Having been born in 1946, in the first wave of “baby boomers,” I arrived on the scene while AM radio was still one of the primary means of informing, entertaining and shaping the opinions of a majority of Americans. By the time my family got its first television set late in 1951, I was already a faithful and dedicated radio listener, and remain so to this day!
Hello Boys and Girls
My earliest memories of radio are of listening to some of the local children’s programs that aired daily in Cleveland, Ohio back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These were disk jockey shows where the hosts would play records that had been specifically produced for children. Many of these records featured top entertainers of the day: Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Dennis Day, Patti Page, Gene Autry, Burl Ives, Ray Bolger, and Danny Kaye, to name a few. Among the children’s records that were popular on the radio back then were Flick, the Little Fire Engine, The Little Tune that Ran Away, The Goonie-Bird Song, How the Circus Learned to Smile (with Spike Jones and his City Slickers), Willie and Hannibal in Mouseland, and the various adventures of Little Orley as told by “Uncle Lumpy.” One of my particular favorites was Tiger, an adventure story about a marauding tiger that was eventually captured by Frank “Bring ‘em Back Alive” Buck, a real-life hero who made his living capturing wild animals for zoos and circuses. Another popular children’s record that was heard on the radio back then (and one that was probably a little too sophisticated for most children) featured Al “Jazzbo” Collins telling “hip” versions of familiar fairy tales like The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood.
The two local children’s radio programs that I listened to most often were Toddler Time, hosted by “Uncle Ed” and sponsored by Weather Bird Shoes, and Kousin Kay’s Korner, heard on station WJW (today’s WKNR.) One of Kousin Kay’s best-remembered features was his daily reading of birthday greetings to young listeners (and which had been telephoned in ahead of time by their parents.) Sometimes, these greetings would include special instructions like, “Eric, look in the record cabinet,” which would result in the discovery of a hidden birthday present. Both Uncle Ed and Kousin Kay later had their own local TV shows, which weren’t nearly as much fun.
On Saturday mornings, there would be No School Today, a two-hour show hosted by Big Jon Arthur and Sparkie, “the little elf from the land of make-believe who wants more than anything else in the world to be a real boy.” (Sparkie was actually the recorded voice of Jon Arthur speeded up.) In addition to children’s records, there would be original songs and stories, and an unforgettable rendition of the program’s theme song The Teddy Bears’ Picnic. No School Today originated from station WSAI in Cincinnati and was heard over the ABC radio network beginning in 1950. (It continued to be heard on shortwave for years after it left the network.) For those of us old enough to have heard the original broadcasts, No School Todayremains one of our fondest and happiest radio memories.
Radio Memories From My Grandparents
Whenever I stayed with my grandparents, I got to hear the radio programs they listened to. Grandma Mitzi would always start off her day with Don McNeil’s Breakfast Club, a very popular network morning program that had been on the air since 1933. The one feature I recall from that show was the “march around the breakfast table.” (Years later, my grandmother would remind me how she and I used to march around the dining room table whenever that segment came on.) My grandmother was also a regular listener to Arthur Godfrey Time, another popular network morning program featuring talk, variety, and music. (In my mind’s ear, I can still hear the Godfrey theme song Seems Like Old Times, in a musical arrangement that featured a trombone playing the lead.) Arthur Godfrey’s sponsor was Lipton’s Tea, and so closely did I associate him with that product that, for a time, I thought that it was his picture on the Lipton box rather than that of tea merchant Thomas Lipton! In the afternoon, my grandmother always listened to Art Linkletter’s House Party. The one feature from the Linkletter program that I remember clearly was his talks with young children selected from Los Angeles’ grammar schools for their intelligence and personality. Often, their forthright answers to Linkletter’s questions were hilarious and sometimes a little embarrassing: Linkletter: “What does your mommy do?” Child: “Nothing, she’s too busy having babies.”
The one radio program that my grandfather always listened to was Drew Pearson’s Sunday evening news broadcast. If we were visiting, and whatever was going on, it would all have to stop so that Grandpa Joe could tune in Pearson’s program. Drew Pearson always ended his broadcasts by making a prediction or two. The one Pearson prediction that I clearly remember was that Russia’s then-Premier Nikita Khrushchev would someday take his own life as had Hitler. (Back in those Cold War days, Khrushchev was perceived by many Americans as being as big a threat to world peace as Hitler had been.)
