Soap Operas in Old Time Radio

It doesn’t seem long ago that homes with multiple television sets were becoming common place. Then it became rare to find a house that didn’t have some sort of high speed connection to the Internet. Now it is common to find people who have high speed Internet access in their pockets in the form of a smartphone or tablet device. From this perspective, it is hard to imagine a time that radios were a luxury only possessed by a few households.

Like satellite TV or home WiFi transmitters, the decision to purchase a radio when the media was in its early stages was justified as “something the whole family can enjoy”. This brings to mind an image of the whole tribe gathered around a big wooden box with a glowing dial; the kids sprawled out on the living room rug, Dad in his favorite overstuffed chair with his pipe, and Mom in her smaller chair. Mom is probably still wearing her apron, perhaps knitting or shelling peas. While the rest of the household is relaxing and enjoying an evenings radio broadcast, Mom’s work, by definition, is never done.

A few wags will make the point that it is fair that Mom doesn’t really get to relax and enjoy the evening shows; after all, the entire daytime line up, mostly radio soap operas, is designed with Mom in mind! We need to remember that the purpose of the soap operas wasn’t to give Mom a daytime treat, it was to get Mom to listen to the sponsor’s message. The soap in Soap Opera didn’t get there because Mom was listening to the show while her hands were plunged in the laundry tub or standing over sink full of dirty dishes. Mothers made most of the important regular purchasing decisions for the family. The manufacturers of soap and cleaning products were among the first to realize this, and so lent their name to the daytime serial program.

Soap Opera Radio Shows were and are the target of a lot of derision for being overly dramatic, vulgar, and badly written. In actuality, even though they were often not taken seriously, the daytime serial drama is a sophisticated and complex form of storytelling that places certain demands not only on those presenting the story, but on those listening as well. Not only does the story need to be compelling and attractive, but a new episode has to be ready for presentation every day. It is little wonder that the actors in the lead roles of a 10:30 am program would be in supporting roles at noon and 1:30. For the listener’s part, she would need to keep the different characters and story-lines straight in her head, usually while dealing with the important day to day happenings and house work that needs to be accomplished in”real life”. Remember that unlike modern OTR MP3 collections, entire series were not presented back to back; after listening to an episode, Mom had to wait a whole day, and probably hear several other programs before she could hear the next installment. It is no wonder that the Soaps adopted the tactic of using a “cliffhanger” to keep audiences returning.

The soap operas from the Golden Age of Radio are still a lot of fun. Not only does the modern listener have the option to listen to several episodes in succession, but thanks to the great number of listening devices, the shows can be enjoyed anywhere, whether Mom is commuting, watching the kids in the park, of standing over the sink with suds up to her elbows!

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