How Radio Shows Work

Old-time Radio Shows of Today

Garrison Keillor (R), the host of "A Prairie Home Companion," sings with country fiddler Johnny Gimble and guitarist Peter Ostroushko.
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.

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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