Kendra Steiner Editions

February 2, 2019

Commercial Radio Dramas of the 1970’s

Filed under: Uncategorized — kendrasteinereditions @ 6:31 pm

1962 is generally considered the final year of radio drama’s original run, one lasting over 30 years, with the passing of YOURS TRULY, JOHNNY DOLLAR on CBS, the network that held on to radio drama as a viable enterprise for the longest period. The 15-minute daily music-and-chat show with Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney on CBS also finished its run in 1962. You can find hundreds of examples of each of these fine shows at Archive.org

Commercial radio then became pretty much segregated into various formats that dominated the particular station’s schedule: music (in various styles), news and/or talk, religion, with some region-specific specialization within those boundaries.

However, in the 1970’s, there were FOUR significant attempts to bring back commercial network radio drama in a form updated for the times….all of them succeeded at least in terms of producing a quality product, and they are deserving of a survey and tribute, though none lasted beyond the early 1980’s.

THE CBS RADIO MYSTERY THEATER

In the early 1970’s, some people who had worked in radio drama and felt it could still attract an audience convinced CBS to green-light a five-day-a-week, hour-long program of new radio mysteries called THE CBS RADIO MYSTERY THEATER. The show was New York-based and benefitted from having fine casts of New York stage actors involved….people like Fred Gwynne and Tony Roberts come to mind as having acted in multiple shows. The early days of the show were hosted by E. G. Marshall, and the final period was hosted by Tammy Grimes. 1399 shows were produced between 1974 and 1982. The show tended to be aired in the period just before midnight in most markets. It aired in Denver on KOA Radio 850-AM, and I used to listen to it many nights before going to sleep. The quality of the shows varies somewhat (usually in the writing, NOT in the acting), but coming up with a daily show for so many years with ALL NEW stories each day and no recurring characters (as in a daily soap opera) must have been an incredible chore. Most all of these shows are available free online for your enjoyment, and I’ve included a link below for that.

https://www.cbsrmt.com/

 

ZERO HOUR (also known as Hollywood Radio Theater) appeared on the Mutual Radio Network, once a respected competitor to NBC, CBS, etc., but Mutual had put its eggs in the news basket a decade or two prior to this and emphasized service to smaller market stations, especially in the Midwest and West. ZERO HOUR had a somewhat different format, telling one story nightly for a week in a five-installment unit. It was hosted by Rod Serling, of NIGHT GALLERY and TWILIGHT ZONE fame, and featured theme music by Ferrante & Teicher (!!!). It ran in 1973 and 1974. I heard only a few of these at the time, when I was visiting cities where it aired. I don’t remember hearing it in the Denver market, though perhaps it did and flew under my radar. Episodes were available on cassette back in the 1990’s, and many merchants are selling CDR’s containing MP3’s of the shows, though they are not widely available online the way the CBS series is. A little searching should find you SOME of the shows online for free. I’ve included a link to a history of and episode guide for the series.

http://www.digitaldeliftp.com/DigitalDeliToo/dd2jb-Zero-Hour.html

 

THE GENERAL MILLS RADIO ADVENTURE THEATER ran for just under a year in 1977 and early 1978. It ran on CBS, was aimed at an adolescent audience, and I remember it being supported by ads in comic books of the day. The host was Tom Bosley, then well-known for his role as the father on HAPPY DAYS (the more adventurous had perhaps seen his Italian western comedy with Guy Madison, THE BANG-BANG KID, on TV at 3 a.m. some night on a UHF station). It aired twice a week on weekends, and I don’t remember hearing any of these when they were originally on. Quoting from Wikipedia, “General Mills’s advertising agency was looking for a means of reaching children that would be less expensive than television advertising. Brown and CBS were willing to experiment with a series aimed at younger listeners, reaching that audience through ads in comic books. Apart from Christian or other religious broadcasting, this may have been the only nationwide attempt in the U.S. in the 1970s to air such a series. General Mills did not continue as sponsor after the 52 episodes had first aired over the first 26 weekends (February 1977 through July 1977), and the series (52 shows) was then repeated over the next 26 weekends (August 1977 through the end of January 1978), as The CBS Radio Adventure Theater, with a variety of sponsors for the commercials.” These ARE available online for your listening pleasure, and I’ve included a link below for that.

https://archive.org/details/TheGeneralMillsRadioAdventureTheater77042424JourneyToTheCenterOfTheEarth

 

THE SEARS RADIO THEATER  initially ran on CBS and then moved to Mutual, beginning in 1979 and ending with reruns through 1981. It was somewhat ambitious with a five-night-a-week schedule, each evening devoted to a different genre with a different host: Lorne Greene, Cicely Tyson, Andy Griffith, and Vincent Price….with the Friday night slot first filled by Richard Widmark, then by Howard Duff, then by Leonard Nimoy. 103 original shows were produced, and with reruns, a total of 210 programs were aired, though local stations would sometimes play a program more than once. Many of these programs are available free online, and I’ve included a link to those below.

https://archive.org/details/OTRR_Sears_Radio_Theater_Singles

National Public Radio had a series during this period called EARPLAY, though that was aimed at a highbrow audience and included works by playwrights such as Edward Albee, and didactic religious dramas were created and aired in a variety of styles and formats, particularly the UNSHACKLED series, which began in 1950 and is still being aired today! There were locally produced religious dramas too… I can remember hearing a series of religious dramas on a small AM radio station which were aimed at prison inmates! However, this article is devoted to commercial radio drama. You’ve got links to over 1500 radio shows here, most of which are very good, and all of which are at least worthwhile. Radio drama provides a theater of the mind which is rich and of great value. It lacks the mind-numbing quality of television. Thanks to those who valiantly tried to bring back radio drama in the 1970’s. The work they created was very good, and it was very well received in its day by those who had a chance to hear it. I remember (in Denver, at least) the CBS Radio Mystery Theater being pre-empted (or played much later at night) a number of times by sports programming, and it took a certain dedication to seek it out. Thankfully, I was able to until 1979, when I left Colorado and moved to Oklahoma, where I never heard it again….

My job requires me to take a lot of work home each night, a least 2-3 hours on many evenings, and I enjoy listening to radio drama while I’m doing that time-consuming work. This huge body of little-known radio drama is out there for YOU to enjoy too. Try it….you may get hooked.

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