A few months ago, I shared with my blog readers my discovery that Old Time Radio was offering full runs of classic radio programs on mp3 discs at remarkably low costs. Ever since making that discovery, I've been filling my ipod with vintage radio broadcasts, rediscovering series I had remembered fondly from the past but also making fresh discoveries of series which I had never even heard of before. By far, the best new discovery to date is the CBS Radio Workshop (1956-1957). I knew I had found something interesting when the very first episode featured a two part dramatization of Brave New World, narrated by Aldous Huxley with a score by Bernard Herrman. Every subsequent episode offered something different, many of them exploring new directions for radio as a medium. One week, the series might offer a debate about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, another week it might debut the performance of a new opera, and still another week it might offer a documentary about a successful real estate tycoon, one which has the raw edged feel we will associate with Robert Drew and Ricky Leacock's cinema verite documentaries. There are outstanding dramatizations of both classic and then-contemporary fiction, including performances of The Little Prince, Roughing It, The Green Hills of Earth,The Space Merchants. , and Spoon River Anthology. But there are also original radio dramas which rank alongside those of Arch Obler or Norman Corwin.
Many of the episodes seem designed to be taught alongside some of the classic social historical accounts of the 1950s, capturing many of the key transformations the culture was undergoing at the time -- the move towards the suburbs ("The Ex-Urbanites"), debates about permissive child-rearing ("Only Johnny Knows"), the plight of the homeless ("Subways Are For Sleeping"), the deployment of polling data in decision making ("Figger Fallup's Billion Dollar Failure") Madison Avenue ("The Big Event,"), and the Cold War ("A Pride of Carrots"). One amusing episode featuring Vincent Price, "Speaking of Cinderella," suggests the impact of On the Waterfront on American consciousness, exploring what method actors might do with a childhood favorite. The series invited Helen Hayes to introduce us to some of the "Lovers, Villains and Fools" from Shakespeare's plays, Stan Freberg to offer a guide to the value of satire, Sophie Tucker to trace her career on vaudeville, William Conrad to read "The Highway Man" or to offer a guide to the "No Plays of Japan," and Edward R. Murrow and Sen. John F. Kennedy to read "Mediations on Ecclesiasties." One of my favorite episodes, "The Enormous Radio," based on a John Cheever short story, depicts what happens to an average couple when the radio suddenly starts broadcasting sounds from neighboring apartments, forcing them to confront the harsh realities of everyday life. "Report from the We-uns" is an especially amusing representation of 1950s era popular culture as interpreted by anthropologists from the distant future. The series was surprisingly progressive in its politics, including a recurring emphasis on minority-centered stories, at a time when America was confronting some of the first dramatic stirrings of the Civil Rights movement -- See, for example, "The Legend of Jimmy Blue Eyes" or "The Legend of Annie Christmas"
If many of the episodes are fictional, there is also an ongoing interest in different modes of nonfictional programing. One astonishing episode ("I Was the Duke") offers the confessions of a young delinquent, including frank and uncensored language which it is impossible to imagine making it past contemporary standards and practices. A series of audio portraits of New York, London and Paris, simply take recorders out on the streets to capture what urban life sounds like, heightening our awareness of the audioscapes which could be constructed on radio. Others, such as "Cops and Robbers," might contribute to the pre-history of reality television: real cops are asked to apply their normal procedures to investigate a fictional crime. "A Writer at Work" represents a kind of auto-ethnography as Hector Chevieny takes us through his thinking process in composing a script for radio.
Despite the range of things the series was trying to do, the quality is consistently high. I have only been bored a few times so far, having listened to roughly forty episodes to date. The series included scores by composers like Herrman, Alex North, and Jerry Goldsmith, and if that's not enough, voices actors included William Conrad (Ironsides), Maison Adams (Lou Grant), Hans Conried (5000 Fingers of Dr. T) and Daws Butler (Huckleberry Hound).
I've provided links above to some of the highlights from the series, which you can find online, but for only $5 you can buy the complete series (83 episodes in all) on mp3 from Old Time Radio.