AFRTS: Armed Forces Network Radio

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The Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS, also going by the brand AFN, Armed Forces Network) operate one of the largest Satellite Television and Radio systems in the world. The service was and is considered vital to the morale of American Service Men and Women serving overseas, but is little known beyond those it serves. The services origins are shrouded in the mists of legend that develop as time passes.

The need for troop recreation in order to maintain morale was well recognized by the end of WWI. Several organizations, often religiously based, had stepped in to fill the gap, but it became obvious that the military itself could do a better and more effective job. In the years after the First World War the US Military experienced a drastic draw-down, and there were very few areas where Army personnel would have an overseas posting. These included Hawaii, the Panama Canal Zone, and the Philippine Islands.

In the Canal Zone there was a problem communicating with the Coastal Artillery Installations from the Central Command Post. Distribution of radio receivers seemed a simple and inexpensive solution. However the soldiers on post had little reason to keep their radios turned on if there was nothing to listen too, so they were not effective as a warning device. It was theorized that if popular music and other programming were offered the radios would remain turned on. The NCO in charge of the broadcast began humbly corresponding with radio personalities seeking programming, sending letters to Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby. The response was as immediate as it could be at the time. Benny sent an autographed subscription disk to the Canal Zone and offered further transcriptions of his shows free of charge. NBC send 2000 pounds of transcription material, literally a ton of programming, to the Troops in Panama.

Free or extremely low-cost programming is still provided to AFN. The Dept of Defense takes no control over the content other than removing all commercials. This is to insure that the DoD will not be seen as endorsing products. DoD internal messages and Public Service Announcements replace the commercials.

In some areas, such as the Philippines, servicemen could listen to English Language programming directed at Western Civilians working in the area. In the Philippines much of this was from Japanese Radio Tokyo, which blanketed much of Asia. Shortwave Broadcasts were received in Manila from San Francisco’s KGEI and rebroadcast on commercial bands. After the Japanese invasion General MacArthur has the 1000 watt broadcast facility moved to Bataan and later Corregidor. The KGEI rebroadcasts became an important source of information and entertainment. Warnings were also passed to the Philippine people using this service. One was warning of counterfeit currency being used by the occupying Japanese. Radio Tokyo responded by warning that Philippine shopkeepers were required to accept currency provided by Japanese personnel or the shopkeeper could be shot.

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Arch Oboler’s Sounds

It we consider radio drama as an art form, three great names stand out as masters; Orson Welles, Norman Corwin, and Arch Oboler. Of the three, Arch Oboler could almost be counted as a forgotten or over-looked genius.

Oboler was the child of impoverished Latvian Jews in Chicago; his childhood was poor but highly cultured, surrounded with books and classical music. He had a tough time at university were his confrontational personality led to expulsion. He turned to writing pulp fiction to pay the bills.

Oboler entered radio, a medium that he felt was being wasted on soap operas, because he thought radio plays had terrific potential to tell stories with ideas. His gain experience and recognition writing short plays for Rudy Vallee and Don Ameche with The Chase and Sanborn Hour.

In 1936 Oboler was offered the reins of Wylis Cooper’s Lights Out. At first he was unenthusiastic about being stuck with a horror show that played at midnight on Tuesdays (“not my idea of a writing Shangri-La”) but soon realized that the lack of sponsorship and full artistic control gave him a chance to experiment with content and style. Although NBC had a policy of strict neutrality in the pre-War years, Oboler still managed to smuggle in some anti-Facist messages.

Oboler was considered a minimalist who never used a sound effect or piece of music when a spoken word could create a better image in the listener’s mind. When he did use a sound effect, you can be sure that the image would be built in such a way heighten the effect of an often simple effect.

Some of the best are featured in the episode “Drop Dead”. Oboler explains that he has accepted a challenge to frighten his audience, even though he knows that his audience is not “easily horrified”. This episode features retelling of some of Oboler’s most famous radio horror plays.

One of the most creepy is “The Dark” were a greasy black fog escapes its confinement with a power to turn human bodies inside out. This is one of those stories that is best told on radio where the story teller has the best opportunity to manipulate the images in the listener’s mind. 

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The set up dialog is very well done, but the payoff is the actual sound of a person being turned inside-out. The story begins at 8 minutes and 10 seconds into the broadcast. Between 11 minutes and 11 minutes, 30 seconds we discover a body that has been turned inside-out, and from 14:30 to 14:45 we actually hear the sickening sounds as flesh is brutalized as a body is turned inside-out. We here this frightening sound twice more in the story.

