How Radio Shows Work

A family listens to the radio.
A family catches the latest serial dramas, comedies, sporting events and news on their home radio.
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W­ho doesn't like to get home from a hard day at school or work, grab a snack, put his or her feet up and check blogs, Facebook, YouTube or surf the net in general? Or how about getting caught up on that season of "Lost" you captured on your DVR? Now, imagine what it was like before all of these options were availa­ble. How did folks relax when they got home? Well, they used to gather around their televisions and watch whatever the nightly programming was. And before that, kids raced home to their homemade crystal radio sets to tune into episodes of "Sky King" and "Little Orphan Annie" while families gathered around their radios to listen to shows like "The Shadow" and "The Cisco Kid."

Prior to World War I, radio programming consisted mainly of amateurs trying out the new medium. They would read articles aloud from the newspaper, give local weather or farm reports, recite literature and play records. Two of the first noted radio broadcasts of this kind came between 1906 and 1907 when Reginald Fessenden spoke and played records from his transmitter in Massachusetts and Lee de Forest broadcasted phonograph records from a naval ship [source: Reinehr and Swartz]. These types of broadcasts were remarkable because they aimed to provide entertainment and information to a mass audience.


Arguably the first massive media, radio became instrumental in providing information and entertainment in homes across the United States after the World War I. Radio programming grew in popularity through the Depression because it was virtually free and tied listeners around the nation into national events, local news, music and entertainment programs without requiring they spend money on going out. What's now considered the age of golden radio -- the 1920s through the end of the 1950s -- spawned a spate of entertainment shows and genres that still resonate in other mediums today.

Have you ever wondered what the age of golden radio was like? In this article, we'll learn about early radio programming, unlock the formats of serial drama and comedy, take a peek at how soap operas began and look at similar radio programming that's still popular today.


Early Radio Programming: Who's on First

The Giants beat the Yankees.
The 1921 World Series between the New York Giants and the New York Yankees was the first to be broadcast over radio. The Giants won the series 5-3.
National Baseball Hall of Fame Library/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Although radios were available in the early 1900s, it wasn't until after World War I that the medium took off. As radios became popular, radio companies built networks and began searching for content to fill the airtime. One of the first groups formed was the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), put together by General Electric, AT&T, Wireless Specialty Apparatus Company and Westinghouse. Individual stations (also known as affiliates, stations owned by individuals or companies other than the networks that aired network programs) like KDKA, WJZ, WEAF in New York and WNAC in Boston joined the air and looked to sports events and politics to fill the first national broadcasts. The presidential returns of 1920 heralded the start of KDKA's broadcasts. On July 2, 1921, RCA broadcasted the heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and George Carpenter while WJZ broadcasted the World Series.

While sports, politics and news were certainly of interest, radio executives wanted more entertaining fare to entice and retain larger audiences. Larger audiences meant the networks could charge the shows' sponsors higher advertising rates. Typically, networks provided free programming but sold ad time to sponsors to run prior to or within the program; this was known as barter syndication. Some groups tried to govern the ad interruptions which led to the sponsor's name showing up in the program's title instead: "The A&P Gypsies" (a musical program named for its sponsor, the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company), "Texaco Star Theater," "The Prudential Family Hour" and the "Palmolive Beauty Box Theater."


In their quest for new programming, some stations tried everything -- reading odd news stories, relaying hours of jokes and even telling bedtime stories. Other stations looked to the theater and symphony for help, while some hailed vaudeville. Out of this melee, specific genres began to form.

Some of the earliest vaudeville acts to join radio were Fred Allen, Jack Benny, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, Wendell Hall and Gertrude Berg. Due to the physical nature of vaudeville acts on stage, many variety shows created for radio relied heavily on music, jokes and skits that incorporated stereotypes or images people could readily conjure up in their minds. The traditional format for these types of radio variety shows was an opening musical number, funny monologue or dialog, more music, one or more comedy skits featuring a guest star, more music and a short closing bit with the guest star before the show's hosts said goodnight [source: Richter].

These variety shows grew in number and popularity. Often, it seemed that audiences were fickle and would listen to shows based on guest appearances alone. Wanting to retain their audiences and advertising dollars, radio networks and stations looked to a new type of show to keep their audiences loyal -- the serial.

In the next section, we'll focus on this genre and see what kept audiences tuning in.


