunities and the options were different.
I think when you're talking about the subculture, like the videogame subculture -- it's like a lot of things in the modern culture, in which you see the right and sensible and honorable path to take, but there are a lot of people who don't get that, and they're going to scream the loudest.
I mean, I see it. You see it in politics and social movements and all those things where people who can't let go of an idea from the past. They are the wounded animals and of course those are the most dangerous. I don't know what the solution is but my guess would be if enough of the would-be rapists are exiled from this subculture then that problem would eventually take care of itself. But I'm not really qualified to comment in that regard. [Laughs.] Really, I'm not!
That's okay. It's above both our pay grades, I think.
You mentioned a lot of those early magazines. What were the earliest professional critics of radio dramas like? What did they tend to write about? Who were they?
Well, I'm not sure I know a lot about their backgrounds. I mean, many of them were columnists or writers for newspapers who wrote about radio for their newspaper because someone had to. One of the differences when you're talking about radio is that the overwhelming majority of things were heard live, so a critic was reduced, if you want to call it that, to writing about things that theoretically the entire nation had heard. The days of prescreening or the days of sending a file in advance that some critic could write about so that when it's released you've already got a rave review, that wasn't possible in radio. Even when shows started to get prerecorded the networks weren't sending them out saying, “Please listen to this and tell us how much you love it.” [Laughs.]
You know, it's not it would not be like sending out a Paul McCartney album saying, “This comes out in two weeks but review it now and then when it's released we'll all rave about it together.”
They were writing about things that they had heard the day or week before and in some cases their greater job was to review trends in radio. They were the ones who would pick apart the idea of: “Oh boy, another detective show with a wise-cracking detective and a femme fatale who turns out to be the bad woman with a gun in her hand the whole time.” And goodness knows if you listen to radio every night of the week, as some of these people surely had to do, I'm sure you would argue the clichés come quick and fast and that was just part of the medium. If I had a dime for every time some character had to elucidate on the fact that the other person was carrying a gun? [Laughs.] That’s part of the limitation of radio: in a videogame or a television, you see the gun. In radio--
“What’s that you’re holding there?!” [Laughs.]
That's right. "Well, I never argue with a woman carrying a gun." I mean that, they have to. Apparently there is an episode of The Lone Ranger where one of the characters said, "Wait! I hear a white horse coming!" [Laughs.] How did you know that?!
Obviously, the critics were eager to celebrate good work when they heard it and denigrated what they thought was low quality or unimportant, for lack of a better term. And of course, if they could decry a movement, then they would do that. “There are too many giveaway shows on radio,” which there were certainly were at one time. The critics might put these shows and trends together to see the patterns. Whereas people who would listen on one night and maybe not the next night might not have that ability. 87:49
[Laughs.] Oh gosh! No, I would suggest that owes more to television in the sense that -- what was that old Saturday Night Live joke with the newscaster saying, "The president is dead! But President of what?"
That sounds like Norm Macdonald.
"The answer in 60 seconds!"
I mean, there was certainly efforts to build up audiences through hyperbole and there were certainly efforts to engender interest through stunts. One of the very early examples occurred in the 1930’s, when Gracie Allen turned up on Jack Benny's radio show unannounced and said she was looking for her missing brother. Then a few days later she was on Rudy Vallée’s show where she turned up looking for the missing brother and then, it started to snowball and suddenly over the next few months she was turning up on this show, and that show, always with some scenario about looking for her missing brother. Of course, it became a huge sensation and people turned into the Burns and Allen Show and it lasted for ages and years after the fact people would come up to George or Gracie and ask where her brother was. [Laughs.]
You're basically talking about crossovers?
In a sense, that's right. Somebody told me -- and I've never confirmed this -- that Stan Lee was actually inspired by Gracie Allen's search for her missing brother to have the characters in the Marvel Universe interact with one another. Which, if it's true, is absolutely brilliant! But that's why you'd be reading an issue of Spider-Man and he'd be swinging across the buildings and all of a sudden run into Daredevil.
Well, I mean just drive up to any movie theater right now and odds are you're going to see --
Of course, yes, and now you’ll see two Marvel superheroes passing each other on the street.
Bare minimum two!
At least two, right!
