Radio has wings. It has no stage to keep it within the limits of a proscenium arch, no camera to confine it to things that may be seen. The imagination of the listener is our most ardent and helpful collaborator. -Jerome Lawrence
It’s not true I had nothing on. I had the radio on.-Marilyn Monroe
Radio is the theater of the mind; television is the theater of the mindless.-Steve Allen
I watch a lot of baseball on the radio-Gerald R. Ford
You gave them all those old-time stars/ Through wars of worlds invaded by mars/You made them laugh, you made them cry/You made us feel like we could fly -Roger Taylor (Queen /Radio Gaga)
I am not quite old enough to have experienced radio the way my parents did. But I can still recall their passing references to Fibber McGee and Molly, The Shadow and some guy named Fred Allen. Many of those stars transitioned into television at its birth and I am old enough to have become visually familiar with the likes of Edgar Bergan, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. This ventriloquist and his wooden children were among the biggest stars in a medium that was completely non-visual to audiences at home.
My grandmother was a fan of the soap opera Guiding Light. Although I was all of about two years old I can distinctly recall the announcer’s voice and the sound of the organ that seemed to accommodate each broadcast of her “stories” on the kitchen radio. This episodic drama aired concurrently on radio and TV up until 1956. Occasionally her aged legs would sprint, practically leaping over furniture to try and catch one of them on the old RCA TV. And although not all of the soaps made the transition, quite a few still did broadcast on radio through the late 1950’s with a few pushing the envelope into 1960.
The tiny AM transistor radio was a must for every third grader in my neighborhood, especially at World Series time when my beloved Yankees usually had a reserved spot. The fall classic was often played during the day in those ancient times, so it was not uncommon for many of us to sit in the back of the class room, the radio tucked neatly in a side pocket of our blazers with the wire of our earpieces meandering through our inner shirt sleeves from where we could place the end into our ears as we laid our heads over the appropriate hands conveying the all so typical physical posture of bored catholic school boys whilst covertly listening to Sandy Koufax (Damn him) striking out Mickey Mantle. Again.
Radio also brought the tones of Elvis, Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly which soon gave way to the British invasion and Motown. AM radio in the time of the early 60’s was a delicious mash up of styles. Dean Martin and The Four Tops easily followed or led into The Rolling Stones and the Beatles. I didn’t differentiate with labels at nine years old. I liked all of it.
My first experience with nationwide tragedy was actually on the TV with the Kennedy assassination and the live on the air murder of the alleged assassin by a strip club owner at a time on a Sunday when I would normally be settling down from a show called Wonderama.
But if radio kept our young heads tuned to the happenings of the day as well; it also supplied the most welcome escape from it. The programming changed as the music evolved. The two minute “hits” dished from personalities like Cousin Brucie on WABC and the WMCA Good Guys gave way to a more selective type of rock music which seemed to have lost some its roll. Stereo FM programming had less time for the Billboard top 100 and frequently played complete album sides. FM rock was discriminatory. Not in a racial way. The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Sly and the Family Stone and Stevie Wonder could be programmed quite comfortably along side The Who, Yes and Led Zeppelin. But sets where The Four Seasons followed Gladys Knight and the Pips, Dusty Springfield or Roger Miller or The Beach Boys, or The Supremes or the Kinks or Ray Charles or Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs or an “oldie” like the original “Love Potion Number 9” by The Clovers were marked for extinction.
Scott Munie once a jock at WABC as well as a WMCA Good Guy himself, transitioned over to WNEW- FM and became known to listeners as The Professor as he transmitted the sounds and supplied insight into both the music and the bands. Rock had taken on a certain maturity reflective of the times and the crossroads of conscience that raged throughout the country and across generations. And news broadcasting, once nothing more than an annoyance to my elementary school ears, now, as I pushed through towards high school graduation, took on greater meaning as Vietnam raged with the possibilities of my own expense paid trip to the jungles of Southeast Asia lingering never too far from my thoughts.
Talk radio exploded during that time. People like Paul Harvey and Alex Bennett discoursed nightly with their liberal and conservative audiences in impassioned but occasionally civil tones. But in 1984 a Denver based talk radio personality by the name of Alan Berg was assassinated by members of The Order, a white nationalist group. The occasional tones of civility soon all but disappeared from the genre. Perhaps not coincidentally a brash new voice emanated from the airwaves that same year. His name was Rush Limbaugh.