Grandpa Joe and Grandma Mitzi had two radio sets that I remember. The older of the two, and this one had probably been their first AC set, was an RCA “cathedral” model from the early 1930s, which they kept upstairs in their bedroom. It was identical to the radio shown in the 1933 movie King Kong, and which broadcasts the police call saying that Kong is climbing the Empire State Building. (Years later I learned that it was a RCA Model R-8.) Their other radio was a 1940 PHILCO 40-195XX console set, which they had probably bought in late 1939 or early 1940 so that my grandfather could follow the war news from Europe via shortwave. (Throughout World War II, Grandpa Joe was an “armchair general” who kept a large map of Europe close by the radio, updating it frequently with colored pins to track the war’s progress.) On top of the PHILCO’s wooden cabinet was displayed one of his most prized possessions, a reproduction of the famous statue “End of the Trail.” (As a boy growing up in Vienna, he had seen Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show with its contingent of Native Americans. For the rest of his life, he was fascinated with anything having to do with the American West and American Indians.)
My maternal grandfather had been an avid radio listener since the earliest days of broadcasting. One of my earliest radio memories is of him tuning in ship-to-shore transmissions for me on his Zenith H-500 Trans-Oceanic. He would also tune in Canadian Time Signals given in both English and French, and such international powerhouse shortwave stations as the BBC and Radio Havana. Having a radio that could tune in the world made quite an impression on me!
Grandpa Walter also liked to monitor the police frequencies. One year for Christmas, the family got him a police scanner. During the holidays and on weekends when he didn’t have to get up the next morning to go to work, he would sit up far into the night listening to the Cleveland police frequencies. Later, he would regale us with some of the more interesting and/or humorous police calls he had heard.
A Radio of My Own
As a young and dedicated radio listener, my first great desire was to have my own radio, which I could keep next to my bed. For a while, I had to make do with a small plastic bank fashioned to look like a radio. Then, one year for Christmas, I finally receive my first radio: a little Arvin set with a metal cabinet finished in red. (I’m not sure what model it was, but it closely resembled the Arvin Model 444.) Over the years, that “little red radio” proved to be a good and faithful companion, especially on those days when illness kept me home from school. At such times, listening to it did much to help speed me along on the road to recovery.
School Radio Memories
When I started Kindergarten in the fall of 1951, radio was being used on a regular basis in the Cleveland Public Schools. The Cleveland Board of Education had its own radio station WBOE, which had been on the air since 1938. WBOE had originally broadcast on 41.5 MHz using high-frequency AM (also referred to as Apex.) By the early 1950s, it was broadcasting on 90.3 MHz, the first non-commercial FM radio station in the country. Its studios were located on the top floor of the Board of Education Building, located on East 6th Street in downtown Cleveland. In addition to its own staff of announcers, program hosts, and musicians, WBOE utilized the talents of public school students in many of its programs.
The elementary school that I attended did not have radios in any of its classrooms (although most of those classrooms did have pianos.) Whenever a radio was needed, which was at least two or three times a week, it would be wheeled in on a cart. Both the high school and the junior high school that I attended had PA systems with wall-mounted speakers in each classroom that were connected to a central control room. In addition to morning PA announcements made to the entire school, these PA systems were used to broadcast educational programs from WBOE that had been taped off the air and then patched through to the appropriate classrooms as required. On special occasions, radio news coverage of some important event, like astronaut Alan Shepard’s first flight into space in 1961, would be broadcast live via the PA system to the entire school.
As a participant in the Cleveland Public School’s instrumental music program, I made frequent visits to the WBOE studios for rehearsals and to record material that would later be heard in the classroom. Often, these recording sessions took place during normal school hours, which required that I be given special permission to miss classes in order to be at the studio when needed. (Being able to cut classes like this was always a welcomed occurrence!) WBOE eventually went silent in the late 1970s. The last time that I stopped by the Board of Education Building was in the summer of 1983. During that visit, someone told me that the studios and equipment were still there, although no longer in use. WBOE’s old frequency is now being used by Cleveland’s WCPN FM, which, when it first went on the air, was one of the last full-time NRP affiliates to begin broadcasting in a major market.
