On This Day in 1962: Suspense Ends As US Radio Invests Its Drama Dollar Elsewhere

She’s fiddling with the wrong knobs

Imagine flipping through the latest copy of Entertainment Weekly and reading about a psychological thriller starring Halle Berry and Colin Farrell, to be broadcast live from your favorite radio station. Imagine sitting on a train catching the opening of another season of Desperate Housewives on your iPod . . . with your eyes closed. Imagine what audio entertainment used to be and still could be today had radio not been “abandoned like the bones at a barbecue” (as comedian Fred Allen once put it). Instead of continuing the feast, we are starving our senses, having been given less to nourish our imagination and more to gawk at from afar, even as our television sets are being gradually retired in favor of cyber-age gadgetry.

Well, as anyone passionate about the half forgotten and much neglected culture of US radio drama will be only too keenly aware, today marks the anniversary of what is generally regarded as its official demise. The two last holdouts, the thriller anthology Suspense and the detective series Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar presented their final episodes on this day, September 30, in 1962. In an age when listeners were taking their transistor radios everywhere, radio drama was going nowhere.

Storytelling on US radio had been suffering a decade-long decline, even though, as one of my readers pointed out to me recently, there were still a few fine programs left on the air in the mid-to-late-1950s, including the long-running series mentioned above. There were attempts to revive radio drama in the 1970s and ’80s, as well; but since the old dial had been refitted with a new shorthand for aural art, the potentialities of the medium collapsed into music, talk, and news formats, leaving little space and fewer resources for the theater of the mind.

In the US, the radio play has always been looked upon as a makeshift art, a substitute or remedial form of entertainment for a public that was being told for ages that television was just around the corner. Television was supposedly the real thing, which in reality meant that the landscapes of the imagination were being walled in to fit the tiny screen before our sore eyes.

Getting the picture was a considerable loss; but our ocular preoccupations keep most of us from getting it, from making up for it by making it up all over again.

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