Serial Radio Dramas and Situational Comedies

The serial drama "The Lone Ranger" became a TV show in 1949.
The serial drama "The Lone Ranger" became a TV show in 1949.
Online USA/Getty Images

Serial dramas were set up to attract and keep audiences by weaving the same or similar storylines from episode to episode -- often incorporating a type of cliff-hanger, or suspenseful situation at the end of each episode. Serial dramas came in a variety of forms, including children's action and adventure shows, family mystery shows, Westerns and soap operas. Situational comedies were also set up to draw the audiences in and keep them listening week after week.

While the genres differed in their delivery, both serial dramas and situational comedies had one thing in common: the idea of the centralized character. In the case of the action or adventure shows, it was usually a hero or someone the audience could look up to -- an avenger of evil like the Shadow, Lone Ranger or Cisco Kid. With soap operas and situational comedies, the central characters were designed to be regular folks that the audience could relate to -- imagined friends, neighbors or relatives.


Typically 15 minutes in length, serial dramas and situational comedies usually stuck to a prescribed formula. For the drama, the formula included a central character or hero who quested for justice, avenged evil and righted wrongs (often with the help of a sidekick). Each episode had an adventure or mystery to be solved, the end of which was usually followed by a catchy phrase or tagline. A prime example of this can be seen in "The Lone Ranger," where just as the Lone Ranger rode away on his horse, a bystander would say, "Who was that masked man?" to which another would reply "I don't know, but he left behind this silver bullet" [source: Richter].

The formula for the situational radio comedy typically revolved around a family or pair of friends with the central character experiencing some kind of embarrassing situation, misunderstanding or mistake in judgment [source: Reinehr & Swartz].

A quartet sings during a commercial to advertise "Amos 'n' Andy."
A quartet sings during a commercial to advertise "Amos 'n' Andy."
Martha Holmes/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

­At a time when immigrants were flocking to the United States, the most popular situational comedies were ethnic in nature, some to the point of stereotyping. Considered by radio and television scholars to be the most popular radio show of the time, "Amos 'n' Andy" was one of the longest-running programs on radio, starting in 1926 as "Sam 'n' Henry," it ran nightly and then in syndication up through 1960. The show revolved around two black men who owned a one-car taxi company. Written and acted by two white vaudeville veterans (Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll), many people took exception to the depiction, feeling that the characters were gross stereotypes. When the show moved to television, black actors were hired to play the roles of Amos and Andy. After running on television for a brief period, it was pulled from air because of controversy.

"The Goldbergs" was written and acted by Gertrude Berg and based on her former vaudeville show that premiered in 1925. The show was set in the home of Jewish immigrants, Molly and Jake Goldberg. As Molly resolved friend or family-related dilemmas, she would consult or interact with characters from around the neighborhood -- dispensing advice, recipes and ample helpings of homespun Yiddish humor. This show went on to become the first television sitcom and spawned a number of other ethnic sitcoms during the premiere years of TV.

In the next section, we'll take a peek at another serial radio show created by and primarily for women: the soap opera.


The Radio Soap Opera

A scene from "Woman in White."
Actors perform a scene from the Irna Phillips' radio soap opera "Woman in White."
Gordon Coster/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

­Like radio dramas, the radio soap opera was set up to draw in audiences and keep them listening. They also ran for approximately 15 minutes and focused on a cast of central, recurring characters. Unlike serial dramas, however, they didn't resolve storylines in each episode but drew them out through several episodes while introducing other plots and subplots along the way. Radio soap operas were also the first type of radio show to target women.

After working as a voice-over artist and actress, Irna Phillips was approached by executives at WGN to write a 15-minute daily show about a family geared toward a female audience. She crafted a story centered on an Irish-American widow and her unmarried daughter. "Painted Dreams," arguably the first radio soap opera, premiered in October 1930. The term "soap opera" was later coined by the press with "soap" referring to the show's primary sponsors -- usually laundry detergent or facial soap.


In addition to being the creator of the soap opera, Phillips has been credited with many other successful radio and, later, television devices. She was the first to incorporate a suspenseful situation at the end of each episode (later termed a cliff-hanger). She also used music as a transition from one scene to the next and she developed a deliberately slow pace to the show. This way, women could listen while doing their household work without having to pay too close attention or miss something crucial. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications, Phillips went on to create nine other radio soap operas. Her program "The Guiding Light" went on to run for a combined 70 years on radio and television.

