Mystery and Detective Radio Programs Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The mystery genre has been a major force in radio programming since the earliest days of radio broadcasting. During the 1920’s, as radio grew from a novelty for hobbyists into a profitable national entertainment source, the nascent radio networks searched for ways to enlarge their audiences and revenues. As radio dramas gained in popularity, programmers found mystery stories a natural format for radio production. Radio’s auditory dimension lent itself well to mysteries since the simple sounds could enhance suspense in ways that print and film could rarely match. Moreover, detective stories were widely read, both for entertainment and for their reflection of a violently changing society, so finding audiences for mystery programs was not difficult.

What is remembered as the Golden Age of radio, the 1930’s through the 1950’s, corresponds roughly with the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction. Although it is difficult to say if there was a causal relationship in this connection, the two forms certainly took advantage of their mutual popularity. Some of the most successful and long-lived dramatic programs in radio history were detective shows. These included The Shadow (1930-1954), Sherlock Holmes (1930-1946), Gangbusters (1935-1957), and Suspense (1942-1962)—which tended more toward thrillers than straight mysteries.

The quality of the radio mystery programs was enhanced by the fact that some of...

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Radio’s Beginnings

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The roots of radio broadcasting date back to the 1860’s, when James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz conducted experiments on the propagation of electromagnetic waves. During the 1890’s, three different men—Guglielmo Marconi, Nikola Tesla, and Nathan Stubblefield—independently invented radio broadcasting. During the early years of the twentieth century, radio broadcasting was used primarily for communications with ships at sea. Voice transmission was possible, but signals were mostly confined to messages sent in Morse code. However, by 1913, Edwin H. Armstrong and W. E. Hartley perfected an oscillator circuit that greatly improved the long-distance transmission of speech. As the second decade of the century drew to a close, a number of amateur radio stations were operating, most notably KDKA near Pittsburgh, KQW in San Jose, WWJ in Detroit, and WHA in Madison, Wisconsin. These stations broadcast news, sports, and music to fellow radio enthusiasts.

In 1920, KDKA made two changes that would help launch commercial radio. A Pittsburgh music store began lending records to the station, which in return broadcast the recordings and broadcast plugs for the store. This was the dawn of radio advertising. Westinghouse Electric Corporation then purchased KDKA and began using its regular broadcasts to promote sales of its radios. Soon, other businesses around the United States were establishing radio stations to promote their own products. By 1922, there were...

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The 1930’s: Detectives Take to the Air

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mysteries were part of dramatic radio broadcasting during the 1920’s, but during the following decade, the rise of dramatic serials made radio mysteries a major feature of radio programming, and by extension, of the American household. Several forces came together to make radio drama significant. In 1929, the United States entered the Great Depression. Americans who could not easily afford to buy novels or theater tickets were happy to listen to free entertainment on their radios. Moreover, with economic conditions being bad, escapist entertainment was a necessity. Listeners wanted to lose themselves in the stories of bigger-than-life characters. Radio serials met that need.

During the early 1930’s, NBC, CBS, and the newly formed Mutual Broadcasting Network greatly increased their production of serials, and many of these were based in the mystery genre. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes first appeared on the radio in 1930 and stayed on the air almost continuously until 1946. During the final five years of the program’s long run, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce played Holmes and Watson, whom they were also playing in feature films, and for many Americans, these two actors epitomized Doyle’s characters.

Other programs derived from more contemporary sources. Radio executives noticed the popularity of the pulp magazines and found it natural to create radio characters inspired by the magazines’ action-packed style. One of the most enduring new radio dramas was The Shadow (1930-1954). Initially the Shadow character merely introduced The Detective Story Hour, which premiered in 1930 and featured tales from Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine. By the time Orson Welles played the Shadow in 1937, the character was center stage as Lamont Cranston, millionaire man-about-town who uses the knowledge of...

