An Alternative to Audio Books: OTR

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?The past few days, I’ve been waylaid with a bad back, and have had to seriously curtail my computer usage. This has left me rather stir-crazy. It’s difficult to be very productive when you’re lying down and barely able to move. I don’t tend to watch much TV, and my eyes were getting quite tired from too much reading. Thankfully, I had a great way to spend the time, and one that requires little or no money: Old Time Radio. Read on if you’re interested in trying something that puts most audio books to shame.

Back in the days B.C. (Before Cable), over 25 years ago, I had a little treasure. My father, who had grown up in the late 1930’s and the 40’s, had often waxed sentimental about the radio shows he had heard as a kid. The mere mention of the Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Jack Benny, Amos and Andy, and The Green Hornet would send him drifting back to his youth. In the late 1970’s, when I was still in elementary school, he came across a magazine ad from a company called Radio Reruns that produced cassette tapes with classic episodes of the old series. The selection seemed huge at the time: there were about 100 for sale. He ordered a dozen, and when they arrived, we sat down with my clunky Tandy tape recorder (you’ve seen the type gathering dust in pawn shops, each one the better part of a shoebox in size) and listened to each one in turn. It was one of the few times we had ever really bonded. I had never heard of the shows, but The Shadow, Inner Sanctum, Suspense, and the others captured my imagination like nothing else up to that time. In the following years, I heard them each a hundred times or more, and I knew every line by rote.

A few years ago, Dad asked me if I could jump on the Internet and find out the names of the actors that played The Shadow (I think a Jeopardy question got the gears of his mind churning). Sure enough, I found a list of the half-dozen actors, but I found much more besides: a whole community that pursues the hobby of OTR (Old Time Radio) in the efforts to preserve both the pleasures and the recordings of the almost-extinct medium. Within a few days, I was able to track down almost every existing Shadow broadcast in MP3 form. After listening to a few of them, the fever had started, and I branched out to collecting the great old horror/thrillers like Inner Sanctum, Quiet Please, Suspense and The Whistler. From there, I started collecting classic science fiction like Dimension X and X Minus One (many episodes of which were top-notch dramatisations of stories by Bradbury, Asimov, Pohl and Heinlein). Then there were the various versions of Sherlock Holmes and other mystery shows. And so on, and so on, and so on. In all, over a few years, I collected over 3000 shows of almost every type and quality. I sent many back to Dad, burnt onto CD’s, and hopefully it awakened a few pleasant memories before he passed away.

Nowadays I always keep a few radio shows on my Palm to listen to, as the mood strikes. When people ask me if I know any good audiobooks to toss on an MP3 player, I never hesitate to send along a few shows. True, the ownership of the copyrights is is rather murky, with few people in agreement, but this has never been an issue for me. Regardless, the shows are easy enough to find if you look hard enough.

It was only a matter of time before a group stepped forward to ready these shows for podcasts. Radio Memories offers several shows a week, covering a number of various genres. If streaming radio is your thing, Live365 has quite a number of OTR choices in their directory. If you want to sample a series, see the amazing list of shows at OTRCat: each one has a free episode for download. (The price of his MP3 CDs are hard to beat –as little as 5 cents a show– and it’s a heck of a lot easier than tracking down individual shows for download.)

As you might expect the sound quality of radio shows from the 30’s to 50’s is quite variable. The ones that have come down to us on E.T.’s (electronic transcriptions, like really big vinyl records) are generally excellent, while the ones recorded from radios onto reel-t0-reel tape are… um, less excellent. The volume drops and static are quite authentic, and –if you hear it in this light– can take you back in time. The quality of the shows’ content can be just as variable. Some are quite tepid compared to today’s radio offerings, and there are instances that are far from political correctness. It’s important to see the shows in the context of the time. This isn’t to say that there aren’t quite a number of great series available for your listening pleasure, no matter what your interests.

Orson WellesProbably the most famous broadcast is Orson Welles’ production of War of the Worlds, as first heard on the Mercury Theatre on the Air, October 30, 1938. This broadcast allegedly caused mass hysteria among the populace that tuned in, because many believed that the drama was actually a real news broadcast covering an invasion from Mars. If you haven’t yet heard this historic show, pop on over to OTRCat and download yourself a copy (look for the little radio mid-page). It’s a lot of fun, and a great introduction to OTR.

When you listen to these, be sure to sit in a quiet room, turn up the volume, close your eyes, and fall deeply into the broadcast. Listen to a show like Quiet Please (and especially The Thing on the Fourble Board) in a dark room in the dead of night, and I guarantee you an experience like none other.

4 Replies to “An Alternative to Audio Books: OTR”

  1. Check out http://zbs.org/ for some modern old time radio! My brother and I really enjoyed the Ruby series (Ruby 3 is particularly good), and I also liked The Maltese Goddess (“recorded in digital kunstkopf binaural 3 D sound”).

  2. My especial old-timey favorite is Edison’s Attic (http://wfmu.org/playlists/AP), the Antique Phonograph music program. He plays 78s and cylinders and I just get a blast from listening to it; the music has an energy and freshness that delights my cynical soul. A particular favorite program from this series is the “Accordiomania” (http://wfmu.org/playlists/shows/11259), which is about just what you think it is.

    On OTR: when I was growing up, a local AM station (and for a time, the local college radio station before they became an NPR outlet) would play old Shadow, Inner Sanctum, Gangbusters, and the like in the evenings. Great stuff. Makes me sympathetic to folks like R. Crumb who feel culture was just better then.

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