I mean, Eddie Cantor was a comedian who every so often when the ratings needed a boost, he would stage a fake presidential campaign. That was just his way of drawing attention to his show. So certainly people weren't immune to ideas that would bring attention to themselves or their shows. I'm not sure that began with radio and I'm not sure that it was the direct inspiration for clickbait. Although I suppose if you were looking for the 1930’s equivalent of clickbait, it would certainly be “Well, where's Gracie Allen going to turn up next?” [Laughs.]
If I may, I'll tell a personal story.
About 20 years ago, I wrote a comic book for DC called Uncle Sam. It was a story about American history and for Alex Ross and myself, it was a very personal story and as a result, this is not going to be universally revered because it's personal. Not everyone sympathizes with everyone else's personal beliefs, and that's fine. I remember being told that there were great debates about this in internet discussion groups and of course we've written this story about villainy and politics in particular and my initial impulse was, “I hope, all of those people who have written to one another to complain about our book are devoting a scintilla of that energy to actually monitoring their representatives in Washington.”
I don't know if all of them were.
That's always confounded me in that I appreciate the immediacy of all of this, I really do. And the fact is that in what I do, I'm able to hear from people around the country and around the world. I guess the part of this that I think's important is people are willing to complain about things I think that don't have the same impact on their lives as things they would perhaps do well to complain about.
At a time when you actually have the option to do that. You know, 60 years ago you couldn't email a Senator. You'd have to write a letter which may or may not get to them for a week-and-a-half, you know? But now, you have the option to exert some control over your destiny. Why would you devote that time to bitching about videogames?
I mean or anything else for that matter?!
Because that's easier to do than changing your life.
Sure. God knows I've probably spent more time on the internet than is necessary in that regard! [Laughs.]
I don't know if any time is necessary.
Point taken! [Laughs.]
But I’m someone who feels similarly, yes.
I just bring that up because in our case we actually tried to meticulously research this project and admittedly it was a very personal project, and I thought, “If the only thing bothering you about the United States of America is our book, maybe you should leave the house more!” [Laughs.]
That said, I think there is a lot of good that can come out of this. It's galvanizing to hear from people who listen to our show or readers of our magazine -- maybe because I'm in a field that's less likely to encounter trolling, you know? I think the other thing about the internet -- and I think we've all encountered this and I think perhaps we are all guilty of it to some degree -- is that it has sometimes made personal communication a very abstract thing.
I mean, after the horrific news about the Orlando shooting, how many people then went on the internet and made homophobic jokes? A lot of things get said that I don't think people would say if they were facing someone. That said, it also allows for a lot of change and a lot of positive change and a lot of positive action. I mean, we've seen people arrange meetings or rallies at the drop of a hat because they can go to social media and say, “Friday afternoon we're all going to show up here to protest the cuts in the school budget.” That's something you could not have done in the pre-internet era.
Normally I end by asking people this about videogames but it makes more sense to ask you this: What do you think radio dramas have accomplished?
I think what radio drama accomplished was perhaps aesthetic rather than social, but I would suggest there is probably some interaction between the two. Radio drama, then as now, was a way to activate the imagination, in the broad sense. Because of course you're not seeing things so you're making the pictures. In purely aesthetic terms, there's no better picture on earth than what you can create in your imagination. In social terms, in historical terms, they’re inexpensive time travel. I mean, history textbooks tell us about what battle was fought when and who won what election but they don't tell us things about what it was like to be on the home front during the war. They don't tell us about how we used to buy our soap and our cigarettes, but radio does that. Radio from the 1930’s or 1940’s can tell us so much about the way those people lived and what they were told was important and what they thought was important.
And I think technologically, the radio networks were the first opportunity we had to share an experience of that sort. The minstrel shows and the vaudeville performers could play a small town in Missouri or Mississippi, but then they'd be gone and they might go to another town in Mississippi or they might not. With radio, it was possible for the first time for people in Chicago to hear something at the same time it was being heard Biloxi or Atlanta, Georgia or New York City for that matter. And so, I think in that sense it made the country more of a community, because through the dramas and the comedies -- and also of course, through the news, we were all getting information that we could share. So in a sense, maybe that was the precursor to the global chatrooms, I don't know. [Laughs.]
Maybe we have a lot to answer for!
I don't think people were necessarily thinking “I love this show! I'm going to start writing people in Alabama to see if they like it.” But that said, if you were in Illinois and traveled to Missouri, you could hear the things you would have heard if you were still in Illinois. That had not been possible before.