How could the producer create the effect of a body abused in such a way without reaching down an actor’s throat and yanking? Here’s the spoiler: the sound effects man wore a surgeon’s rubber glove, and noisily removed it with his hand near the microphone!

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Halloween the Whole Year ‘Round: Himan Brown and the Horror Host

Himan Brown was one of radios foremost pioneers and an advocate for the medium long after the commercial sponsors had given up on radio drama. His name is attached to an impressive number of OTR programs in all genres, but he is best remembered for giving us the Horror classic, Inner Sanctum Mysteries. Notable for its famous creaking door, Inner Sanctum gave us what would become a staple of the horror genre, the horror host. hi brown

Tailor Sam Brown and his wife Dora immigrated from Odessa and settled in a Yiddish neighborhood of Brooklyn. Their little boy Hi would turn out to be an incredibly ambitious young man. While in shop class at the Brooklyn School for Boys, the teacher brought in a receiver built from a piece of copper wire wrapped around a Quaker Oats box and the boys could hear WLW in Cincinnati. Himan was hooked.

At the age of 18, Hi tried convinced WEAF that a Yiddish voice on the air could bring the station the sort of success that Milt Gross’s cartoons brought the newspapers. Whether it was the boy’s persistence or the station’s desperation for programming of any sort, Hi was on the air and enjoyed a good deal following among his listeners. One of those listeners was a creatively minded housewife named Gertrude Berg who had an idea for a Sitcom based on an immigrant family. She enlisted Hi for the project, and after nearly of  a year of pitching to NBC, The Rise of The Goldbergs hit the air with young Himan as the father. Mrs. Berg was less than enthused to have more than one creative genius around, and gave Hi the boot after six months.

challahcrop (1)Hi began going directly to sponsors with story and show ideas, and created a number of immigrant focused programs for the New York market. At the same time,  he was studying law at Brooklyn College. However, Himan Brown quickly realized that the cut-throat lessons of the legal profession could be put to use in the rough and tumble world of commercial radio. His legal background allowed him to get the most advantageous contracts from sponsors, but they always got their money’s worth from Himan Brown. He created a number of soaps, and the anthology Grand Central Station. He also realized that he could buy the right to characters from other media, and brought Bulldog Drummond,  Dick Tracy and the Thin Man to the air.

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When Carter’s Little Liver Pills came knocking on the door looking for ideas, Hi had a concept ready to pitch that he called The Creaking Door. Horror programs on the radio were certainly nothing new, the fun of telling ghost stories and other creepy tales had been a late night staple since the early Thirties with the campiness of The Witches Tale and the refined terror of Lights Out. The Creaking Door was going to take the horror seriously, but kept in mind that telling ghost stories were essentially good fun. Carter’s loved the concept but hated the name. Taking a page from his earlier crossovers from popular literature, Brown bought the radio rights to a series of low-grade mystery novels from Simon and Schuster called Inner Sanctum Mysteries, and the rest is horror history.

The Inner Sanctum Mysteries discarded the title but not the concept of the Creaking Door, which was based on a sound effect Brown discovered on a rusty basement door. A door was planned for use on the air, but when it did not produce the needed creak, Brown sat in a rusty office chair and turned to make the needed sound. The chair remained part of the show’s equipment, (except for the night that a well meaning studio staffer innocently oiled the chair).

The true genius of The Inner Sanctum was its host. Other horror programs had a host to elevate the level of terror, The Witch’s Tale used a scratchy voiced crone, Arch Oboler himself introduced the stories on Light’s Out, and The Whistler took us into the mind of the killer each week.

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Inner Sanctum‘s host went another direction Originally voiced by stage actor Raymond Johnson, “Your host, Raymond” was a mocking character who was so over the top that the audience had to laugh, both at him and themselves, for being so scared. A smiling sociopath, Raymond took delight in his creepy environs, from the collection to skeletons to the shelf filled with severed heads.

In 1945, Johnson left the program to serve in the Army, and host duties were given to Paul McGrath. McGrath dropped the Raymond handle, known as just “Your Host” or “Mr. Host”. 1945 also marked a change in sponsor, and Mary the Lipton Tea Lady joined the show. Mary Bennett as the sunny Tea Lady was a marked contrast to the Smiling Sociopath, but the contrast only served to intensify the fun of the show. The Tea Lady would chide the Host for taking amusement from suicides and dismemberments, using much the same tone as a suburban housewife telling her husband to curb his enthusiasm for pro-football.

