BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. With the proliferation of media delivered by cable, satellite and the Internet, it's hard to remember that once there was only one kind of box connecting us to the rest of the world -- the creaky, squeaky device known as radio. Technology hasn't much changed, but the medium sure has. A company called Great Tapes in Minneapolis has captured an entire day on radio. The station: WJSV in Washington, DC. The date: September 21, 1939.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But we didn't want just any critical ear on all this ancient radio. We wanted one that had been recently assaulted by hours and hours of television. Jack Lechner is a film and television producer and author of Can't Take My Eyes Off of You for which he watched a week of television, 12 TVs at once for 15 hours a day. Jack, how did that compare to 18 hours of old-time radio?
JACK LECHNER: Eighteen hours of radio is a breeze in comparison. I have to say it wasn't [LAUGHS] necessarily always better. I mean when, when--you, you listen to this 18 hours, it reminds you that-- as I say in my book, the, the science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon said that 90 percent of everything is crap. That certainly applied to a week of watching television, and it certainly applies to a day of listening to the radio.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So give me an example of some monumental crap you heard during this 18 hours.
JACK LECHNER: Well, there are a lot of soap operas. A lot, a lot of soap operas, and their interesting -they're, they're a little different from soap operas now. They're 15 minutes long. Each one has a sponsor, because everything has a sponsor-- [ORGAN MUSIC] and they have this ironclad format that's almost like kabuki. [LAUGHS] You know they, they start with an organ intro--; you hear so much organ in this one day of radio that you can't believe it. [ORGAN MUSIC]
JACK LECHNER: There's a show called Your Family and Mine. It's every, you know, soppy, corny thing you've ever heard all wrapped up into one and very badly acted to boot!
MAN 1: I need you, Judy.
WOMAN: His need is greater!
MAN 1: I can't give you up.
WOMAN: You, you've got to forget about me!
MAN 1: Judy I was just a hobo until I met you. You took me by the hand and showed me the way to a new life!
JACK LECHNER: Interestingly you've got all - these hours of soap operas, and just as soap operas do now, the soap operas are the only place where you recognize the class system on radio, and in fact, you know, when you - if you watch, as I did, a week of television now, the soap operas are the only place where you can tell that there are rich people, poor people, middle class people -- people of all different economic brackets in America.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The, the Goldbergs -- this was a program that ran for 15 years and moved to television --now this kind of - and, and this is a family who lived on the Lower East Side of New York. This kind of blatant ethnicity is something we haven't begun to see again in mass media until recently. What do you make of that?
JACK LECHNER: Well there's more of an acknowledgement in show - in all of show business at that point that America is a melting pot, and a celebration of that. It goes, in some ways, straight back to Vaudeville. It's also the 30s, you know; it, it's the Depression and-- there, there's something that actually feels very right when you listen to it about a show about poor people! I have to say this is one of the cases where nostalgia seems to have gone a long way. When you actually listen to the Goldbergs, it's not that good. [LAUGHTER] Maybe it's just an off episode, but-- you know it's sort of in this uncomfortable boundary between sitcom and soap opera, and I kept listening to it thinking what was all the fuss about? I can't tell.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And--
JACK LECHNER: It's not even that Jewish.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's not even that Jewish.
BOB GARFIELD: No. It's just a little - there's a little sprinkling here and there.
WOMAN: Jake there's clothes and then there's clothes!
MAN 1: So what? Tsk! Something awfully funny here.
MAN 1: Please! How do you know where these clothes came from? He must have been a chauffeur for rich people before he took this job! And maybe the gave they clothes to him!
WOMAN: But one thing they pulled off very well was the live broadcast of FDR from the Congress. Was that a high point for you?
JACK LECHNER: It was, actually! It, it - first of all it's just remarkable to hear history in the making, and that's why incidentally they chose this day -- September 21, 1939 -- to record. One of the things about FDR is he - it, it's the degree to which he doesn't sound like any modern politician.
PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: I regret that the Congress passed that Act. I regret equally that I signed that Act.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now this day in radio begins in Washington, DC with Arthur Godfrey who's so companionable, who has such a way of drawing you in to this 1930s sphere I almost felt a gingham apron materializing around my waist as I listened to him.
JACK LECHNER: He's just great, and that was actually one of the most enjoyable things was just to listen to this little embryonic portrait of Arthur Godfrey just before he became an enormous national celebrity. [BELL RINGS]
ARTHUR GODFREY: 6:29 and a half. This is Thursday morning, September the 21st. If I am not mistook -- took with a mistake, this is the autumnal equinox, isn't it?
JACK LECHNER: This is the part of radio that didn't get hyped off to television - the things that aren't enhanced by pictures, and Godfrey in 1939 is doing pretty much what any deejay does now except he, he doesn't have to resort to some of the tactics that Howard Stern does.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then on around eleven o'clock you come to the Jean Abbey show which, you know, we all thought that the infomercial was a new idea, but apparently it's a pretty old idea!
JACK LECHNER: It's remarkable! Here you have a 15 minute infomercial for a Washington department store. Jean Abbey is a woman with kind of cut glass diction who talks you through what's on sale in each department, floor by floor. That's the whole show.
JEAN ABBEY: No longer is that feigned hourglass look achieved through torturous steel casings, lacings and constant discomfort. Not if you're properly fitted by a competent corsettiere. That's why I dropped in at S.K. & Son to shop foundations.
JACK LECHNER: We think of television now as being the most commercial any medium has ever been? Television now has nothing on 1939, and there's no boundaries between show and commercial! The same person who is delivering the news is in the next breath giving you a plug for Arrow Beer -- Better, not Bitter. It, it's really as if Dan Rather were holding up a product at the beginning and end of the CBS News!
ARTHUR GODFREY: [SINGING, HUMMING] How do you like Pepsi Cola, mother? You like Pepsi Cola? Why don't you get a lot of it and keep it around the house and serve it to the kids when they come home from school. It won't hurt 'em. It's good for 'em. Wholesome, healthful, made from the essence of pure fruit juices. You couldn't hurt anybody with it. And its tangy fruit flavor appeals to young and old alike. And it's only 5 cents.
WOMAN: What did this day in radio tell you about America in 1939?
JACK LECHNER: It, it's a slower place! I mean partly it's a slower place cause they've just been through ten years of Depression, but also-- the rhythms are slower! I mean when you listen to Arthur Godfrey in the morning talking about Washington, Washington, DC is a small town! You know half of the Godfrey show is someone left a pair of sunglasses at the corner of Tenth and F. Well, [LAUGHS] you know come by the station and pick 'em up. I guess the biggest surprise for me was that commercialism. It, it's so pervasive in this day of radio. There's a great commercial for Zlotnick the Furrier.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is - is that after the Goldbergs? or--?
BOB GARFIELD: Actually that's, that's all through the day. Zlotnick the Furrier in Washington, DC anticipated the trouble in Europe and brought a lot of furs over from Europe just before you couldn't get 'em any more-- [LAUGHTER] and so he's got them at remarkable rates. That, that's actually in many shows the only mention of what's going on in Europe. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks a lot.
JACK LECHNER: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Lechner, film and television producer, is author of Can't Take My Eyes Off of You.