Classic Old-Time Radio Programs Prove Popular
     

AM900 CHML Old Radio Shows Web Page Credit: AM900 CHML
HAMILTON, Ontario — Every evening from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., AM900 CHML in Hamilton, Ontario (just southwest of Toronto) turns its airwaves over to classic old-time radio shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “Escape,” “Pat Novak for Hire,” “The Great Gildersleeve” and “The Jack Benny Show.”

Using a wealth of programs from parent company Corus Entertainment’s radio archive, AM900 CHML introduces eager 21st century listeners to the best of radio’s Golden Age (1930s–‘50s), before television compelled radio programmers to drop comedy and drama for music and news/talk formats.

Famed BBC comedian Tony Hancock is back on BBC Radio 4 Extra. Credit: BBC
UNIQUE PROGRAMMING
“The listener response to our old-time radio broadcasts is incredible,” said Jeff Storey, AM900 CHML’s program and news director. “They tell us that they tune in regularly to hear these great old shows — and they listen online via our Old Radio Shows Web page.”

In the United Kingdom, BBC Radio 4 Extra’s broadcast schedule includes classic radio comedies such as “Hancock’s Half-Hour,” “I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again” and the legendary “Goon Show.” As with AM900 CHML, these programs can be heard on the digital channel’s over-the-air broadcasts, plus on demand at www.bbc.co.uk/programmes.

The BBC’s ‘I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again,’ featured future members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Goodies. Credit: BBC
“Radio 4 Extra draws on the vast comedy and drama archive of the BBC,” said Amelia Fernandez-Grandon, assistant publicist for BBC Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra. “To hear these preserved voices is thrilling and we have an active acquisition policy to explore a range of speech radio programs.”

Wisconsin Public Radio is a public radio network in the U.S. state of Wisconsin. Its “Old-Time Radio Drama” program broadcasts “the best of 1930s, ’40s and ’50s entertainment to Wisconsin every Saturday and Sunday night from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m.,” according to www.wpr.org, “host Norman Gilliland explores some of the best comedy, drama, adventure, mystery and science fiction of the 20th century.”

“We started 24 years ago just doing one-and-a-half hours on Sunday night,” Gilliland said. “The enthusiasm from our listeners was so great, that we have since gone to six hours a week over two nights.”

Jeff Storey knows why broadcasters such as AM900 CHML like old-time radio content. “It is a unique format that no one else tends to be doing in the market,” he said. “At a time when competition is fierce and we are all trying to differentiate ourselves, old-time radio is something that stands out.”

The BBC’s ‘Goon Show’ featured the genius of Spike Milligan (left), Harry Secombe (center) and Peter Sellers. Credit: BBC
OLD-TIME RADIO

But why do listeners tune in seven days a week, plus listen to streams 24/7 from AM900 CHML’s website? “The initial driver is nostalgia,” Storey replied. “They’ve heard about these great shows for years, and are curious to know what made them so great. Then, once they’ve heard the quality and imaginativeness of these radio dramas and comedies, they are hooked. I mean, the jokes on ‘The Jack Benny Show’ still stand up today: They’re that good.”

Another unique aspect of old-time radio is the scale and quality of its productions. “These were shows that had large casts, sophisticated scripts, and sound effects that truly painted pictures in listeners’ minds,” said Norman Gilliland. “It’s a model that is so compelling, that WPR has done live modern productions of old-time classics such as Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds,’ to great interest from the packed studio audience, and the people listening on-air and online.”

Such is the passion for old-time radio, in fact, that the American SiriusXM satellite radio service has launched a 24- hour, seven-day-a-week channel dedicated to the genre called “Radio Classics.” Meanwhile, hobbyists have launched a number of old-time radio (OTR) streaming audio/download sites such as www.otr.net, RadioLovers.com, and www.oldtimeradiofans.com.

WPR’s Old-Time Radio Drama Web Page. Credit: WPR
In the U.S., some OTR webcasters have added their own legal low-power stations specifically for rebroadcasting OTR content. One of these is AM 1710 Old-Time Radio in Antioch, Illinois, which is run by hobbyist Jay Lichtenauer.

“I first got started with broadcasting Part 15 AM around my house when I bought a US$15.00 Stromberg-Carlson bakelite antique radio ... and wanted to hear more authentic content on it,” Lichtenauer said. “I bought a Vectronics AM transmitter kit and built it and then played some OTR shows I acquired through OTR dealers on the Internet, to play in iTunes to this transmitter. Very quickly I went through two more Part 15 transmitters until landing on the Rangemaster 1000, which has been running for nearly 10 years now,” he said.

“As far as I know, AM 1710 ABN OTR is the most-listened-to OTR streaming station I can find on the Internet: It often peaks in the 900s for number of listeners each night,” said Lichtenaurer. “The operational costs of the station are fully covered by the voluntary donations of listeners.”

SiriusXM’s Radio Classics satellite radio channel offers 24/7 old-time radio. Credit: SiriusXM
UNTAPPED FORMAT?
The stories above have one thing in common: They point to a genuine listener interest in the great programs of Radio’s Golden Age.
 
But there may be more to the old-time radio craze than just nostalgia: As Storey has pointed out, people who check AM900 CHML’s content for curiosity’s sake stick with it for the quality of the programs themselves. “There’s nothing like it today; nothing that exploits radio’s ability to engage the listener’s imagination and intelligence,” he said. Which begs a question: If a new generation of radio-focused dramas and comedies became available — produced here and now in 2013 — does he think people would tune into them? Is there an untapped niche here — “old-time radio made new” — just waiting to be discovered? “My first inkling would be to say ‘no,’” Storey said. “But given the amount of traffic we get on our Old Radio Shows page, and the enthusiastic emails we receive about our broadcasts, the answer might well be ‘yes.’ One thing is certain: if someone starts to produce new radio dramas and comedies using the quality OTR approach, I’d definitely like to hear them — and consider them for broadcast.”

James Careless is a regular contributor to Radio World International in Ottawa, Ontario, and an old-time radio fan. He still retains the letter he sent to CFRB 1010(AM) Toronto in 1969 (when he was in Grade 6), advocating the value of bringing old-time radio back to the airwaves. The request was politely declined.

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