The Inner Sanctum carried over into a series of low-budget Universal Horror films during the 1940’s, and was produced as a short-lived syndicated television program produced by Himan Browns Chelsea Studios. However, the visual media lacked the “image intensity” that made Radio Horror so successful. Brown continued to campaign for radio as a story telling medium long after sponsors moved on to TV. He was somewhat vindicated when CBS gave a green light to CBS Radio Mystery Theater in

The over the top Horror Host Himan Brown created by Raymond Johnson and Paul McGrath lives on as the late night TV Horror Movie hosts like Vampira, Count Floyd, Morgus the Magnificent, Svengoolie and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. All of these personalities manage to capture the fun of Halloween throughout the year.

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Science Fiction from the Mutual Network

The Mutual Network was in many ways the “little brother” of the Big Four radio networks. However being small lead to the need to be innovative on many occasions. One example is the world of adult Science Fiction.

The anthology program 2000 Plus premiered on Mutual on Mar 15, 1952, nearly a month before Dimension X appeared on NBC. 2000+ was unique in that the program used all original stories as opposed to the adaptations featured on Dimension X and the later X Minus One. Some of our favorite episodes include:

The Brooklyn Brain, broadcast 6/21/1950. A young man needs instant wisdom and culture to win his girl, so he volunteers to have scientists give him an electronic brain that will allow him to learn anything instantly.

The Green Thing, broadcast 9/27/1950. A patient in a sanitarium is haunted by dreams of a horrible green monster. The doctors struggle to find what it means when they discover other patients are haunted by the same dreams and the same monster, even the Doctor see the huge claws, the pink eyes, what can it mean?

Worlds Apart, broadcast 11/15/1950. A spaceship traveling to Neptune is caught in the tail of an uncharted comet, escaping only by using the ship’s full power. Returning home they find a world with two moons where the milk is green.

The Insect, broadcast 8/15/1951. A scientist has success in his home laboratory enlarging insects, flies, spiders, wasps, etc. When he is away on a business trip, the grocery delivery boy talks the wife into letting him see the lab. Wife and delivery boy end up trapped in the lab with the monster bugs, which haven’t been fed for days…

Exploring Tomorrow came to Mutual for a short run in 1957-58. The program, which was a summer replacement for Gangbusters, was narrated by Astounding Magazine editor John W. Campbell. Favorite episodes include:

The Adventure of the Beauty Queen, broadcast 6/25/1958. Miss USA 1958 is awakened by a mysterious Voice, from the future! A Future scientist is exploring the nature of beauty, and has fallen in love with the Beauty Queen. Now he wants to bring her to the future, to stay with him.

First Baby in Space (a.k.a. Space Baby), by Randall Garrett, broadcast 6/15/1958. A space station is damaged by a meteorite, for which it is prepared, but it isn’t prepared for the expectant mother who is injured, or her baby which will need an incubator to survive. Incubator? There’s no incubator on a space station…

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Best of X Minus One Sci Fi Episodes

Just as with the Horror Genre, Radio is a superior medium for Science Fiction than TV or Movies. It is not a medium for the lazy Sci Fi fan: the producer couldn’t call in the CGI (computer generated image) team and have them created an exploding space cruiser. But for the fan willing to lose himself in his imagination, radio could make the loneliness of space that much deeper, the burning sands of a distant planet that much bleaker, and the evil of a rogue robot that much more frightening.
One of the best Science fiction Anthologies on radio was X Minus One. What made the series great was the stories, which were adapted from the pages of Galaxy Magazine, and later Astounding Science Fiction Magazine. Galaxy had become the leading Science Fiction publisher in the 50’s by publishing stories that dealt with social issues and not just technology and monsters.

The stories were adapted for nostalgia radio by staff writers, mostly Ernest Kinoy and Frank Lefferts, who were usually respectful enough of the material to change it as little as possible while adapting it for the half hour radio format. Some of Sci Fi’s all-time great authors were featured, including Frederik Pohl, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, and Ray Bradbury.

Some of our favorite episodes include the following:

In X Minus One‘s The Cave of Night by James Gunn; A Spaceman’s craft is hopelessly damaged, and the whole world waits breathlessly as a rescue is organized. “The Cave of Night” anticipates the drama of Apollo 13, as well as the tragedy of the Challenger shuttle disaster.

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In X Minus One‘s C-Chute by Isaac Asimov; A civilian space transport is hijacked by chlorine breathing enemy aliens. The human passengers become POWs and argue about how to react to their situation. A mild mannered bookkeeper finds the courage to exit the craft via the C-Chute, normally used to lauch corpses into space, then reenter to defeat the enemy hijackers.

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In X Minus One‘s Sam, This is You by Murray Leinster; A telephone repair man has a quiet life, except for trouble with his girl friend, until he receives a call; “Sam, this is you…” It is himself one week in the future calling to tell him how to turn his life around.

