When Radio Ruled

You know that box you have at home? The one with all the wonderful pictures and sounds coming out of it? You know the one I mean? That's right: radio. In its heyday, from the mid-1920s to the mid-1950s, there was nothing quite like it.

There was music and comedy and drama and news and comics and soap operas -all with the most glorious built-in pictures you've ever seen, the ones inside your head. CBS News Sunday Morning Anchor Charles Osgood steps back in time with author Gerald Nachman to look at the medium where it all started.

Why does Charles Osgood end each show saying, 'See you on the radio?' Here's your answer.

It was the time of Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello, and Jimmy Durante and The Romance of Helen Trent, and Our Gal Sunday and Edward R. Murrow and Edgar Bergen, and Charlie McCarthy and George Burns and Gracie Allen, before George became God.

I was raised on radio. It's what made me go into broadcasting. It was like television, only better.

Gerald Nachman thinks so, too. He's the author of a new book about the golden age of radio, called Raised on Radio. We caught up with him recently to talk about that medium before the invention of television.

"I would escape into my room after school and stay there for two hours and then, after dinner, run up to my room, close the door, and it was like a secret clubhouse where all these wonderful characters would come out of this little box," Nachman remembers. "Superman. The Green Hornet. Captain Midnight. On and on. They were the comic books, kind of, of the air."

Find out more about old-time radio at these Web sites .
"It was exciting, because as a kid, it was like, I call it the first peek at adult angst," says Nachman. "You know, you'd see what the real world was like beyond childhood. All those people with terrible problems, wretched situations. Hand-wringing women and inept men."

Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single boundÂ…

"Look . Up in the air. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Superman! I mean, that catch phrase lives on to this day," Nachman adds. "I mean, there are people who can quote it who don't remember Superman at all on radio."

How do you account for the fact that Amos 'n Andy was the most popular show on the radio for a long time? Here were these two white guys playing the part of the whole cast of charactersÂ…they were really white and hey were all supposed to be black.

Jimmy Durante

"Yeah, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll created Amos 'n Andy," Nachman says. "It was the first mega-hit of radio in around 1929 and 1930. They started right after the Depression. And it was a wonderful show, beloved characters, warm, funny characters. It's been demeaned now. And it's been thought of as racist or quasi-racist. But if you listen to those shows over time, you realize, it wasn't at all. This was a thriving black community, a middle-class black community. Okay, they were caricatures, and maybe exaggerated. But all comedy is exaggerated and caricature."

Fred Allen used to say of television that "imitation is the sincerest form of television."

"He was really the great needler," Nachman says. "He was radio's only satirist, really, in those days. I remember he was very anti-television, and there's a story about him visiting some friends in a hotel in New York who had a television set in the room. And there was a basket of fruit on top of it. He said, 'That's the best thing I've ever seen on television'."

Edward R. Murrow

"On shows like The Shadow, if you hear them again, they're not that great a show. But they were packaged so beautifully. The same with The Lone Ranger, the start of the William Tell Overture, and the great narrative drive," Nachman adds.

You can't have any conversation about old-time radio without Jack Benny's name coming up. This conversation was no different. Benny didn't mind being the butt of jokes. Benny could also use silence, the pause, on radio for a laugh. It's hard to imagine that you could do this. There's the famous one where a couple of guys come out of the bushes and they say, 'Your money or your life.' And there's no response.

"People are laughing during the pause because Benny's character was so well delineated," says Nachman. "We knew him as stingy. We knew him as vain. You didn't have to tell the audience the joke. They knew the joke. They knew what was going on in his mind at that time."

Another famous running gag was the closet in the home of Fibber McGee and Molly. There would come a time in the sho when he'd say, 'Well, I think I left it somewhere here in this closet.' And you'd say, 'Wait a minute. What's going to happen?'

"All this just amazing stuff would come tumbling out of this imaginary closet. And that was one of the great sound gags in radio."

Charlie McCarthy

There was also a sense of radio because you heard these voices. You got to recognize them, whether in World War II the voices of Gabriel Heater and Edward R. Murrow and Lowell Thomas. Distinctive voices. And you loved to hear Gabriel Heater, you know, saying, 'Ah, there's good news tonight.' Who were some of those voices? I can hear them now in my head.

"Winchell," says Nachman. "There was never a voice like Winchell's. This great staccato rhythm. And then Edward R. Murrow, this very somber, almost priestly-like cadences that he spoke in. A heavy didn't have to look like a heavy, and a handsome leading man didn't have to have a cleft chin. You know, that's why William Conrad didn't make the transfer on Gunsmoke from radio to TV. You needed a guy like James Arness who looked like William Conrad sounded."

Did people listen to the radio then the way they watch television now? Or was it something completely different?

"Well, the great thing about radio is that it did invoke your imagination. You made the direct connection to the shows. It took place in your head. You were the scenic designer, the costumer, the makeup person. You saw those characters in those scenes, in those streets, as you imagined it, and you would see them differently than I would see them."

I once heard Rod Serling talking about that, the difference between radio and television to him. And he said, 'In radio you could write a line: once there was a castle on a hill.' And 20 million people out in the country would each build a castle right in their own heads. In television, if you write that line, some guy, you know, wearing a belt with lots of tools on it, comes around and asks you, 'Hey, you know, what kind of castle do you want'?"