Thursday, February 28, 2013

Rethinking the Golden Age

Like many old-time radio fans, I've tended to think of the golden age of radio as a single amorphous era. As I've been researching for this project, an intriguing book by radio historian Jim Cox entitled Say Goodnight Gracie: The Last Years of Network Radio has made me realize how important seeing radio's heyday as a series of eras within the larger era is to understanding the development of old-time radio and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar in particular.

The show's early years intersected with the period where television was truly starting to erode the mass audience for whom radio had been the primary form of entertainment. As the 1950s went on, many long-running radio shows ended, including icons like The Shadow. Some found a second life to television, while others simply vanished. Much of this was driven by the sponsors who once supported the lion's share of radio programming deciding that television was where they wanted to put their resources. And though many classic shows suffered as a result, there was also a curious, and in some ways beneficial, flip-side to that shift.

Though both audience sizes and sponsor support for radio programming were declining, there was still a substantial audience for the networks to serve and - more to the point - airtime that the networks needed to fill and, as much as possible, fill cheaply. Those factors turned out to be a genuine boon for radio drama. Unlike the star-driven music and variety programs which required large (i.e. expensive) casts and orchestras, dramas could be made for a fraction of the cost. Cox cites the average weekly production cost of a variety program as $40,000, whereas a detective series might only cost $4000-$7000. Clearly, the economics favored scripted drama (a marked contrast to today's TV environment but that's another story).

It wasn't just economics that benefited the detective show and other dramatic genres, which is of particular note for Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. By the middle of the decade, the audience that was still loyal to radio drama was also a more discerning audience that desired more substantive story-telling of the kind offered by writer-driven programs like Gunsmoke and X Minus One. This was the environment into which Bob Bailey and Jack Johnstone stepped in 1955 when the program began its year-long run of character-driven long-form narratives. As we know, it turned out to be the perfect one. That the same factors that ultimately doomed radio-drama in America were also a factor in some of its greatest shows is the sort of irony that would have been appreciated the character Bob Bailey played (and Jack Johnstone wrote) so well.