Origins of a Radio Hobby
When I was a senior in high school, one of the local Cleveland radio stations began airing reruns of The Green Hornet every Sunday afternoon. This modest revival of old time radio was a refreshing change from the usual fare that was being broadcast back then and, needless to say, I would always tune in to hear these weekly echoes from radio’s golden past. On one fateful Sunday, I had to be away for home when these two programs came on. Rather than miss them, I had my father tape them for me off the air. Being able to listen and re-listen to them as many times as I liked inspired me to start a new hobby: collecting recordings of old radio shows. Today, 47 years later, my collection consists of hundreds of hours of old time radio programs, contained on cassette tapes and CDs, in MP3 files, and on 12- and 16-inch transcription disks. And I am still adding to my collection!
College Radio Memories
In spite of my long-standing interest in all things radio, when it came time for me to decide upon a college major, I chose music performance, figuring that music would eventually provide me access to the field of radio broadcasting, much as it had provided me access to the studios of WBOE.
The university that I attended did not have its own radio station but did offer two radio-related courses through its Speech Department. Although music majors seldom ventured into the Speech Department, I arranged my schedule so that I could take both of these courses. They proved to be the two all-time favorites from my undergraduate years.
In Radio Survey, we learned about of the business end of radio: FCC licensing requirements, program formats, ratings, selling commercial time, etc. The course also covered the history of radio, and this included listening to recordings of famous broadcasts from the past. Back then, recordings of old radio programs were not as readily available as they are today. One of the primary resources our instructor drew upon was the Jack Benny Golden Memories of Radio set put out by the Longines Symphonette. In addition to excerpts from some of the famous adventure and entertainment programs of the past, this set also included numerous examples of radio’s news coverage of important historic events: Edward the VIII’s abdication speech, Herb Morrison’s eye witness description of the Hindenburg disaster, news bulletins about the USS Squalus disaster, Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s announcement that England was at war with Germany, etc. An entire disk was devoted just to radio’s news coverage of World War II. One of these World War II broadcasts really captured my attention and held it: the last radio transmission from the U.S. stronghold on Corregidor Island in the Philippines, sent just minutes before the American troops trapped there surrendered to Japanese forces. Although it had been sent in Morse code, it was read aloud for the benefit of radio listeners. The radioman sending the message, and who was undoubtedly suffering from extreme fatigue and mental stress, described as best he could the chaos that was going on around him. He ended the transmission by giving his mother’s name and address and asking that someone contact her and tell her what had happened to him. For me, that Corregidor broadcast was more powerful than any radio drama I had ever heard. (An interview with the radioman who had sent that message, and who had survived the war as a POW, was included in the set.) In time, collecting recordings of radio’s news coverage of World War II would become my primary OTR area of interest.
The other radio course offered by my university was Radio Production, which provided us with a chance to experience all aspects of producing a live radio show: writing, directing, announcing, doing sound effects, selecting the music & cueing up records, operating a studio control board, etc. At the time, few of us ever thought that old time radio would ever make a comeback, but it was fun to try our hands at putting on a radio show just as it had been done in the “good old days.”
Apollo 13 and MARS
Following graduation, I enlisted in the Navy as a musician and was eventually assigned to a unit band based in San Diego. In additional to the usual military ceremonies and parades, my band participated in the Apollo 12 and Apollo 13 recovery missions. (The next time you watch the Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13, look for the Navy band that appears at the end when the astronauts are being brought on board the recovery ship. Those musicians are impersonating the band that I was in and which was there when the actual recovery took place!) During both Apollo missions, a MARS station was set up on board the recovery vessel so that the sailors and civilian technicians could place personal phone calls to their loved ones back home. Although not an authority on MARS, it is my understanding that the MARS operator onboard the ship would make contact with a volunteer ham operator in the U.S., who would place the phone call and then help patch through the conversation. During the Apollo 13 recovery mission, and while cruising in the vicinity of American Samoa, MARS put through a call for me to my parents. Listening on one of the ship’s telephones, I faintly heard the phone ring at their end. Unfortunately, no one was home and the call was never completed.
