Looking Back: The Old-Time Radio Hobby from 1959 to 1971, Pt. 1

This article originally appeared in The Old Radio Times, March 2007.

In a previous article I discussed my opinions on the future of this hobby and declared that we are now in the tail end of the hobby’s Golden Age. Having spent further time wading through hobby fanzines from the early 70s I want to put that initial assessment on hold and spend some time writing about our great hobby’s history. At a later point maybe I’ll feel more comfortable declaring a specific time period as our Golden Age. 

This month I want to look at our formative years, from 1959 to 1971. I must admit that in reading the old fanzines the Radio Researchers has acquired has drastically changed my perception of the hobby. These publications have given me a real appreciation for two aspects of this great hobby: 1) just how far back old-time radio collecting and trading goes, and 2) just how long some individuals have been active in old-time radio. 

My interest in pursuing this topic in more detail was sparked by reading an article by Joe Webb (a very active Researcher, I might add, and one who has donated a considerable number of scarce fanzines) in the second issue (December, 1976) of Airwaves. There he initiates a series of articles tracing “Our Hobby’s Roots.” This floored me. Up until I read this piece, I’d always viewed the early to mid-‘70s as the developing years of old-time radio collecting. Wrong! 

In January 1977 the series of articles continues and mentions (too briefly) radio listeners cutting their own discs on home recorders and radio employees copying shows aired on their stations. According to this article, many of our existing shows from the ‘30s and early ‘40s survive because of the pioneering home recorders. One of these pioneers was George Schatz who recalled making poor-quality off-the-air recordings of some Ronald Coleman programs in the late 1930s (NARA News, Winter 1982-83). 

These occurrences were rare, however, and the writer points to the late 1940s as the real beginning of OTR collecting with the advent of the wire recorder. Apparently at least a few individuals were collecting transcription discs. By 1944 Schatz, mentioned above, had sixteen Everything for the Boys transcriptions. Because he was specifically saving them to preserve Coleman’s work, I would consider him a very early old-time radio hobbyist. 

Soon after, in the 1950s, tape recorders were widespread enough that fans could tape their favorite shows off the air. One contributor to Epilogue (Sept-Oct-Nov, 1970, the premier issue) mentions recording shows as early as 1953 so that he could listen to them at a more convenient time. He then erased them (much to his later dismay) to tape other programs! 

While it’s impossible to reasonably estimate how many people actively recorded shows during the 1950s, I feel the last half of the decade must be considered the beginning point for the OTR collecting hobby. The May 1973 Hello Again mentions that Bill Weiss started collecting (not just recording for later listening) in 1959, recording many shows off the air. Perhaps you have some of his recordings in your library. Similarly, Mr. Jennings (writing in the Sept-Oct-Nov 1970, Epilogue) notes that he (along with a friend, Jim Moulder) began actively collecting in 1959, taping shows off the air. Besides Mr. Schatz, mentioned earlier, my limited research of early OTR literature has found these to be the first conclusive and specific dates for individuals purposefully taping and saving radio drama. How widespread sharing or trading shows was at this point is unclear. 

Therefore, I have tentatively designated 1959 as the beginning of our hobby. I believe the true date is earlier, probably early to mid 50s; further research could lead to an earlier year. In any case, it is clear that the practice of saving radio drama for future enjoyment (and possibly to trade) overlaps with the last years of radio’s Golden Age. The autumn 1970 Radio Dial relates that the Radio Historical Society was founded in 1959. The group’s focus during its initial years is unclear but by 1970 it was, for all intents and purposes, an OTR club. Was the RHS an organized effort to save and share these classic programs at such an early year? Let me know if you have more information on that group’s origins. 

The hobby slowly picked up steam as the 1960’s progressed. Old-time radio began to be rerun on stations across the nation, keeping the memory of at least the more popular series alive. Much of this was due to the efforts of Charles Michealson, whose work is worth its own article. By the ’60’s it was clearly recognized that the heyday of radio drama was over; the reruns capitalized on the nostalgia of young adults who still had passing memories of listening to at least a few of these shows in their childhood. The reruns certainly allowed for many older programs to be recorded off the air long after their original broadcast. Many fans realized these classic shows likely would be gone completely in a short time and avidly taped all they could.

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