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Radio celebrates its centennial

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first commercial radio broadcast in the United States, and it occurred right here in Pennsylvania. KDKA in Pittsburgh went on the air on Nov. 2, 1920, and broadcast the results of the Harding-Cox presidential election. In the era before television, before the proliferation of social media and smartphones, radio was an upstart medium that eventually would challenge the dominance of the print industry.

KDKA broadcast the first Major League baseball game in 1921 between cross-state rivals the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Our area’s longest-on-air station is WLSH in Lansford, which started in December 1952. Other area stations are WBYN in Lehighton and WMGH-FM in Tamaqua.

Born in the pre-television era, I realize that the radio of my youth died young. This show business giant should have been at the peak of its creativity, yet, at only 30 years of age, the golden age of radio was already declining.

Any American born before or during World War II remembers how great radio used to be - before the all-music niche formats, the endless talk by commentators on the left but mostly on the right or by sports hosts taking call-in views from listeners.

Radio and its wide range of live music, comedy, variety shows and dramatic programming served as a welcome escape from the troubled times during the Depression and the war. In fact, many called it “escapism,” but radio news gave us a strong dose of reality, too.

My contemporaries and I grew up with Jack Armstrong, the Lone Ranger, the Shadow and Uncle Don. Younger audiences believed soap operas began with television, but we knew better. “Ma Perkins,” “Stella Dallas,” “Just Plain Bill,” “Pepper Young’s Family” and “Backstage Wife” were just some of the soap operas which attracted millions of afternoon radio listeners, mostly housewives.

I can hear the sounds of the radio of my youth until this day. Dramatized radio programs were very important to me. Certainly, they were more important than eating. How many times did I gulp down my supper so I could sprint to the living room to listen to the next episode of “Gang Busters” or the super scary “Inner Sanctum” and its opening sequence of a squeaky door that scared the bejesus out of me.

If it sounds as if I had a love affair with radio, you’re right. The radio I loved is gone, but the memory lingers on.

When we were kids, we talked incessantly about radio - not only about the programs, but also about the premiums being offered. With just a cereal box top, we could have the Little Orphan Annie ring decoder, so we could unlock the message at the end of each program.

I would drink gallons of Ovaltine so I could accumulate three inner seals of the drink to send away for the Captain Midnight Secret Squadron decoder badge. By the way, I drank my Ovaltine from a Roy Rogers mug which was shaped in the likeness of the King of the Cowboys.

We had things our way when we listened to radio. No one could tell me that the monster on “Lights Out” was too gruesome, because I could make it as scary as I liked.

No one could suggest that Buck Rogers’ girlfriend, Wilma Deering, wore a spacesuit that fitted too snugly for a boy my age to look at.

Unlike television, where images are right in front of your eyes, radio allowed you to create your own coloring for your heroes and villains. Was Lamont Cranston, the Shadow, a handsome, blue-eyed blond or a tall, dark mysterious-looking playboy?

Today’s listeners, who often use radio largely as background noise, can’t comprehend how radio could have held a listener’s interest for several hours. Simple: imagination. In fact, when some of the radio programs made the transition to TV, audiences were disappointed, because the images they had conjured in their minds couldn’t measure up to what they were now seeing on the small screen.

One enormously popular program, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” had to change the stars of the show when it went to TV because Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, the originators of the program who also played the title roles, were white men playing black characters.

Some historians say that radio helped create a sense of national belonging in what had previously been a disorganized group of regional identities. Others point out that the debates about the promises and dangers of today’s internet are very much like the arguments that accompanied the debate when radio had begun to become popular and pervasive.

Some were enthused that radio would be a powerful force for spreading knowledge to a large population that had previously been separated by geography or income. Others, though, feared that the propriety and taste of radio programs could defile the sanctity of the home. They also were concerned that if families stayed home to listen to the radio, it would limit civic and social participation and also cut into church attendance.

Radio’s surge in popularity during the 1930s and 1940s was brief. After World War II, television began to take center stage, and, bit by bit, the radio that we knew and revered as kids morphed into the much blander and less imaginative radio of today.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com