Friday, October 14, 2011

Indulge me as I talk about radio transcription

I don't discuss my old-time radio hobby very often, but it's probably the most substantial of all my hobbies; I may watch two classic films and read 50 comic books average per week, but in the last 20 years I've listened to old-time radio programs on every single night spent under my own roof. In my unemployed or student days, I sometimes listened from 10 AM to 1 AM, thanks to the internet.

Thus: transcription. One of the problems in radio archiving is that so much old-time radio programming has been lost to the mists of time; most programs from the 30s & 40s were performed live once and then forgotten; not recorded, not rebroadcast. For instance, the serial program I Love a Mystery gained a reputation as one of the media's all-time greatest adventure shows, but very little still exists (especially from the program's first run) so it's difficult for latter-day listeners to judge the merits of the series.

Various programs were recorded - Amos N' Andy was an early example, having been recorded in advance so its episodes could be distributed to non-affiliate stations. Information Please began recording their shows in advance because it depended on the quick-witted responses of its panel of experts to answer questions in an entertaining manner. Transcription enabled the editors to cull the program down to it's best material. The show's network at the time were quick to deny transcription would overwhelm radio; "Would you rather kiss a girl or her picture?" as NBC put it. However, after World War II transcription arrived in full force, thanks in part to recording technology captured from the Germans. By the 1950s, most radio comedy and drama was transcribed.

Why was radio transcription controversial in the 1940s? For those of you who don't know much about old-time radio, allow me to summarize the good and the bad of radio transcription:

The Good

  1. Availability of cast Programs no longer needed to fear the absence of a scheduled guest star or the sudden illness of a lead performer because the show could already be in the can before it was even advertised. It also freed up film actors who didn't normally have time to commit to a weekly program, allowing them to record their episodes whenever it was most convenient for them.
  2. Production values Small-time programs which formerly had to rely on organ music and no sound effects could now afford to insert canned music & sound effects into their shows.
  3. Archiving Thanks to transcription, we have much more old-time radio preserved from the post-WW2 era than we do the pre-WW2 era. Further, the post-WW2 shows tend to have very crisp, clean audio.

The Bad

  1. The laugh track As canned laughter replaced live audience reactions, phoniness crept into the comedy shows. Editing canned laughter was not a seemless process and resulted in some shows having painfully-obvious reused audience laughter (as in some latter-day Edgar Bergen shows I've heard).
  2. Musical arrangements Too many programs borrowed from the same tiny music library. It's disappointing to hear one show which uses the same musical bridges & backgrounds every's even more disappointing to hear another show drawing from the same pool (ie, Rocky Fortune, Barrie Craig, That Hammer Guy). The days of live studio orchestras were gone, but no one wanted to admit it.
  3. Loss of spontaneity Actors fluffing their lines or ad-libbing may have been undesirable in dramatic shows (Sam Spade being an obvious exception; Howard Duff's ad-libs are frequently the best moments), but they're just about as crucial to comedy as the live audience. Too many comedy programs fell into predictable routines; Jack Benny is my favourite of the old-time radio comedians, but even I have difficulty with his last few years on the air as his cast had shrunk, no longer went on remote broadcasts, fell into reusing old scripts/gags and were well-past the days when a cast member fluffing a line could provide unexpected hilarity (ie, the famous "chiss swease sandwich," "Drear Pooson" and "grass reek" fluffs).
  4. Assembly line production It was great that transcription meant Humphrey Bogart could have his own weekly radio show (Bold Venture), but because he recorded his shows together as quickly as possible, listening to one episode means you've heard just about every episode.

To put it most simply, the transcription era was too clean. I'm sure it was wonderful for writers and producers to have their programs transpire exactly as envisioned, but it was done at the cost of the human element. Pre-transcription shows feel as though they have stronger emotions because the performers are acting out in front of a live audience with live co-stars, a producer pointing at the clock on the wall, a script which could fall out of your hands (as once happened to Peter Lorre on Mystery in the Air) and musicians and sound effects men who need to hit the right cues.

Additionally, the transcription era arrived just as television was coming in; television started out as live broadcasts which weren't archived so they held the same intensity radio formerly prided itself on. As television eroded radio's influence, an additional problem crept into radio broadcasts: the pool of performers was shrinking. That is, when a performer like Howard Duff was blacklisted there was no one new coming up in the ranks who could replace him; when Jeff Chandler died, there was no new Jeff Chandler to fill his shoes. Some radio performers stuck in to the bitter end - William Conrad, John Dehner, Ben Wright - but most dropped out and the latter-day performers weren't up to snuff (YMMV). Variety suffered as well - the movie adaptation, horror-themed programs, high adventure and comedy stars went away, leaving little more than detectives, cowboys, soap operas and the occasional sciece-fiction show.

As budgets were slashed, programs had difficulty coming to terms with reduced cast lists. I find it aggravating to hear 1950s detective programs where the lead actor narrates about 75% of all dialogue heard in the show (often with canned music and almost no sound effects). Few low-budget shows can thrive on the force of a single personality (Nelson Olmstead being a rare exception), fewer still had any dynamic personalities to speak of.

With slashed budgets and diminished verve, 1950s radio transcriptions are, generally, my least favourite shows to delve into. That said, CBS held some standards: Suspense, Gunsmoke and the Jack Benny Program kept their quality up for some time and their latter-day shows Escape and the Stan Freberg Show are definite highlights from the dying years of radio.


Jack Veasey said...

I happily indulge you. Tomorrow, I officially become old (65). I was both lucky and unlucky enough to be there for the transition from radio as the primary home entertainment medium to TV. I, of course, loved TV. It was new (aside from the bar, we had the first TV in our town) and it brought people into our house to see Milton Berle. Radio rather rapidly evolved into the music medium it still is. I found I missed radio as it was, though, and always carried a fondness for it.

In the early '80s, I worked at a public TV station. As that time, public TV felt content was more important than time. Some shows came up 5 to 10 minutes short and we had to fill in the time. I had just heard a Fred Allen tape and came upon the idea of several fills with lengths of 4 to 8 minutes which would use radio comedies as soundtracks and vintage radios as the characters. One radio was Fred, for example, and another was Mrs. Nussbaum, another was Titus Moody, and another Senator Claghorn. We did a bit from "Duffy's Tavern," the amazing Fred Allen/Tallulah Bankhead breakfast show, "Fibber McGee and Molly," Jack Benny trying to buy an airplane ticket to New York, which featured...I can't think of his name, but he always started his bit with "Yesssss." He asks Jack if Jack wants a round-trip or one way. "One way," Jack replies. "Good!" says the ticket guy, and you can hear Jack trying to stifle a laugh.

They turned out to be quite popular. We had a couple of requests to alert viewers when one would air. They disappeared when new management took over and PBS became more strict with the lengths of its programs. The new manager wanted things thrown out that may have been history, but they weren't HIS history. PBS wanted shows at 28 or 58 minutes. The day of my radio fills imitated real radio, in a way. I never kept anything I produced, so the fills (sorry...interstitial elements) are gone.

Thanks for your blog on radio. My partner, knowing I'd find this interesting, forwarded it to me. So I'm not the Jack posted; I am the nearly-old Dave.

Michael Hoskin said...

Thank you for your comments Dave! I'm glad you were able to run those OTR shows for as long as you were able - you never know how many future fans you could be influencing. I know once I became a fan I would look just about anywhere on the radio dial or the satellite dish to pick up OTR!