As I write this I listen to the radio while Paul Cavalconte spins four hours of his eclectic Songbook on WNYC, mixing Ella, Frank, and Ellington seamlessly with The Beatles, Dylan and Joni Mitchell as well as newer and fresher artists. The programming takes me back to a softer landing pad in my biography.
Despite the rapid advances in information and media technology radio is and I believe will always be, baked into our national DNA. It requires no special skills aside from the ability to plug in to a wall outlet and turn a dial.It doesn’t need to be booted or re booted. More often than not it is still the go to spot for up to the minute news, weather and traffic reports.
Similarly, it was where my parents generation were first alerted to the horrific attack on us by a foreign entity. Soon the President of the United States used Marconi’s invention to confirm a “day that will live in infamy” informing the nation and asking the congress for a declaration of war. The young people of that generation would answer this call to save the world from itself.
Before, during and after that fateful day in 1941 radio has given voice to the hopes, fears and anxieties of the American people. It has entertained and informed and yes, like the other technologies it has spawned, it has been a vehicle of commerce. Radio reflects America so well because radio is America.
Traditions the likes of which my parents and grandparents enjoyed when they gathered together to “watch the radio” still have a pulse. Ironically, one of radio’s grandchildren, the internet, has kept the art form alive with podcasts like S-Town mixing dialogue and sound effects to draw a story line grasped by the uniqueness of each individuals own imagination.
I have been honored at times to participate as an actor in the recreations of old-time radio plays as well as the occasional original script tapered to the style and formats of the era. Performances are live in front of a “studio” audience with all the accoutrements of the day. Four microphones with the label of the “station” affixed to their tops. A keyboardist supplies the music and a sound effects artist manages manual audio enhancements at a table filled with as many nicks and nats as one person can imagine to guide the “listener” along. And of course, there are the announcers and the commercials of the era hawking everything from table wines to cigarettes.
For well over two decades WWOW in New York City has lovingly preserved this piece of the American experience. The shows are not broadcast so the only way to experience them is live. When they did two shows on Saturday nights I would often attend both shows experiencing one with eyes closed and “watching” the second show. Either way, there was always so much to “see”.
WWOW will be suspending their operations in June 2020. There will be a great sadness among their loyal audience of supporters, many of whom grew up with this art form and who have lovingly and loyally supported them from the start. They no longer will be doing two shows on the first Saturday of each month but the one show they do will be a bit longer. Since moving from their old spot at the former Partners and Crime Bookstore in Greenwich Village they have brought the thrilling and competing odes of suspense and comedy to The Guild Hall of the Church of the Transfiguration ( The Little Church around the corner) at 1 East 29th. St. The Hall itself is the home of the Episcopal Actors Guild and is a literal repository of New York theater history. Guild membership has included a who’s who of the performing arts starting with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks and including along the way such luminaries as Raymond Massey, Fred and Peggy Astaire, Rex Harrison, Jason Robards, Cliff Robertson and Barnard Hughes among many, many others. The posters, art and clippings displayed alone are worth the price of admission.
So, Ledge watchers if you are in NYC for the first Saturday of any month between now and June with the exception of January you should come and experience these delightful tidbits of Americana. The price is $15 cash at the door. Reservations (212-462-3027) are encouraged as the group has ceased doing a second show and thusly the reservations pile up quickly. And if you come to the next one on Oct 5 at 6PM sharp you will have the added inducement of seeing the Ledge Watcher himself sans squirrel who is otherwise engaged, perform various roles in re-enactments of The Shadow, Adam Drake and Ripley’s Believe it or Not! A splendid time is guaranteed for all.
WWOW has preserved with integrity, passion and an abundance of love this very distinctive form and it has been my honor and privilege to have been associated with them. Far too many talents to mention have graced the microphones over the years but I would personally like to thank the core of people who have graced their stages in recent years and who have welcomed me so warmly including Mary Murphy, Steve Viola, America’s sweetheart Rebecca Rowe, and Karla Hendricks. Kudos as well to Delisa White, the oh so ever ready deliverer of majestic sound effects and Heather Edwards, keyboardist extraordinaire. And then we have the three musketeers of WWOW whose full-time devotion to the cause has kept this train a rollin’ Bob Rutan, Michael Johnson and Alan Dolderer. Your painstaking devotion, commitment and expertise is astonishing.
In a time of such divisiveness in America I can think of no better soothing salve than a bunch of us sitting around and watching the radio together. So, for now, as they say at the end of every WWOW performance BYE BYE and BUY BONDS!