To make a huge simplification, I'd say there have been three eras in American radio: the early days with variety, comedy, drama and news shows, the era with the great DJs, and the current spoken word era, because I tend to get my news from NPR, my baseball from WBAL-AM, my Prairie Home Companion on WYPR-FM, and if I want to hear music, well, my music is on CDs and the iPod. The DJs of today, from what I can tell, are only there to read promos and not tell jokes. The personality that we used to hear on the radio is just not there these days. You who listen to DJs, can you tell me the last time he or she said something funny? outrageous? borderline lewd? I remember a Thanksgiving eve in the late '70s. A DJ named Dude Walker played Peaches and Herb's "Reunited," and came out of it saying, "For extra holiday fun, why not try three united?" I'm still laughing!
One thing I do like to do is listen to the old-time radio shows. Nostalgia for this sort of entertainment has been around for so long that we can now be nostalgic about the first time we got nostalgic about it. But as they like to say, TV puts a picture in front of you and radio is all theater of the mind. All they have is words, and in these old radio shows, the writers, producers and performers - including the invaluable sound-effects person - had only the aural sense to work with. When you watch a TV drama such as "CSI: Sheboygan," when the plot line calls for someone to be stabbed with a letter opener and thrown down an elevator shaft, they just stab a mannequin and toss it down the Otis opening. You see it, and your mind is not all that engaged. On the radio, they would have to tell you what was going on, and act it out. "A picture is worth a thousand words," people like to say, and I say yes, but there are some pictures that I would as soon not see, and sometimes a thousand words, well-written and spoken, are worth more than a cheesy staged picture.
Says me. Anyway, there are lots of places where one can hear the old radio shows. You can check them out here, a place called OTRCAT. There are others who offer old shows for sale, and there are sites which stream the audio - just Google "old radio shows" and you should get like a million suggestions. I like dealing with this OTRcat outfit because they sell high-quality copies of the old shows, and they jam a few evenings' worth of entertainment onto a single CD through the MP3 process, and I only understand the first half of that sentence. I like the old comedy shows such as The Great Gildersleeve, which chronicled the adventures of a bumptious, pompous small-town water commissioner. It was sort of like a wet version of Andy of Mayberry, which, by the way, would have been an excellent radio show. Another good show was The Phil Harris Show. Harris was, maybe, the first rapper. He was a bandleader and "sang" the vocals for the band, but his singing was more like chanting or talking. His radio show made fun of his vanity and his domestic life with his real-life wife Alice Faye.
I like to listen to these old shows and imagine what it was like, the entire family sitting around the living room with the big radio on, Dad with his pipe and newspaper, Mom darning socks, Sis and Junior doing their homework and eating fudge, and Fido curled up in front of the fire. Now doesn't that sound better than today? So did the radio.