Old-time Radio Primer: E Stands for Escape

We are all in pursuit of it, at least for as long as we can get away with getting away from it all. Escape, I mean. It is the art of not facing facts—or whatever we call the limitations we are conditioned to regard as reality. In its figurative sense, “escape” is synonymous with the quest for pleasure, guilty or otherwise. A vast industry is devoted to the manufacture of ready retreats. Catering to our desire for vicarious thrills, sly entrepreneurs are making us pay for the investments in our future we cannot bring ourselves to make. Before television ran away with our imagination, radio was the medium most often relied upon as a gateway to worlds beyond our own. “Escape” being such a prominent aspect of radio culture, it is just the word to follow “Drama” in our radio primer, today’s entry into which opens with an ode to the dial remedial:

The stove ran out of fire,
You’re out of dimes to scrape.
The companies won’t hire,
It’s taxes and red tape. 

Of politics you tire,
though journalists go ape.
Why wallow in the mire
Squeeze wrath from your last grape? 

No need for Brokenshire
To say we’re in bad shape.
What you want from the wire-
less—Flash!—It’s more escape.

Sure, the enterprise of creating diversions has had its share of detractors. So-called “escapism”—the programmatic avoidance of the problematic—has often been denounced as a rather dirty and shameful business. A racket akin to operating a beach resort for ostriches, it encourages a head-in-sand approach to life’s challenges, an attitude that is looked down upon as not merely foolish but as socially and morally irresponsible. During the Second World War, producers of radio entertainment were expected to temper their leisure time offers with timely reminders of the tasks at hand: there was a war on, which meant scaling down consumption, serving the community, and staring the consequences of caving in or giving up straight in the lazy eye.

Any kind of escapist fare can be peddled as essential by being labelled “uplifting” or “morale-boosting”; but no radio program could entirely escape doing propaganda duty as outlined by the governmental Office of War Information. In the summer of 1945, the years of civic service and moderation came to an end at last. Bold and brash, network radio of the mid- to late-1940s—roughly the interlude between V-J Day and the Korean War—cashed in on the spirit of post-war consumerism. As one of the popular novels of the day, Frederic Wakeman’s The Hucksters, drove home, it was a time of profits and promotion. If Americans needed a break, it might as well be a commercial one.

Broadcasters turned the pursuit of happiness into opportunities to get something for nothing on newly developed giveaway programs and into occasions for fast getaways on a growing number of thriller and adventure series. The creators of Escape (1947-54) even supplied specific reasons for tuning out the everyday. Its melodramas were prefaced by an announcer’s inquiry whether tuners-in were “Fed up with the housing shortage” or “Worried about the United Nations,” references to a troubling reality that were followed by a straightforward “Want to get away from it all?” and a hard-to-resist proposal: “We offer you . . . Escape!”

On this day, 2 June, in 1950, Escape presented a play that suggested the dangers of mass hypnotism, the very mind-numbing of which radio itself was being accused. In “Mars Is Heaven,” adapted from a story by Ray Bradbury, falling for the pleasant and failing to question those who promise it, getting away from earthly cares and going out of one’s way to find contentment elsewhere, rather than making an effort to strive for it at home, are elusive and delusional actions demonstrated to have disastrous consequences.

In the search for routes of escape, the most neglected one is the way leading away from such impulses. Escape, after all, is valued by what we get out of it, which amounts to nothing if we can’t get out of it at all.

2 Replies to “Old-time Radio Primer: E Stands for Escape”

  1. I\’m always pleased when blogmad brings me to your site. Actual intellectual stimulus about a topic that I value but is outside of my ken.On my \’I don\’t know\’ answer to your poll, I think that some of the norms and rules that the ruling class had used to manage, say newspapers and religion were either consciously or unconsciously adopted by the radio magnates of the \’40s. Some topics, like a definition of class conflict, were obviously verboden. Maybe I should have just chosen the radio button associated with sponsers and pro-consumerism messages. It\’s all about the same thing.

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  2. \”I don\’t know\” is my response as well. If I \”knew\” the answer, I didn\’t need to ask and keep asking. It is certainly a question to mull over: what might be a reliable foundation for our construct of the past? Thank you for sharing.

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