There’s a ridiculous amount of free media content available from the Internet Archive, and the most interesting downloads are often the oldest ones. With masterpieces like Alfred Hitchcock films, gunslinging John Wayne westerns and reels of stock footage and home movies, you’d be forgiven for forgetting the audio archives exist at all.
After the Conet project shortwave numbers stations recordings my absolute favourite sound recordings reside in the Old Time Radio category. Featuring shows from the early days of radio, cheesy thrillers, radio-noir and preposterous tales of bone-chilling horror, I’ve found myself listening to quite a lot of these shows over the last few weeks.
So with years of radio history in the bag, I’ve dug out some of the most enticing series.
Murder at Midnight (1946)
Murder at Midnight can be summed up just by listening to the show’s intro, which harks: “Midnight, the witching hour when the night is darkest, our fears the strongest, and our strength at its lowest ebb. Midnight, when the graves gape open and death strikes”. Cue overly dramatic organ music and you have yourself a suspenseful serial that dabbles in the supernatural.
This show is as cheesy as they get, but with each episode lasting less than half an hour it’s easy to dip in and out. There were a total of 50 shows made but the Internet Archive currently only has half of them. I’d recommend The Man Who Died Yesterday and The House That Time Forgot as two predictable yet entertaining introductions to the show.
Not just a radio show but a sensation that spilled onto television as well, Dragnet was a 1950s detective series that debuted in 1949 with its final radio run in 1957. Of the 314 radio episodes produced the Internet Archive is home to some 298, each lasting around 30 minutes. The name Dragnet comes from the police terminology for a system of measures put in place to apprehend a suspect, and boy have they changed.
Realism was insisted on for this particular show, so unlike Murder at Midnight dialogue is often a lot less cheesy and stage directions far less explicit. Thanks to this Dragnet is still very palatable today, despite being a relic from old. Listen out for “Fatima Brand” cigarette commercials, the show’s primary sponsor from 1949 to 1952.
Voyage of the Scarlet Queen (1947)
Star Trek fans, listen up! Voyage of the Scarlet Queen is an old-time radio serial that takes place on the high seas and aired on the Mutual Broadcasting System in the late 40s. It is often compared to Star Trek, in fact it is often referred to as a precursor to the show for the parallels drawn between the two. At the time of airing, the ocean was still a highway to mystery and adventure in the same way that space was to Star Trek fans in the 60s.
The similarities come not just in the formula of moving around on an almost weekly basis with an intimate crew getting into trouble, but also from the intro and outro which were read from the captain’s log. The Internet Archive has 35 episodes, including the pilot created after the show’s cancellation in an attempt to reboot under a different name.
A Case For Dr Morelle (1957)
A BBC production from 1957 which ran for 13 episodes, A Case For Dr Morelle just goes to show that our tastes really haven’t changed much over the last 60 years. Why? Well Dr Morelle is the 1950s equivalent to CSI, Waking the Dead and any of those other crime-busting shows in which the usual police leads have gone cold, with Dr Morelle at the helm in his capacity as a Poirot-esque calm and collected crime-fighter.
Produced by the BBC the Internet Archive’s catalogue has been lovingly recovered from off-air recordings, original masters and some old reels found in Melbourne, Australia from the show’s run on 3LO Melbourne in the 1960s. The recordings are not all of the highest quality, but they’re still worth your time.
With a name like Gunsmoke, what else could this be but a western? Gunsmoke is an old time radio show that still seems to enjoy a loyal following, and had fairly high production values for its time. This has led to it being recorded as one of the finest radio shows in history, and you can enjoy 473 single episodes in the Archive’s catalogue.
Billed as an “adult western”, the show was set in the 1870s in Dodgy City, Kansas and is still known for the unprecedented realism it presented to listeners. The show was later turned into a successful, yet altogether less polished television show which ran for 20 seasons.
X Minus One (1955)
A breakout sci-fi hit from the mid-50s, X-Minus One was originally a reboot of a previous series called Dimension X. After remaking a few old Dimension X episodes the writers at NBC poured their heart into original scripts and adaptations of some very famous stories including Philip K. Dick’s “Colony” and Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall”.
If you love old-style sci-fi then these are worth checking out, starting with Cold Equations. The intro is just as cheesy as Murder at Midnight, and features the line “These are stories of the future, adventures in which you’ll live in a million could-be years on a thousand may-be worlds” – oh yes.
This is the tip of the proverbial iceberg, there are hundreds of shows available in the Old Time Radio category on the Internet Archive. If you’re bored of the usual podcasts then why not swap them out for an episode or two of some far-fetched tale of life in the year 2000, a cheesy horror or no-nonsense cop show?
Do you have any favourite old radio shows? Any from the Archive that you’d like to share? Let us know what you think in the comments, below.