Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Old Time Radio helps melt your commute away. The perfect soundtrack for your car's radio

“Her sweater was cut in the shape of a ‘V’. And she liked capital letters.”

“His brain was just big enough to drop through the hole of a Life Saver.”

“When she walked in it would give you a warm feeling. Like a melted cheese sandwich.”

Where can you get a steady diet of brilliant gems like these? In the hard-boiled world of Old Time Radio (OTR), of course.

I didn’t grow up in the 1940s, but I was given my grandparent’s 1947 Philco Model 48-1256 when I was a kid. Back then, there was an AM station in Kansas City that would still play OTR shows on occasion, and there was something about hearing those broadcasts coming out of that radio that really appealed to me.

Eventually, they went off the air, and the ease of flipping the switch on my boom box overtook my desire to wait for the tubes to warm up in the old Philco, so I sort of forgot about how much I liked those OTR shows.

Then a few years ago, I had XM Radio installed in an old Cadillac I was driving. As luck would have it, there was a station dedicated strictly to OTR programming. I was able to hear a few of the shows that the KC station used to play, but I also learned that there was a much bigger world of OTR out there.

I tend to gravitate more toward the detective and action genre, because I love the clever writing and terse bending of the English language. It just seems too perfect to me that people not only had the ability to write that way, but they made their living doing it. What a dream job that had to be.

The comedy stuff isn’t bad either, but I think some of the jokes have lost their relevance after 60+ years. Still, those old comedy variety shows focused on the hot topics of the day the same way The Tonight Show or Saturday Night Live does now, and it is interesting to hear what was important to people back then, how much has changed, and how much is still the same.

Today, I have a Sirius Radio receiver in my Impala, and the Radio Classics channel is one of my most-used presets. Each show generally lasts about a half-hour, which is perfect for my 45-minute commute. At least for me, these shows are engaging enough that I can focus some of my attention away from how much I hate being in traffic, but not so involved that I lose track of what I’m doing.

Listening through satellite radio is probably one of the more expensive ways to hear OTR, because you have to buy and install a receiver (many newer cars are available with Sirius or XM from the factory), and there is a subscription fee each month. On the other hand, there are a bunch of choices for entertainment, talk, and music, so for some people, the variety is worth it. Here are some links to get you started:

It also might be worth noting that since Sirius and XM merged, both systems play the exact same Radio Classics channel with Greg Bell as the host.

If you aren’t quite ready to commit to a full-fledged satellite radio subscription, you might try buying some OTR CD’s. I’ve seen them at bookstores, on eBay, and on various sites around the Internet. One of the best publicized sources is Radio Spirits, which can be found here:

Now, I’ve never bought anything from that site, so I can’t attest to their customer service, but they do have a respectable library of titles. If I didn’t have my Sirius receiver, I’d probably give them a try.

Finally, since you’re on the computer anyway, here’s a source you can go to where you can listen to a few shows for free while you’re working. Frankly, I just found this site during a Google search one day, but they have a huge selection of shows you can download and listen to on your computer.

Hey, the price is right! If you haven’t tuned in before, may I suggest The Adventures of Phillip Marlowe (Gerald Mohr has a great tough-guy detective voice), Richard Diamond, Private Detective (Dick Powell was a big movie star back in the day, and his smooth, lighthearted delivery is the perfect contrast to the messy situations he finds himself in), or Pat Novak For Hire (Jack Webb piles on the puns in this gritty detective drama that preceded Dragnet). The best Western has to be Gunsmoke (the unmistakable voice of William Conrad fits right in with some of the best written material ever), but The Six Shooter is also a solid choice with big screen legend Jimmy Stewart in the title role.

I know this might sound like something that would only appeal to your grandparents, but OTR really does have an appeal that stands the test of time. Fantastic writing, great acting, and legendary performers make OTR a great way to melt the commute away.

And, to add a little visual entertainment to this post, the slideshow below has a bunch of pictures of car radios from the HMC archives. I can hear the tubes heating up just looking at them. They're kind of fun to look through while you're listening to something from the "otr" link above.

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