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The 1940’s: Radio’s Golden Age

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Because of the quality of their productions, writing, and acting, shows such as Mercury Theater on the Air, Lux Radio Theater, and the radio documentaries of audio master Norman Corwin demonstrated that radio was a powerful and enriching medium. Radio dramas began to move away from simplistic sound effects and organ music toward cinematic sound and full orchestration. Detective radio dramas such as The Adventures of Philip Marlowe and Rocky Jordan did more than merely tell stories; they also evoked the atmosphere places such as a neon-lighted Los Angeles and Cairo’s crowded streets. Audiences responded by making radio a major part of their lives. Radio was king during the 1940’s, and that was radio theater’s finest decade.

After the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, many dramatic programs turned more to plots involving spies, fifth columnists, and the like. Radio dramas were broadcast to the troops through the Armed Forces Radio Network, and people in and out of uniform turned to their radios to relieve the tensions of world conflict. The war also strengthened the federal government’s influence on radio, and wartime censorship built the foundation for the anticommunist interference to come with casualties such as Dashiell Hammett, who would be banned from radio during the 1950’s because of his communist affiliations.

In 1943, a major new network formed when the recently created...

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The 1940’s: Mystery Writers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Many detective characters of 1940’s radio came straight from the pens of the genre’s best writers, though the authors of the original novels did not usually write the radio scripts themselves. Dashiell Hammett’s work inspired three 1940’s radio series. The first, The Adventures of the Thin Man (1941-1950), featured heavy-drinking sophisticates Nick and Nora Charles from the novel of the same name. The other two programs sprang from Hammett’s third novel, The Maltese Falcon (1930), with its heady mixture of a medieval-style quest and contemporary urban crime. One of these programs, The Adventures of Sam Spade (1946-1951), chronicled the further adventures of the novel’s protagonist. The second, The Fat Man (1946-1951), was a series that Hammett himself created. It centered on a 270-pound detective based loosely on the character of Kasper Gutman, the collector of rare artifacts and leader of the quest for the golden falcon in The Maltese Falcon.

Erle Stanley Gardner’s smash television series about defense lawyer Perry Mason (1957-1966) began as a series of novels that inspired a daily radio series that premiered in 1943 and lasted twelve years. Raymond Chandler got a shot at radio with The Adventures of Philip Marlowe (1947-1951), featuring the wisecracking Los Angeles detective who fueled all of Chandler’s highly atmospheric novels. The detective series about Miami-based private eye Mike Shayne, written by Brett Halliday, found its way to radio as Michael Shayne, Private Detective (1944-1953), and S. S. Van Dine’s novels about a wealthy amateur detective in...

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The 1940’s: Film and Radio

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

During the 1940’s, radio and film increasingly interacted, as each medium recognized the potential gains of sharing audiences with the other. Many radio serials based on major novels by writers such as Hammett and Chandler either had first been films or were being made into films at the same time radio versions were being broadcast. Actors who performed the same roles in both film and radio versions included Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe, Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, and Sidney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman. Meanwhile, Lux Radio Theater continued to feature radio versions of detective films, most notably The Maltese Falcon (1943), Murder, My Sweet (1944), The Lady in the Lake (1948), and Key Largo (1949).

In addition, less literary radio mysteries also became films, such as The Shadow, Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, The Green Hornet, Mike Shayne, Ellery Queen, and Nick Carter. These pulp-oriented films tended to be “B” productions, unlike major detective films such as Double Indemnity (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), but many more of them were released. Fictional private eye Mike Shayne, for example, appeared in twelve films.

Another way in which radio and film interacted was through radio actors and directors finding their way into film productions as their talents matured. The most notable examples came from the Mercury Theater on the Air, which launched the careers of Orson Welles, Joseph Cotton, and Agnes Moorehead; all would later work in such detective film classics as The Lady from Shanghai (1946), The Third Man (1949), and Dark Passage (1947). The relationship between film and radio during the 1940’s was a lively one, with each medium borrowing from the other, and detective stories were no exception.

