Old Time Radio As a History Lesson

If you’d like to get a real insight into how life was over half a century ago there are few better ways than immersing yourself into the wonderful world of old time radio.

Old time radio is like an audio-only time machine into times gone by, in a way that no other

The difference between old time radio and television or film, and one of its major strengths, is that it is audio-only. Once you close your eyes the only input you have is audio, which means that, with a little imagination, you can easily transport yourself back to a comfortable chair positioned next to the fire, in a 1940s home. What you are experiencing is exactly the same as what someone in the 1940s experienced if they sat by the fire with their eyes closed. Once you’ve set the scene you need to choose what aspect of history you’d like to focus in on. Luckily, almost every old time radio show offers you a glimpse into these bygone days.

Obvious choices for those interested in a historical perspective would be news broadcasts of the time. This could be anything from the famous presidential broadcasts of the time through to news of the war and other major events of the time. But there’s so much more than straight forward news broadcasts and each of these will give you a different insight into everyday life for people living in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

If you put on an old time radio thriller such as Suspense or The Whistler you’ll be exposed to a world that reflects the society of the time. You’ll quickly pick up on the differences in the sexes between now and then. Old time radio is full of stereotypes that will seem alien to people who were born in the latter half of the twentieth century.

You’ll discover a world where men were tougher and rarely showed their true feelings, a world where the role of the woman was rarely more than the supportive housewife or downtrodden victim of crime and a world in which it was down to the man to protect the woman and very rarely the other way round.

If you choose to listen to a comedy you’ll quickly realize that racial stereotypes are prevalent. Black people are rarely the star of the show and if they are they tend to be played by white actors, which is something that would be completely unacceptable, and rightly so, in today’s world. You’ll also come across some amazing stereotypes of people from all over the globe. The British always sound upper-class, people from India always sound like snake charmers, French people always sound romantic, and Latin-American people always seem to be manual laborers or villains.

This stereotypical characterization would be laughable in today’s world, but in the old-time radio of the 1930s, 40s and 50s it reflected a society that often (but not always) held rather narrow stereotypical views of anyone who was not a white American.

Another aspect of old time radio that provides an amazing insight into this period is the advertisements. It’s funny that these days we try to avoid the advertisements and focus on the programme, but with old time radio shows the advertisements are often as entertaining as the shows themselves. You’ll find yourself exposed to everything from war-bonds through to a great many advertisements focusing on car parts and gasoline.

These days, there’s little to distinguish between one gasoline provider and another, but in the 1940s, particularly when the war was in full flight, gasoline suppliers were working hard to explain to people why their gasoline was preferable to the gasoline of other suppliers.

You’ll quickly realize that there was a great deal of sexism in the world of advertising back in the golden years of radio. Advertisements for household cleaning products were unashamedly aimed at women whereas advertisements relating to financial issues or cars were all aimed at the man of the house.

These trends have continued to a greater or lesser degree into today’s advertisements, but the directness of this sexual profiling was far more prevalent in those days than it is now.

One final thing that is worth listening out for is the social conditioning that went on in radio. Depending on which show you listen to this could include anything from promoting Christian values of what is good and bad (e.g. Family Theatre and its philosophy of “The family that prays together, stays together), through to justifications of current affairs. It must be remembered that this was a time when many Americans were giving a lot up to fight a war several thousand miles away, and so this constant drip-feed of justification helped to keep the public supportive of the war effort over a protracted period of time.

At a time when Hitler was using the radio as a powerful propaganda machine in Germany, and when the British Government was using the BBC to keep-up moral in the United Kingdom, the big radio stations of the time took it upon themselves to keep up the spirits of their listeners in America and wherever else American radio could be heard.

Hopefully, this short article will have given you a small glimpse into the wonderful world of old-time radio and how it can help you to better understand the period between the early 1930s and the late 1940’s. There is much more to learn from it than the observations I have made above, but if this starts you off on a journey of discovery using old-time radio as your time-traveling machine of choice, then my time writing it has been well spent.

Enjoy your travels in time!