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Popular Radio Shows from the 20th Century
Three of the most legendary radio programs of the past century

Prior to and shortly after the advent of the television, the radio was America’s preferred form of entertainment, offering a breadth of programs that endure even today as the stuff of legend. Without these popular radio programs and broadcasts from the past, there would likely not be such a thing as podcasts to offer us hours of entertainment in the present.

“The Mercury Theatre on the Air”

Though its run was not particularly long, “The Mercury Theatre on the Air” (later known as “The Campbell Playhouse”) made an indelible impression on the American radio-listening public. Three years prior to the release of “Citizen Kane,” widely regarded as the greatest film ever made, Orson Welles hosted a popular weekly drama on CBS Radio. Episodes included adaptations of works like “Dracula,” “Jane Eyre” and “A Tale of Two Cities.”

It was on Oct. 30, 1938 that Welles and “The Mercury Theatre on the Air” entered the annals of American history with their broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” According to History.com, the fact that much of the listening audience tuned in 12 minutes into the broadcast caused many to believe that the story of an alien invasion was not fiction, but rather fact unfolding in real-time. This created a very real nationwide panic that led to a Federal Communications Commission investigation and ultimately helped propel Welles to stardom. The broadcast of “War of the Worlds” was one of the first recordings entered into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2003.

“Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club”

With a sustained run of more than 35 years on the air across different stations — and, for a time, crossing over into the world of television — Don McNeill stands today as the longest-tenured entertainment program host in media history. From June 23, 1933, to Dec. 7, 1968, “Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club” offered millions of listeners what The New York Times calls “a generous helping of corny humor with spontaneous interviews, songs, celebrity guests … and the March Around the Breakfast Table.”

The show’s format divided it into four 15-minute segments known as “calls to breakfast.” When McNeill began ad-libbing during the show, fan attention increased exponentially, leading it to earn $4 million a year in sponsorships. According to his New York Times obituary, McNeill parlayed the show’s success into a substantial raise for himself. He began hosting the show when it was “The Pepper Pot” for a meager $50 a week and was earning upwards of $100,000 a year at the height of its popularity in 1950. 

“Suspense”

Running from 1942 to 1962, CBS Radio’s “Suspense” endured as one of the most popular programs during what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Radio. Helping the show get off on the right foot was none other than Alfred Hitchcock, who directed the show’s 1940 audition program — an adaptation of his 1926 film “The Lodger.” Hitchcock was far from the only major name to work on “Suspense.” Over the years, its cast included names like Lucille Ball, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Kirk Douglas and even eventual President of the United States Ronald Reagan.

The show’s most sensational episode was 1943’s “Sorry, Wrong Number,” starring Agnes Moorehead. This taut noir written by Lucille Fletcher was hailed by Orson Welles as “the greatest single radio script ever written,” and was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2015. The show was popular enough at the time that it was reprised seven times between 1943 and 1948 and served as the basis for a 1948 film of the same name that earned Barbara Stanwyck an Academy Award nomination.

If you have hit your limit of true crime podcasts and want a complete change of tack, consider tracking down these classic radio programs. You may be surprised to find how well they still hold up even as much as three-quarters of a century later.

This article is presented by Zimbrick European in Madison, WI.


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