British and Canadian Radio Developments

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Although American radio networks were the most active producers of radio drama from 1920 to 1960, they were not alone. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) were certainly doing their part to bring radio theater, including mysteries, to their audiences. Moreover, after 1960, when radio dramas had nearly died out in the United States, the BBC and CBC would keep the form going strong.

The BBC began in 1922 and acquired its present name in 1926. Guided by its first director general, John C. W. Reith, the BBC became a government-run broadcasting monopoly throughout the entire British Empire. The British parliament legislated its monopoly to avoid what its members viewed...

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The 1950’s: Television’s Triumph

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

As the 1940’s drew to a close, radio drama appeared to be an unstoppable juggernaut. However, the 1950’s would see that juggernaut come to a halt, thanks to a new technological development—television. The arrival of television caused audiences to turn away from radios for dramatic entertainment. Television permitted audiences to sit in their living rooms and watch dramas unfold before their eyes; viewers could see the faces behind the voices and see action that previously had been evoked only by sound effects. Radio could not compete.

However, just as a fire burns brightest before it burns out, the radio networks produced some of their finest dramatic programs during the 1950’s. Nevertheless, nearly every radio...

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The 1960’s: The Nadir of Radio Drama

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Across the world, the decade of the 1960’s was the lowest ebb for radio drama. In the United States, radio broadcasting became dominated by music formats, with local disc jockeys playing records, along with occasional network news and commentary programs. By 1965, Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, the last remaining mystery holdouts from radio’s Golden Age, were also gone.

In Great Britain, the BBC, pressured by competition from European and pirate stations, also shifted to more music programming. Radio theater consequently declined in Britain, but not as drastically as in the United States. New radio productions of Dorothy L. Sayers’s novels Strong Poison (1963) and...

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Nostalgia Radio

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Beginning in 1920, radio programs, especially those with multiple market distribution and weekly sponsors, were recorded on sixteen-inch phonograph-type discs called Electrical Transcriptions (ETs). The Library of Congress began to archive ETs in 1949, and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Washington acquired archives collecting discs made during the 1930’s through the 1980’s. By the 1950’s, fans of radio drama were beginning to make their own disc and tape copies from these and other archives. As early as 1954, Charles Michelson acquired a license to distribute rebroadcast rights to The Shadow, and many individual stations bought the programs. In 1968, J. David Goldin, a former...

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The 1970’s: Rebirth of Radio Drama

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Nevertheless, by the early 1970’s, American radio networks sensed the potential for successful new drama programs in nostalgia radio’s popularity. In 1973, the Mutual Broadcasting Network responded with The Zero Hour, produced by radio veteran Norman Corwin and created and hosted by Rod Serling, who had become a household name a decade earlier on television’s The Twilight Zone. Running primarily suspense and mystery stories, The Zero Hour ran five days a week. Although it lasted only one year, it demonstrated the viability of radio drama in a new era.

In 1974, CBS weighed in with CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which ran nightly until 1982. That show’s surprising success was due in...

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Twenty-first Century Radio Drama

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

As the new century dawned, radio drama was undergoing a transformation. As had happened during the 1950’s, new technologies were affecting it. This time, however, the encounter was invigorating. In Britain, radio drama was secure. Since 2000, the BBC has continued to produce radio adaptations of stories by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Georges Simenon. Other mystery writers are represented as well. For example, in 2007, the BBC produced a series entitled Readings to Die For based on James Sallis’s fictional detective Lew Griffin, and another program, McLevy, based on the writings of the real mid-nineteenth century Scottish detective and crime author James McLevy. The BBC also based Secret Agent...

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(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Barfield, Ray. Listening to Radio, 1920-1950. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996. Provides factual information about radio in its formative years and a portrait of the listening experience. Index and bibliography.

Britton, Wesley A. Beyond Bond: Spies in Fiction and Film. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. Engagingly written, authoritative, and detailed history of fictional spies in the popular media, including radio.

Dunning, John. Tune in Yesterday: The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, 1925-1976. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976. Show-by-show guide to the golden age of radio. Concise...

(The entire section is 257 words.)