I am one of those forward-looking folks who peruse the television and radio listings as if they were stock market reports or racing forms. Determined not to miss a winner of a program, I prepare myself by wielding the ever ready text marker as I wend my way through the weekly offerings. Today, though, I am seriously late in my planning. Before me is the US broadcast schedule from 4 January 1942 as it appeared in an issue of the Radio-Movie Mirror. Having just watched “Static,” a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone—shared with me by a fellow web journalist and consummate teller of fantastic tales—I am in a timewarped frame of mind. It is not for the sake of self-indulgent nostalgia, mind you, that I am revisiting the past, but in order to reconsider the boundaries of escapism. If the present does not turn us on, how can we, in this multimediated world of ours, expect to switch off entirely?
“Static” does not look kindly on television and the getaways it promises; it suggests that there is no escaping the challenges we dare not face as we stare at that small screen on which Westerns, quiz shows, and commercials flicker while life flashes by. Instead, it romances what, by 1961, was nearly a forgotten or at any rate woefully neglected medium in America; it gives two middle-aged people a second chance at realizing their dreams by transporting them, as if on radio waves, to the early 1940s, when first they met. The radio entertainments of that period—Fred Allen, Major Bowes, and the music of Tommy Dorsey—stand ins for what was presumably a time at once rich in possibilities and free from the mindnumbing influences of that set to which Americans had gotten so attached over the years.
All this romancing aside, the early 1940s were hardly an innocent period in modern history; and rather than coming true, many a dream had to be deferred or abandoned altogether. In this moment of uncertainty, at least one business comforted consumers by attempting to keep business running as usual. Worried or bewildered about the war, wondering what changes it would impose on their everyday existence—from blackouts to rationings, from irritating inconveniences to the loss of lives—those sitting at home could still depend on radio for escapist entertainment.
On 4 January 1942, an “Appointment for Murder” was kept by Raymond, host of The Inner Sanctum, Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor were heard in Screen Guild reconstitution of High Sierra, and Sherlock Holmes embarked on the virtually spotless “Adventure of the Second Stain,” first related by Conan Doyle some four decades earlier. Meanwhile, Jack Benny was overhead in a flashback episode recounting his botched New Year’s Eve celebrations, a belatedness indicative of the radio industry’s reluctance to catch up with the times.
Beholden to the sponsors who footed the bills, commercial radio was slow to adjust; and none of the programs broadcast during the weeks immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor appear to have any relation to the realities of war. By comparison, even undemanding and apolitical publications like the Movie-Radio Guide, from which the above schedule was ripped, were quick to recontextualize the entertainments they were designed to bring to the attention of prospective listeners.
“A little over three weeks ago,” the Editors of the Guide commented, “a third-rate power with autocratic, imperialist ambitions and no scruples, attacked the United States as was to be expected—by hitting below the belt.” The propaganda still wanting on the air was already being provided by publications catering to the radio industry.
Responding to the demand for information, the Movie-Radio Guide promised to keep “pace with the nation’s war effort” and the “needs” of its readers by “inaugurated” an “enlarged short-wave department.” To the reader’s inquiry “What’s on?” the Guide replied in no uncertain terms: A war, that’s what was on.
How much does your entertainment guide of choice remind you of the fact that 2007 is by no means shaping up to be a time of peace?