This article originally appeared in The Old Radio Times, March 2007.
The March 1977 issue of Airwaves states that tape collectors began networking in the ‘60s, seeking out others who may have saved some of the recently departed radio programs. The autumn 1970 Epilogue identifies that by 1965 members had created a small but active trading circle, including Ed Corcoran, Lawrence Sharpe, Hugh Carlson, and Roy Brink. Do these names sound familiar to any old-timers?
Interest in old-time radio was wide-spread enough that Jim Harmon began publishing his Great Radio Heroes fanzine in the mid-60s. I have yet to see any of these old publications. Harmon’s classic book The Great Radio Heroes was published in 1967. A year later Mary Jane Higby’s reminisces of radio acting hit the book market in Tune in Tomorrow. Both of these early contributions to OTR literature are readily and inexpensively available.
The May 1971 issue of Stay Tuned reports that a survey reported its readers had been collecting for an average of 4.7 years (the number of respondents was not mentioned), marking 1966/7 as an average starting point. Obviously, a number of the respondents had been active longer than 4.7 years, pushing their collecting back to the early and mid-60’s. The March 1977 Airwaves goes on to estimate that by 1969 there may have been 100 active OTR collectors. I think that number must be considerably higher.
Radio Dial’s autumn, 1970, issue states that the Radio Historical Society had 600 members in 1970 and was growing at such a rate that they hoped membership would hit 1,000 the following year. Epilogue number 3 (Summer 1971?) mentions Memphis State’s Dr. Marvin Bensman mailing 300 OTR fans seeking input about a proposed radio archive. The mailings must have gone out in late 1970 or early 1971. The May 1971 issue of Stay Tuned says the magazine cut its printing run from 600 to 300 when they started charging. Back issues at the time were gone, so at least 600 fans had shown interest while it was free. The hobby may have numbered closer to 1,000 in the very early 1970s, assuming there were a few hundred fans who did not subscribe to any fanzines or join the Radio Historical Society.
Therefore, it seems reasonable to conclude the hobby had closer to 1,000 participants by the turn of the decade, rather than the 100 estimated in Airwaves. This was stunning for me. By 1970, a point at which I previously thought the OTR hobby was just beginning to come into existence, the collecting and sharing of old radio drama programs was actually a well-developed hobby over a decade old with at least one publication dating to the mid- 60s and a handful of others just then getting off the ground (Hello Again, Radio Dial, and Epilogue). There were also by then the earliest books of the old-time radio genre.
The hobby started strong in the 1970s. All three of the above fanzines started (as best I can tell) in 1970. By now a healthy number of shows were in circulation, allowing fans to pursue their own interests without running out of material. Jim Beshears is just now making his way through some vintage trading catalogs, getting a feel for shows that were making the rounds. He is finding many that don’t seem to be in circulation today.
The February 1972 Stay Tuned notes that David Goldin had 10,000 shows in his collection at that point, though he’s quoted as saying much of his material was not yet cataloged. The June 1973 Hello Again reports Chuck Schaden’s collection at 12,000 programs. In both cases, many shows of these two collectors may not have been in wide circulation. However, personal trading ads of the time identify many individuals with hundreds and even a couple thousand of hours of shows.
To top off the arrival of OTR has a solid hobby, December 4, 1971, witnessed the First East Coast Convention of Golden Radio Buffs (now known as the FOTR in Newark). Last but not least, the hobby finally had a name: old-time radio. The first use of the specific term in its entirety is the autumn 1970 issue of Epilogue.
At this point I want to wrap up my first piece on the history of our great hobby. The 1970s was an explosive decade for the hobby, far beyond what I can cover now. There was tremendous growth in the size of the conventions, the quality of publications, the number of OTR books, and number of newly released shows. It was definitely an exciting time to be and old time radio fan.
By 1971, the hobby had fanzines, a convention, and a large number of shows circulating. I’m going to step out on a limb and suggest that the modern hobby as it exists today is not fundamentally different than it was 33 years ago.