Good Morning, Vietnam
In October 1970, my unit band deployed on a combat cruise to Vietnam onboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. During my free time, I volunteered to work in the ship’s entertainment radio station, which operated on a 24-hour basis. The Kitty Hawk’s station simultaneously broadcast three different channels of music, each with a different format: Top 40, Country-Western, and Easy Listening/Classical. (I chose to work in the studio that broadcast the Easy Listening/Classical programs.) Most of what we played on the air was contained on 12-inch LP records provided by the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. There were literally hundreds of these AFRTS transcription disks in the station’s library, and few of the sailors who worked there knew the full extent of the programming these disks contained. Taking the time to sort through them, I was amazed to find a wealth of old time radio programs, some of which had originally aired back in the 1940s. In keeping with AFRTS policy, all of the original commercials and sponsor identifications had been removed. The Fitch Bandwagon became The Bandwagon, The Lux Radio Theater became The Radio Theater, etc. In place of the original commercials, there were Department of Defense service announcements advising military personnel to vote, buy U.S. Savings Bonds, not get involved with drugs, not get into trouble while on leave or liberty in a foreign country, etc. Whenever I was “on the air,” I made it a point to play as much of this old time radio material as I could work in. In addition to the AFRTS transcriptions, I also played The Green Hornet tapes that I had made while still in high school. These proved to be as popular with the ship’s crew as they had been when they originally aired!
My active duty Navy service during the Vietnam conflict later made it possible for me to return to school under the GI Bill and earn an MA in Radio and Television. Although I never did work in commercial radio, I ended up in an occupation that was equally as rewarding: that of a civilian Teleproductions Specialist working for the Department of the Navy, producing and directing training videos for U.S. Navy pilots and aircrew personnel.
Re-living Radio Memories
If you grew up with radio like I did, you already know that it is possible to re-experience many of your favorite radio memories from the past. Surviving in good sound are hundreds of hours of some of the best that radio had to offer during its glory years: comedy, drama, adventure, sports, music & variety, news, etc.
The ideal way to experience a radio program from the past is to hear it on a tube model radio, preferably one that is of the same vintage as the radio show you are listening to. The easiest way to play a recorded radio program through an old tube model radio is to connect the LINE OUT of your audio source to the radio’s phonograph jack. Another easy solution, and the one that I use with most of my vintage radios, is to broadcast recorded radio material via a low-power, limited-range AM transmitter such as the SSTRAN AMT 3000. These little units connect to almost any audio device that has a LINE OUT or earphone jack, and will produce a signal strong enough to be received by most of the radios in your house, while not violating FCC regulations.
Restoring a Radio Memory
Not long ago, I encountered a 1940 PHILCO console set identical to the one my grandparents had. After years of banishment to a garage or basement, its physical appearance suggested that it was already beyond help: the veneer on its once-exquisite wooden cabinet was loose and, in some places, missing large sections; the gold speaker grill cloth was discolored and torn; most of the plastic pushbuttons on the front panel were broken or missing; and the frayed power cord and loose wires dangling from the chassis fairly shrieked FIRE HAZARD! Needless to say, the seller was only too happy for me to take it off his hands and priced it accordingly. While the electronics were undergoing a complete overhaul at the Antique Radio Store in San Diego, I had the cabinet repaired by a local craftsman who operated a small antique furniture repair business out of his garage. He re-glued all the loose sections of veneer and then carefully pieced in sections of new veneer so that they blended in perfectly with the old veneer. Once the cabinetwork was finished, my wife refinished it back to its original appearance. A reproduction speaker grill cloth identical to the original was located on-line from one of the dealers who sell replacement parts for antique radios. I also ordered a reproduction PHILCO decal to replace the one that had originally been centered above the dial. By the time work on the cabinet had been completed, the electronics had been restored and were ready to be reinstalled back into the cabinet. That “already beyond help” set now looks and performs as good as it did in 1940, and its big electro-dynamic speaker sounds better than any of the speakers in my modern-day radios. It is one radio memory that can be enjoyed every time it is powered up!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Eric Beheim is a life-long radio enthusiast. A former commanding officer of a Naval Reserve Combat Camera unit based in San Diego.
Eric Beheim leads a multi-faceted career as a free-lance writer, professional musician, and owner of his own music and sound project studio.
Born in the first wave of "baby boomers" he grew up with radio and remains a life-long radio enthusiast. His particular interests are collecting news and commentary programs from the late 1930s and early 1940s (including World War II news), and programs that feature performances of operettas and musical theater presentations.
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