Early radio, because of what it was, made for some very funny and very interesting situations. Anyone could build their own receiver. All you needed was a crystal, some wires and earphones. If you could build something yourself that then provided you with news and entertainment, that was a real accomplishment.
I remember one lady telling me about her father's interest in early radio. He built his own receiver and tried putting it in different rooms in the house to get the best reception. He found the best place was the upstairs hallway. Whenever he was able to tune in a nice program, he would call to them, and the whole family would go up there, taking turns using the earphones. One time, when they were listening to some Hawaiian music, the lady said she had never seen her father so excited at any time before then. He said it was because he had never thought his little homemade receiver would get programs all the way from Hawaii. The youngest child, a little girl, who was pushed aside by her older siblings, waited patiently. Before it was her turn, she announced to the whole family standing there, that she could hear the music without the earphones. It turned out, that what they were listening to, was the neighborhood kids practicing in their garage with their little Hawaiian band. The lady said she had never before seen her father so disappointed.
One of the main differences between radio and television, is that with radio, you don't have to sit there, staring, in front of it. You can work on projects and do activities while listening. Also, the sounds that you hear from a radio are used to paint a picture in your mind.
There once was a popular local radio program featuring a make believe orchestra and a make believe ballroom. Between the musical numbers, the announcer would make comments in order to further enhance the illusion of reality. He might say something like, "The mayor's wife is here tonight, and she's wearing a lovely blue dress." He would also greet the imaginary dancers, just to say hello, and to talk about shared local news events: "How about that storm yesterday?" He would also talk about the location of the ballroom, saying he could see sailboats out on the lake. People, many of them, would try to locate the ballroom, driving up and down the lakeshore, looking for something that they could only see in their minds. My sister-in-law used to frequently ask her husband to take her there.
I remember hearing FDR (President Franklin D Roosevelt) broadcast his "fireside chats" to the citizens of the USA.
I remember entering the living room on a Sunday afternoon, with the whole family telling me about the attack on Pearl Harbor, which then dominated the radio news. I also remember hearing about the horror of the fire of the Hindenburg, Germany's huge transatlantic dirigibile, as described by an eyewitness reporter. Sunday afternoons were set aside by many people to listen to Father Coughlin, who gave talks, on politics and religion, which were very controversial.
A popular wartime radio program, "Command Performance," featured many stars, and took written requests from servicemen. The only sound one soldier wanted to listen to over the airwaves was to hear the actress Carole Landis sigh once. She stepped up to a microphone, and he got his wish.
Shortwave radio made it possible to hear broadcasts from all over. I used to listen often, sometimes in the middle of the night, to programs from far away. I could hear amateur radio operators conversing with each other. I was able to listen in on radio conversations by ham radio operators in my community. I also heard programs from as far away as Australia. I listened to Bohemian music from the Dakotas, and the actual radio transmission of the sound of Big Ben, all the way from England. (Some people think that Big Ben is the name of the clock, but it is actually the name of the bell in the London tower.)
Jake and Lena were fictitious characters created by Gene Carroll. Gene was a long time popular radio personality, who used different voices for all of the characters. One time, Jake disappeared, and much effort was put into trying to find him. Listeners were calling in, saying where and when they had seen Jake. Gene and his partner Glen had a radio program that began with a song about, "Hello! Hello! Hello! What a wonderful word, "Hello!" Gene went on to successfully transition to television. His "amateur hour" was very popular.
An interesting part of radio is the use of sound effects. Studios had collections of items that were used to make certain sounds. Canned laughter was a way to use pre-recorded applause in a program. Coconut shell halves made the sound of horse hoofs. A sheet of metal created thunder. Real doors opened, closed and squeaked. I think the sound effects man had the best job in the radio business.
Editor's note: Straka can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.