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In X Minus One‘s Honeymoon in Hell by Fredric Brown; Along with the treat of Atomic War, there is a decline in the male birth rate. The solution seems to be sending a man from our side and a woman from their side to the moon in order to conceive a son.

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In X Minus One‘s Something for Nothing by Robert Sheckley; A Class A Utilizer suddenly appears in Joe Collins’ tenement apartment. The Utilizer is a Wishing Machine from the future, and Joe goes a little crazy, having a mansion built in a day in upstate NY, and then a palace in South America, before discovering that there really is no free meal ticket.

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In X Minus One‘s The Discovery of Mornial Matha by William Tenn; A Time Traveler goes to the past to find the greatest artist in history, only to discover that he has no talent. He is almost as surprised as the artist, who discovers his work will be considered great.

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In X Minus One‘s Man’s Best Friend by Evelyn Smith; The Prognosticating Computer chooses a man to assassinate the Overlord, and everyone is excited for him, even the Overlord! Yet he has trouble accepting the unreality of it. Until he makes it appear that he goes through with in, and makes an amazing discovery.

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Fred Allen and his Friendly Feud with Jack Benny

It is impossible to chronicle the birth of the Fred Allen-Jack Benny feud without going into the life and background of Fred Allen. At the age of fourteen, Fred Allen opened a book that would forever change the course of his life. Working as a stock clerk at the Boston Public Library, he picked up a book on the subject of humor. Not only did this literary work put him on the path of comedy, it also sparked a passion that culminated in a book collection. By the time of his death, Fred Allen’s personal library contained thousands of volumes written on the subject of comedy.

Beginning his career in vaudeville, Allen soon learned that his comedic skills greatly outweighed his juggling ability and he decided to use the juggling act as an anchor for his comedy. He also appeared in a few short films, before getting his break on radio. At the age of thirty-eight, Fred Allen landed a job, as host of The Linit Bath Club Revue. The show premiered on October 23, 1932 on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) network. By 1933, the program was moved to the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) network and renamed, The Salad Bowl Revue, to plug its new sponsor, Hellmann’s Mayonnaise. The show went through two additional name changes, before becoming the famous, Town Hall Tonight show in 1935.

Allen was convinced that the new radio medium should dispense with the old, weary, worn-out gags and skits common to vaudeville. Instead, he worked tirelessly to bring fresh comedy into the homes of his listeners. Town Hall was a success and Allen used this platform to launch one of the longest running gag feuds in history.

On December 30, 1936, Fred Allen fired his first volley at fellow comedian Jack Benny. A ten-year old violinist appeared on Allen’s show to play, Flight of the Bumblebee. Allen took this opportunity to poke fun at Benny’s violin playing skills. Benny often listened to Allen’s show and after hearing the joke, the game was afoot.

Fred Allen and Jack Benny had been close friends since their days in vaudeville. Benny knew the attack was a great way to increase ratings on both shows. Shortly thereafter, Benny launched his own assault on Fred Allen. Thus, it was the beginning of a radio feud that would outlast sponsors and persist for nearly a decade.

The audience loved the feuding comedians and soon, the number of listeners increased exponentially. In 1937, Allen appeared on Benny’s show for a face-to-face confrontation. The feud took its place in history, drawing in more listeners than another program, with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt’s Fireside chats.

In 1940, Fred Allen returned to CBS with a new sponsor and Town Hall Tonight became the Texaco Star Theater. By 1942, the network demanded that Allen cut the hour-long program down to thirty-minutes. The shortened format and the network’s preference for amateur guests took a toll on Allen. While other comedians were known to work with teams of writers, Allen insisted on creating his own material with the help of a few occasional assistants. Diagnosed with high blood pressure, Allen took time off to recuperate. He returned with the Fred Allen Show on NBC, in 1944.

Further success incurred when Allen added “Allen’s Alley” as a skit on the new show. The alley had been a creation of his, during his early radio days. Allen’s Alley was a fictional location occupied by several eccentric residents. Residents included Senator Beauregard Cleghorn, Ajax Cassidy, Titus Moody and Minerva Pious. Each represented a slice of American society and ethnicity. However, Allen was often at odds with censors, who deemed some of his material might cause emotional injury. At one point, Allen was not allowed to make fun of cemeteries, because he might upset cemetery owners or morticians.

