When Radio Ruled

Dick Snider
Topeka Capital-Journal

Radio ruled the airwaves for 30 years, just as television has reigned for the last 50, but if you weren’t there at the time it may be difficult for you to imagine a family gathered around a talking box, listening to “One Man’s Family,” Fred Allen, Jack Benny or some other top show. If you were there, you remember this Benny classic:

Holdup man: “Your money or your life?”

Benny: (Silence).

Holdup man: “I said, your money or your life?”

Benny: “I’m thinking it over.”
Radio in its heyday is remembered in a book “Raised on Radio,” by Gerald Nachman (Pantheon, $28.50), who says, “Like television, it was born on high hopes that it would bring culture to the masses and spread democracy around the globe.” It didn’t do all that anymore than television is doing it now, but it brought a lot of entertainment to a lot of people. It also gave us the news, good and bad.

My Uncle Bill Garthoeffner owned a farm south of Oklahoma City that had a nice pond on it, but that’s not why he bought it. He was a pilot and owned a plane, so he bought an old road grader along with the farm and scraped a dirt runway on a pasture. One Sunday in 1941 I was there hunting with three friends, and when we returned to the hangar to get warm, Uncle Bill was listening to the radio, and told us the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. A veteran of World War I, he told the four of us we’d be going to war, and I remember he said our lives might never be the same again.

I grew up with radio, and it’s fair to say that television today is a grand, gaudy, glorified extension of it. Our family listened to sitcoms, quiz shows, soap operas, dramas, talk shows, news and sports on radio, just as we watch them on TV today. It’s the same, only with pictures, and a lot raunchier in spots. A pretty racy exchange in the old radio days would go like this: Blanche: “You used to be so considerate. Since you married me, you haven’t got any sympathy at all.” John: “I have, too. I’ve got everybody’s sympathy.” Blanche: “Believe me, there’s better fish in the ocean than the one I caught.” John: “There’s better bait, too.”

One of the great radio shows was “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” which would be a social disaster today, since it was two white men in black face doing all the voices in a sitcom, and the nation thought it was downright funny because listeners didn’t know, or maybe didn’t care, that it was racist. I can remember laughing it up when Amos and Andy painted their taxicab in one of their classics, and when they’d deal with the Kingfish, and their lodge, the Mystic Knights of the Sea.

There were radio ministers aplenty, good and bad, just as there are today on TV, and one of the not-so-good ones was a priest named Charles Coughlin. Of course, that never was mentioned in our home, because negative comment about any priest, even a left wing nut, was unthinkable. And, we listened to the weekly comments of Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen, who had a corporate sponsor and thus didn’t have to hustle money. He could be inspiring, and I always wondered why he wasn’t promoted to cardinal, or even pope.

We tuned in Jack Benny and Fred Allen as they feuded across the airwaves, and a highlight of the year came when one would visit the other’s show. We never missed Fibber McGee and Molly, waiting for McGee to open his closet, the one he always vowed to clean out someday, so we could hear everything fall out of it. Radio had great musical shows, and our family favorites included Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Eddie Cantor. “One Man’s Family” was a gripping soap opera that could have been a cleaned-up version of the soaps on the air today.

Most of all, we had sports on radio. We had Ted Husing doing football games in what he called “autumnal splendor;” and other regulars such as Bill Stern, Graham McNamee, Clem McCarthy and Harry Wismer. In the greatest game ever to come over the family Philco, Husing told us how Notre Dame scored 18 points in the fourth quarter to beat Ohio State, 18-13, in 1935.

My dad had a drug store on Main Street in the little town of Britton, Okla., and had an outside radio speaker so the town could gather and listen to election results, the World Series and other big events. I remember when the Cardinals, led by Oklahoma’s “Wild Horse of the Osage,” Pepper Martin, beat the Philadelphia A’s in the 1931 Series.

The town loved it, except for my dad, who was rooting for Connie Mack’s A’s. Radio was showtime in my younger days, and it has proved to be pretty durable, too. Many said it was doomed when TV came along, but it’s still very much alive, and it can look back now and say it was the TV and the Internet of its day.

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