Book Review

Old Time Radio Book Review: Network Radio Ratings, 1932-1953 by Jim Ramsburg

OTR enthusiast Jim Ramsburg’s new old time radio book, Network Radio Ratings, 1932-1953, is an interesting story, with a somewhat boring and technical sounding title.

network-radio-ratingsRamsburg promises a history of Network Radio “as it’s never been told before”. A recurring theme of the book is that as enjoyable and entertaining as Old Time Radio was (and is), it was first, last, and always a business. The bulk of the book is a season by season review of the network prime-time offerings, an analysis of what was successful, and why.

Ramsburg spent 50 years in the radio and advertising industry. His own lifetime fascination with radio began during WWII, when he was a “latch-key kid” while his widowed mother worked in the Defense industry. Home alone, the radio became his baby-sitter, mentor, and companion.

The seasonal reviews of the radio industry are based on Ramsburg’s “discovery” of the “lost” Radio Rating books in the NBC and Nielsen Archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society. The bulk of these numbers was developed for the advertising industry. The real treasure of the book is Ramsburg’s analysis of what the numbers mean, not just to the sponsors who paid for them, but to those who made their living in the Radio Industry and to the listeners at home who got to enjoy the programming.

Beyond the value of the season by season reviews, the second chapter of the volume is of great value to OTR enthusiasts. Ramsburg takes several pages to review how technical, corporate, government, and Entertainment forces came together to give rise to Network Radio. These elements have been discussed in these blogs and elsewhere, but rarely has the entire story with its interconnections presented as well as Ramsburg’s second chapter.

This in no way diminishes the book’s treatment of what was good, (and not so good), in the Golden Age of Radio. The author presents facts that shows like The Jack Benny Program, Dragnet, or Fibber McGee and Molly were successful. He also presents the factors that made the shows successful, and the methods used to determine that success.

A Little Bit of Everything Rare Recordings

A Little Bit of Everything broadcast from 1928 “Now that Radio is Becoming a Big Thing”

Running almost an hour, enjoy ‘A LITTLE BIT of EVERYTHING‘ which aired WAAM on 9/11/1928 and is a demonstration of how a show is put together ‘now that radio is becoming a big thing’. It’s coming ‘directly from the Edison Labs’.

The program is a lot of fun from the ‘rogue’ days of early radio when everything was still pretty much an experiment. ¬†At this point it was just a matter of months since Paley had purchased CBS and NBC had been around for less than two years.

A LITTLE BIT OF EVERYTHING and many more rare radio programs can be heard on Old Time Radio’s Random Rarities #7.

Red Skelton

Red Skelton’s Avalon Time Old Time Radio Show

redskelton-watch-the-birdieAvalon Time was not Red Skelton’s first crack at radio. Rudy Vallee saw Red’s Doughnut Dunkers routine, and invited Red to appear on the Royal Gelatin Hour.

red-skeltonThe Doughnut Dunkers was one of Red’s more successful vaudeville routines. In the popular piece, Red would imitate the way different people would dip their doughnuts in their coffee. Audiences loved the routine, but performing the bit, in which Red consumed 9 doughnuts, took a toll on Red’s waistline with 5 performances a day. Maybe Red got into radio to lose weight!

Red was born to do comedy radio. His father, who passed away just two months before Red was born, had been a clown with the Hagenback-Wallace Circus. Without a father in the house, Red went to work early to help support the family. He was successful at learning the patter of the newsboy, and was able to keep it up until the potential customer would buy a paper, just to get Red to shut up. One customer outside the Vincennes Theater was impressed enough that he bought Red’s entire stock of papers. The man then asked if Red would like to see the show in which the man was performing. The man was future Fire Chief, Ed Wynn, and he lit a fire that would burn in Red for the rest of his life; the burning desire to perform.

Young Red tried a number of acting styles. He took on a dramatic role with a stock company, but no matter how serious the part, the audience would always laugh at Red’s delivery. At 15, he hit the vaudeville circuit, and took time the next year to work with the circus where his late father had been a clown (Red’s most famous character, Freddie the Freeloader, used the same makeup that his father had used.

Back in vaudeville, 18 year old Red was appearing in Kansas City. While trying to impress a pretty young usher, he asked her if she liked his material. When she said she did not, he challenged her to write better. She did, and soon Red and Edna Stilwell were married.

young-red-skeltonEdna continued to write gags for her husband, and had a prominent part when Red began hosting The Avalon Hour. Red had been a guest on the program in mid December, 1938, when singer Red Foley hosted the show. In January, the show was retooled with Red Skelton as the star and Red Foley the featured singer. The show featured terrifically silly comedy, Skelton often the butt of his own jokes, and a wide variety of music from Foley and the Avalon Orchestra. The variety of music is a pleasant surprise, considering that Red Foley would later be known as Mr. Country Music.

Edna Stilwell became a permanent part of the company after the Feb 18 program and kept her role as her husband’s gag writer. She developed a system of taking material from the show’s writers, adding her own, and saving the leftovers for later use. Red left Avalon Time at the end of 1939 to concentrated on his movie career. He came back to radio in 1941 with on the Raleigh Cigarettes Program. Edna announced that she was leaving the Skelton household in 1942, although she continued to manage his career into the 1950’s. This presented some problems for Red’s later romances. Red and Edna left divorce court arm in arm.