More on Old Time Radio

I didn’t write anything about the history of radio programs in the previous post. This may be helpful in understanding how it is that are so many old radio shows on the internet.

Radio was basically experimental  broadcasting until station KDKA signed on in 1920 in Pittsburgh. They first broadcast election results in November of that year. They were only on the air for a couple of hours per day. Soon after beginning broadcasting they also started airing advertising to offset the cost of running live programming.

In Rochester, station WHQ started broadcasting in Feb. 1922 but only existed for a few months before folding. Station WHAM signed on July 11, 1922 and is still broadcasting today. Station WHEC started in 1925. Early radio stations broadcast just about every format in the early years and it was all live. WHAM has changed formats over the years and now are a talk radio station. WHEC was sold a few times is now WHIC, Catholic radio.

Network radio started in 1926 when NBC – Red started sending programs to a few allied stations. There was also NBC – Blue formed in 1927. CBS also started in 1927. The now forgotten Mutual Broadcasting Network started in 1934. The Federal Communications Commission forced NBC to sell off NBC – Blue and in 1943 it became ABC. The formation of networks made better programming available to more people. It also made it easier for advertisers to sell to national audiences.

About 1930 another innovation was what was called the transcription disk. Old 78rpm records could only hold about 5 minutes of recording. So a new format was started where a 16 inch record would run at 33?rpm. For some reason, the oldest of those records played from the center to the outside edge. Those records meant that a whole program could be put on a record. At first these records were only made as a network archival copy and a copy was sent to the advertisers so they could hear the recording. Networks also found out that if something went wrong with a broadcast they could broadcast a transcription. One of the earliest radio programs for which transcriptions still exists is The Empire Builders from 1930.

Fast forward to World War II when the government wanted to have troops in Europe and the Pacific to be able to hear American radio music and programs. They created Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) which created many transcriptions and sent those overseas. Those AFRS transcriptions are now part of many collections. AFRS still exists but broadcasts radio and TV signals via satellites.

As TV started to take hold in the 1950s old time radio broadcasts started to fade. Some shows that had originally been a half hour were cut back to 15 minutes and many shows were cancelled. By 1960 there were very network programs as most radio stations went over to broadcasting recorded music.

Then in the 1960s collectors started buying up all the old radio transcriptions. By the 70s there were few left on the market. Those collectors started transferring the old programs on to tapes and trading them. Those tapes were of lesser quality than the original transcription disks. A few old radio shows were sold commercially on both tapes and records. A threat of lawsuits were put forth by the networks who still owned the rights to the programs. Those lawsuits never went anywhere because it wasn’t worth the expense that the networks would have to spend to get control of programs that had little future value.

When the internet came on the radio programs were changed over to mp3 files. Most of those mp3 files were off the poor quality tapes plus they usually were saved in a low bit rate meaning that a lot of the mp3s were of even poorer quality. So most of the mp3 files are third or more generation from the originals. You can buy CDs of old radio programs on eBay and elsewhere but almost all of those are available on the Internet Archive or other online sources for free.

It is said that the National Archives has 300,000 AFRS radio programs on transcription disks. If those would be made available it would be the largest collection online. They probably won’t make those available anytime soon as the National Archives is more strict on material that might still be in copyright.

There is this list of old radio programs on Wikipedia. If you click on a title it gives a description of the series. Another list of radio programs is this list by Jerry Haendiges. If you click on a title on his website it will tell dates and titles of individual programs. There was a book, “The Big Broadcast; 1920 – 1950” by Frank Buxton and Bill Owen that described each known series. It is out of print but there used copies available on Amazon. Frank Buxton died on Jan. 4th and there is this nice obit by one of his friends.