Soap operas quickly became popular and supplanted most other daytime programming. By 1941, nine out of every 10 network-sponsored daytime radio programs aired were soap operas [source: Reinehr & Swartz]. A good portion of these can be credited to Anne Hummert. Like Phillips, Hummert was an early pioneer in soap operas, creating "The Stolen Husband' in 1931 [source: Reinehr & Swartz]. Also like Phillips, Hummert established a number of devices that are now common plot twists in television today: amnesia, blackmail, exotic diseases, Friday episode cliff-hangers, long-lost loves and murder trials.

So were the Buggles correct? Did video really kill the radio star? Read on and find out.


Old-time Radio Shows of Today

"A Prairie Home Companion"
Garrison Keillor (R), the host of "A Prairie Home Companion," sings with country fiddler Johnny Gimble and guitarist Peter Ostroushko.
Kevin Horan/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

While radio lost many shows to television in the 1950s, and a number of shows disappeared from the airwaves altogether, radio did not, in fact, die. Instead, it underwent a kind of metamorphosis. The 1950s' American adolescent's fascination with cars as well as the rise of suburbs and the invention of the portable radio each helped keep radio a viable medium for information and entertainment. DJs and music shows became popular with teens cruising in their automobiles. Folks making the commute from the suburbs t­o the city relied on their radios for company. Portable radio made it easy to tune in at the beach or on the street.

A number of other radio shows have aired in the decades following the golden age of radio. Some have survived, while others haven't:


  • "The CBS Radio Mystery Theater" aired from 1974 to 1982 and incorporated the format of the old radio mystery shows.
  • "Earplay" (which later became known as "NPR Playhouse") ran from 1972 to roughly 2002. Its most famous run was George Lucas' "Star Wars" radio dramas, which aired in 1981.
  • "This American Life," created in 1995, describes itself as having "a theme to each episode, and a variety of stories on that theme" [source: This American Life]. It still airs on the radio today and runs a version on television.
  • "This I Believe," based on the Edward R. Murrow radio show from the 1950s, was brought back in 2005 by NPR. The show also posts current stories and essays on its Web site, as well as offing podcasts.

Other groups have embraced the art of radio theater, forming their own modern versions of the old-time radio shows. They provide programming live in theaters, through podcasts, as well as through XM and satellite radio broadcasting and recordings:

  • The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company has been performing and broadcasting dramatic theater in the tradition of old-time radio since 1984 [The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company].
  • Dry Smoke and Whisperers Holodio Theatre has been producing mystery and science fiction episodic programming for over 23 years [Dry Smoke and Whisperers Holodio Theatre].
  • The Texas Radio Theater Company formed in 2001 and performs and broadcasts dramatic theater shows in the tradition of old-time radio variety programs [The Texas Radio Theater Company].
  • The Willamette Radio Workshop out of Portland, Ore., has been producing original radio programming as well as recreating old-time radio shows [The Willamette Radio Workshop].

Arguably one of the most popular radio shows still in existence is Minnesota Public Radio's "A Prairie Home Companion." Harkening back to the format, tone and style of the early radio variety and comedy shows, "A Prairie Home Companion" lets audiences of today hear what it must have been like listening to radio show programming back in the golden age of radio. The show's host, Garrison Keillor, was very deliberate with this, basing his show on early radio variety programs right down to the format, use of sound effects, live music and comedic sketches. Unlike the original radio variety shows, Keillor doesn't have a cadre of mandatory sponsors and instead makes up a number of fictitious sponsors to amusing effect. The show originally aired back in 1974 and ran for 13 years. After taking a hiatus for five or so years, Keillor resurrected the show in 1993. If you want to join the millions of fans of this old-time radio styled show, check for your local listings. Grab a snack, put your feet up, close your eyes, sit back and just listen.

To learn more about radio and other forms of entertainment, tune in to the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links

  • Cox, Jim. "The great radio sitcoms" Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland. 2007
  • Cox, Jim. "Say Goodnight, Gracie: The Last Years of Network Radio" McFarland: London. 2002
  • Harmon, Jim. "The great radio heroes." Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland. 2001
  • Reinehr, Robert C. & Jon D. Swartz. "Historical Dictionary of Old Time Radio.' Scarecrow Press, Maryland. 2008
  • Richter, William A. "Radio: A Complete Guide to the Industry" Peter Lang Publishing, New York. 2006
  • Taylor, Glenhall. "Before television: the radio years" South Brunswick [N.J.]: Barnes. 1979
  • Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum.
  • The Mercury Theater On The Air
  • The Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC)
  • The Paley Center of Media
  • A Prairie Home Companion
  • Paley Center, She Made It program.
  • This American Life.
  • This I Believe