Historically, the arrival of a new mass medium tends to be greeted with lofty pronouncements of educational/aesthetic potential and the opportunity to break with the corrupt decadence of the previous generation of content delivery.
It’s a nice fantasy, but one inevitably doomed to fail under the harsh realities of consumer capitalism where the safest and most lucrative bets are banked on the lowest common denominator. “Profitability” and “artistic quality” are not mutually exclusive terms, but I don’t need to tell you which one takes singular precedence when push comes to shove.
Hint: It ain’t the one that favors running a Czech production of Equus instead of Everyone Loves Raymond repeats during the 8:00 – 10:00 programming block.
The descent from white knight to amoral mercenary has been greeted with both fingerwagging from disillusioned utopian dreamers and rose-tinted paeans to the same “golden days” of yore which had previously been held up as decadent and obsolete edifices of the old regime. (The internet has been spared the latter phenomenon so far, thanks to its relatively democratic nature and ever-evolving venues for content creation and distribution.)
Such was the case with “old time radio,” long trumpeted by critics and other nostalgics for its superiority over the “vast wasteland” commercial TV broadcasting had become during the 1960s and 1970s. You’ve probably heard the spiel: “In those days, we used the power of imagination to visualize the contents of Fibber McGee’s closet or Giant Chicken Hearts devouring the world. It was far superior to the artificial tackiness that gets shown on the TV screen.”
I won’t deny that radio’s golden age generated a good deal quality material, some of which holds up well enough even today. The unequivocal pronouncements of aesthetic superiority, however, are a post facto sheen placed upon its legacy — one rooted in the longing for times past and a cultural tendency to see history as a steady decline from some a platonic state of grace. (Cultural entropy and decline certainly exist, but rarely in the forms so often cited or as evenly as frequently suggested.)
Contemporary observers of the transition between radio’s market dominance and the mass adoption of TV as a mass medium were noticably less fulsome about the former’s merits. Veteran radio critic John Crosby wrote a piece for the November 6, 1950 issue of LIFE which took radio to task for its failures and worried about their implications for the future of broadcast TV.
Crosby’s list of radio’s sins are as follows:
It would be easy to cite Sturgeon’s Law and assume the author was referring to the long-forgotten drek which occupied 90% of the airwaves, but Crosby specifically singles out some of the most popular and cherished old time radio shows as symptoms of the greater problem. Jack Benny, Uncle Miltie, the crime shows and the thrillers were all taken to task for their low road, pandering approach to gaining maximum audience share — and thus maximum advertiser revenue.
Whether his criticisms were fair or not is beside the point. It is the nature of the charges leveled which makes the piece a fantastic artifact of cultural history — a laundry list of complaints which have proven to be applicable to the state of mass media in general in the six decades since its original publication.