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The Great American Broadcast

February 2024


The Great American Broadcast

A Celebration of Radio’s Golden Age

by

Leonard Maltin

 

An admitted child of the TV generation, Leonard Maltin states that he first learned of radio from his parents.  They tried to explain to him there was no such thing as “TV” when they were young.  His bewildered response was:


“You sat and listened to radio?  What was there to look at?”

 

Now, I did not know the birth date of Mr. Maltin, or even that he is still alive, so I had to look up those facts, online.  My initial impression of this Baby-Boomer worldview, that the history of the world began the moment that wee Baby-Boom was born, was thereby confirmed by the numerical fact that Mr. Maltin is, indeed, a Boomer.


I vowed to look past that woeful fate.


I was, however, immediately put into the frame of mind of the current idiotic exemplars, the Digital Dolts, for whom life cannot exist without a 16- to 18-hour day of Being Online, or co-existing with cell-phone time.  That way, they screen-capture everything!

 

Maltin is my senior in terms of years, and a complete stranger in terms of attitude toward many things. It’s the great Boomer/Post-Boomer divide; neither the twain shall meet.  I am nonetheless impressed by his insistence on getting to the root of the subject matter.  His wide-eyed amazement at the prior existence of this alien communication medium, Radio, is comical, in one sense, and sad in another.


According to Maltin’s definition, I am not a child of the TV generation, although the television had supplanted the radio as the primary entertainment medium by the span of my childhood.  My peers were glued to the Tube for entertainment, sports, even News. I listened to music of the 1940s and 1950s on a brown bakelite box radio in the attic of my childhood home; and I listened on my transistor radio to sports, particularly broadcasts from NYC to Prospect Park, NJ of Jets and Mets games.

 

Occasionally, I watched football games on television, but I vastly preferred listening to the play-by-play announcer on the radio.  I didn’t use the broadcasts as background noise, or to accompany other activities.  I listened only to the content on the radio, especially to the commercials.  Radio advertisements in the 1960s and 1970s were auditory art forms.


Mr. Maltin, a film & TV show critic, based in Los Angeles, spent 11 years writing this book, which was published in 1997.  He made use of interviews, conversations, trading his film contacts for documentation and descriptions of the consequential epoch of Old-Time Radio, that golden age that its participants and performers scarcely felt as golden.

 

The Great American Broadcast appeared, in print, at a time when Cable-TV was wiping out the traditional network model.  I don’t know if Maltin had an inkling of those industry changes, and collapses, underway; but I do know that he’s been a savvy calibrater of customer trends.  He claims that his interest in Old-Time Radio really got going when he came to California, from New York, and started listening to his car radio.


For me, the car radio, after the emergence of the Disk Jockey, is yet another dismal step removed from the Golden Age of Radio.  Maltin, therefore, had to take an even bigger leap back, into the Radio Past, to connect with the aging, often dying, professionals of that epoch.  He performed a noble function, annotating historic developments in an innovative industry that bridged the gaps between the crumbling of the Hollywood studio system, after World War II; and the rise of the Golden Era of Television in the late 1950s-late 1960s.

 

I think his interest in this technological phenomenon was spurred by the fading of the stars of that era, and by the fake luster of the stars of this new era, his epoch of “cultural” influence, populating the television productions (shows) pitched to the Baby Boomers.

 

Maltin had to thread a very fine needle of applauding a vintage acoustical art form, and of being part of a generation that sought to destroy genuine and revered art forms, along with all that their parents had worked, and died, to save, preserve, and pass on to future generations.  He thus weaves into his written history a comparative thread, and a dominant one, of Then Vs. Now which does not age well: it presently reads as Then Vs. Later Then.


He starts his first chapter, Signing On . . .

 

Think about the enormous impact videocassette recorders had on our lives in the 1980s. Compare that to the introduction of television in the 1950s . . .

 

Leonard is still trying to adjust to the idea that “That’s Entertainment” did not spring, full-grown, from the head of Zeus-TV.


It’s a praiseworthy effort for anyone to pull together so many facts, names, pieces of technological inventions and progress, and the names of the movers-and-shakers who made the broadcast medium what it was, and what it wasn’t.  Maltin, though, cannot seem to shake his Boomer-itis enough to posit the fact that the TV network was a mere extension of the radio network.  It would require a (gulp) scary jump toward the era BEFORE radio:

 

Cities filled with the factories of the working class, along with the mansions of the industrialists; and the sparse rural electrification of towns and villages, hollows and hamlets, filled with hovels where farmers, sharecroppers and their kin used hand-written music and hand-made instruments to give voice to folk and hillbilly songs that the Boomer peaceniks would rip off, and thence rake in tons of money, all in the name of social consciousness.


The history of any thing does not begin the moment, or hour, before that thing came to be.  The overly-used word, context, truly does usefully apply to following the developmental thread of a timeline 20, 30, 40 years prior to the innovation, invention, incident, and inevitability of any occurrence, age, advancement, or unfolding into realization.

 

A reader must take into account the background of the writer of any book, regardless of the genre.  The Great American Broadcast is a fact-filled, photo-supplied effort to cash in on the end of an epoch; but the epoch wasn’t the Golden Age of Radio.  It’s actually the Golden Age of Hollywood (films), of TV (network shows), and of FM-radio (programmed music).

 

Very often, an author such as Maltin focuses on the past in order to pump up the present.  Because he lacked first-hand experience of those vocal dinosaurs about to die, Leonard fills in the void with the type of compare-and-contrast that comes off as naive, and . . . shallow.


Read the book for the gifted thespian players who made play-acting in front of the microphone an art form.  They were versatile hams, willing to earn less than their worth, often unaware of the tremendous value of that worth.  For others, the Hollywood stars who made use of radio to plug their films, the wireless was a part of their promotional contract, a duty to be done, amongst so many other tasks to sell the celluloid products produced during the first dimming of that Golden Age of Hollywood.

 

The Great American Broadcast:  A Celebration of Radio’s Golden Age kindles a world of sound that’s bigger than life; broader than the broadcast; and deeper than any of the voice artists, dramatic and comedic, comprehended at the time.  Just like the 1942 Hollywood movie, Casablanca, which, though fraught with personality clashes, fury, foibles, and the fears fomented by the bombing attacks on Pearl Harbor, became a Classic, this book by Leonard Maltin is a classic in its own class of entertainment saga.

 

It’s a hey-wow, wordy tale of memories, preserved from a by-gone era in a medium — Radio — that’s proven superior, artistically and commercially, to the mediocre communication vehicles that replaced it.  Those vehicles of crass volume and voluminous corruption, then drove themselves straight into a ditch of dreck.


Ditch the current digital ditch of dreck, and journey back in time to the thrilling wireless, guided by an unusual Baby Boomer.  Perhaps unintentionally, Maltin discovered the El Dorado of imagination, the wealth of art in radio broadcasts of a past before he was born.

 

Leonard’s not much of a visionary; he’s too gobsmacked star-struck to be able to read the stars in any sky.  The images in his book nonetheless grant infinite possibilities available to anyone going back to the future.

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