The move to the Fred Allen Show did not detract from the long running feud. Jack Benny even had his own version of Allen’s Alley, called “Clown Hall Tonight.” Over the years, each would occasionally appear on the other’s show. On May 26, 1946, Benny appeared in Allen’s skit, “King for a Day,” poking fun at the rising popularity of radio game shows. Behind the scenes, it was protocol to give the guest comedian the best lines.

Unaware of their personal friendship, many listeners truly believed that the two were bitter rivals. Benny later revealed in his memoirs that while the feud began in an instant, both comedians later met to plan strategy of the imaginary ongoing feud. In addition, Allen and Benny occasionally appeared together in Hollywood films.

By the late 1940’s, CBS talent raids directly affected Fred Allen’s show. CBS was constantly on the prowl for recognizable talent, who could be tempted into joining the CBS Sunday night line-up. The combination of talent raids, big money game shows and television signaled the end of Fred Allen’s radio career. Allen’s last radio show aired on June 26, 1949.

Allen went on to become a regular on The Big Show, which aired for two seasons. Although Allen thought little of television, he did make guest appearances on several popular programs. Before his death, Allen wrote “Treadmill to Oblivion” a chronicle of his radio years and a regular newspaper column. Fred Allen died on March 17, 1956, but he will forever be remembered for the laughter he wrought out of an imaginary feud.

Sample a taste of this famous feud at:

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Charlie and His Orchestra: Nazi Jazz Music from WWII

joseph-goebbels-liebesbriefe-auktionThe highly feared Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels was one of the most intelligent and best educated of the Nazi elite. He completed his PhD at the University of Heidelberg, writing his thesis on 19th century Romantic drama. Goebbels was both anti-Communist, recognizing the fundamental fallacies of Marx’s theories, and anti-Capitalist, which he viewed as being Jewish at the core. Goebbels learned of the early Nazi party soon after leaving University, and became a Party Member within the year. He quickly rose in the Party, and used his propaganda skills to recruit the proletariat core of the hated Communist party into the Nazi fold. When the Nazi’s seized power in 1933, Goebbels was appointed Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. One of his first acts as Minister was to supervise the infamous book burnings.

The Propaganda Ministry held ruthless control over media and the arts, and did everything it could to put done anything that did not ring of “Aryan Purity”. Restricting entartete musik, or Degenerate Music received special effort. Degenerate Music referred to Jazz. Degenerate-Art-The-Nazis-vs.-Expressionism-

There were many reasons for the Nazi’s to dislike Jazz. It represented the freedom of American ideals, and it came from what the Nazi’s saw as the lowest manifestation of America, the rising status of the African-American community. The syncopated beats of Jazz were contrary to the steady rhythms of German music. It was also the preferred music of the Berlin Cabaret scene, a hotbed of anti-Nazi sentiment.

These factors make it amusing to consider that Goebbels would turn to Jazz Music as a weapon of war.charlie and his orchestra

The idea was to turn the Degenerate Music, which was so unsuitable for decent Germans, against the Enemy who had created it. To wield this weapon, Goebbels chose promising tenor saxophonist Lutz “Stumpie” Templin. Although Templin was not a party member, he was far from reluctant to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the Nazi rise. The group that would eventually become the Lutz Templin Orchestra broke ties with its Jewish bandleader in 1935 to secure a recording contract with Deustche Grammophon.

The full genesis of the notion to beam Jazz Music to British and American Troops with a Nazi Message is lost to history. It appears that British turncoats William Joyce, the infamous Lord Haw Haw, and the traitorous Norman Baille-Stewart had a hand in feeding ideas for lyrics to Karl Schwedler, the former public servant hired to be the frontman for Templin’s band.

charlieSchwedler, who took the name Charlie for the propaganda project, wrote English lyrics for Templin’s Jazz numbers which promoted the Nazi message. Mostly, this was the same message pushed by Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally- that the Allied Troops faced an impossible task, their leaders were willing to sacrifice the lives of their troops and that their girlfriends were running around on them while they were risking their lives.

By all accounts, the message was seldom taken seriously, especially in the later stages of the War. However, consider the blow to the morale of a Mother living on the East Coast of America, whose son may have been serving on a freighter carrying War Supplies to Britain, when a happy, Jazzy song comes over the radio, and the second verse happily sings about “Cherman Zubmarines”. Winston Churchill, who was lampooned in many of the numbers, was an enthusiastic fan of Charlie and his Orchestra and laughed heartily at the songs.

Experience the History of WWII, both on the Homefront and the Front Lines, the way that many of our Grandparent did- through the messages, shows, and information that came to them through their radio speakers. Find out about propaganda from both sides, and hear genuine reports of the Conflict’s progress in our WWII Collection. Visit OTRCat.com today!

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