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On OTR

Hast thou considered OTR, a perfect and upright audio, one that feareth sponsors and escheweth cussing?

OTR stands for Old Time Radio, and refers to radio entertainment and news as broadcast from 1921, when the first radio station went on the air until about 1962. After that time, American radio acquired much of its present character of prerecorded music, news and talk-talk-talk. What little creative production remained took on new sounds. On the commercial airwaves, it shrunk into snippets while in the new public radio bands, it grew longer and, thanks to emerging technologies and recording tape, more complex. Nowadays, even public AM and FM consists mostly of prerecorded music, news and talk-talk-talk.

Vintage radio became OTR when producers stopped making it and stations started recycling it. For, in the Vietnam era, somebody noticed that the copyrights had expired on the overwhelming majority of the old shows. They were ripe for the picking. Short-time military DJs re-entered civilian life with pirated disks that networks had provided to the Armed Forces Radio and TV Service, which one could now play more or less legally. Transcription disks, air checks and tapes that networks had circulated to affiliates still existed and began making their way to stations again.

I recall a 1978 visit to a broadcast school in Jonkoping, Sweden, where I met one avid collector of American OTR. He tried picking my brains about some of the more obscure recordings he had purchased out of the mimeographed catalogues that then circulated internationally.

"What means Friar's Toast?" he asked. I thought it must be something monks ate, I replied. "No," he said, "I have Friar's Toast of Bogart." He played the LP. I recognized it immediately. It was a Friar's Club Toast of Humphrey Bogart recorded during a banquet a year or so before the actor's death. Borscht Belt comics spent more than an hour telling raunchy jokes at his expense. The disk had never been broadcast, but had only circulated privately among Friars Club members and invited guests - - which, to my surprise included a relative of mine.

So, today, every major market in the country has at least one OTR program available. The Internet is loaded with this stuff. Collectors are avid. Re-issues on cassette and CD account for a significant percentage of audiobook sales. Audiobook listeners who take no cognizance of the current ersatz renaissance of audio drama and comedy seek out classic episodes of Jack Benny and The Shadow.

The late California Congressman Sonny Bono may have put a crimp in this activity. The former so-called musician spear-headed a movement to bolster protections for intellectual property, which, though meant primarily to benefit pop music composers, effectively placed a lot of OTR back into copyright. Only time will tell if the hitherto cheap circulation of legally stolen OTR will suffer.

What makes OTR so special?

Well, one can't discount the nostalgia factor. Geezers such as myself carry numerous profound associations with the programs we heard when they were new. Not long ago, some friends and I were talking about our childhood role models. One said hers was Clara Barton, another Grace Slick, another a kindly old shop keeper. "Mine," I boasted, "was Froggy the Gremlin from the Smilin' Ed's Gang radio show. And I bet I've come closer to emulating my
role model more than any of you have yours."

"That's true enough," my main squeeze vouched ruefully.

"What's Smilin' Ed's Gang?" a Gen Xer asked.

"What's a Gremlin?" wondered a Baby Boomer.

"What's radio?" opined the youngest.

Nostalgia doesn't explain it all, however, as I learned late last year at the annual do of SPERDVAC - - the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Radio Drama, Variety and Comedy. The legendary Norman Corwin had asked me to act in a post-prandial performance of one of his vintage radio plays.

At our table during dinner sat a collector and OTR program host from a mid-sized market. "What I like about this stuff," he was saying, "is that it 's good CLEAN fun. None of the smut and bad language you get in the movies today or on the tube."

"What about contemporary radio drama, like mine for instance?" I asked always hoping to recruit a fan.

"Are there four letter words in it?"

"Well, there are four SYLLABLE words in it," I replied.

"Then it ain't for me!" And he banged his fist on the table.

"You do have a point," offered one of the veteran radio actors, "I mean besides the one on your head. There's a kind of direct simplicity to the Golden Age radio shows. Just enough sound and music to get the action across and all other values contributed by the actors -- Everything important right in the foreground, focused and dynamic. Even when the material was no better than the conventional TV pabulum, it just came off better. In the early television era when there wasn't a lot of production money, things had to be simple too. But they just looked cheap, like the B movies of the same era. Radio of the same period never sounded cheap."

"Perhaps," I posited, "that's why OTR interests audiobook fans. The single narrator in a typical audio book shares the qualities of simplicity and directness."

"Maybe so," said the D.J. "But at least the radio shows are clean."

"I know," said the actor. "But I like them anyway."


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1986 - 2001 AudioFile magazine. Used by permission.