Greg Bell — old time radio preservationist and all around good guy
People catching their favorite old time radio episodes daily at 11 a.m. on Benton’s KEWI-690 AM know Bell as the host of When Radio Was. That nationally-syndicated program has been around for 30 years and Bell has been the host of it since 2007.
When Radio Was is a concept originally developed by Art Fleming, who launched the show on KMOX in St. Louis, stuck with it as it was syndicated nationally and remained the host of it until the mid-1990s. Stan Freberg — an old time radio and television personality in his own right — took over the show from Fleming and Bell took over when Freburg retired from the series.
Bell said When Radio Was sticks with traditional “terrestrial radio stations” and airs on everything from larger stations to small, family owned ones like KEWI.
“It’s really nice to have those mom and pop stations out there,” he said.
For those wanting to listen to When Radio Was on the Internet, that’s certainly possible — just link to the feed from GregBellMedia.com and tune in for free.
Old time radio fans who tune in to Sirius Radio Classics 118 and XM Radio Classics 164 are very familiar with Bell. He developed the Radio Classics program and serves as the host of it. His work on the satellite program started in August 2002 and Bell said he was intrigued by the idea of having old time radio content around the clock and every day of the year.
“I built that from scratch,” he said, adding he hadn’t done classic radio shows before and wanted to give it a shot. He had done a bit of everything from being a disc jockey to news and sports programs, but his interest in old time radio drove him to work on putting an OTR show together for satellite radio listeners.
Putting together such a program proved to be a challenge, Bell said, pointing out that the When Radio Was show was well established and the format was fairly standard. Some listeners and radio stations had gotten used to an hour-long format, but satellite allowed for a greatly expanded and more flexible format — special features and series are better suited to a 24-hour format than an hour-long one, after all.
Bell said he accepted the challenge of coming up with a program suited to a 24-hour format and had, in hindsight, been working up to such a project for years.
“I actually grew up a huge, huge fans of nostalgic things,” he said, adding he studied classic radio and film in college — two art forms that have been important to him since he was a child in the 1970s.
Indeed, those old time radio programs paved the way for his current career and Bell’s learned that he’s not alone in his enthusiasm for OTR. A lot of listeners, he said, were exposed to old time radio in the same way he was — he didn’t grow up with it, but learned to appreciate those programs through being exposed to them long after the “golden age of radio” had passed due to the advent of television.
He said his audience is incredibly diverse. Some listeners are old enough to remember the first time programs on his show aired, while others are — like Bell — too young to have grown up with the programs but are old enough to know the historic importance of them. He said there are some fans who are college age or younger who are discovering the programs for the first time.
That younger audience — the one that falls into the “under Jack Benny age” 0f 39-years-old or younger — is very intriguing. One of the more popular OTR franchises that made it to television is Gunsmoke. That series went off television in 1975, and Bell said some fans of the radio series never saw an episode of the television series.
“There’s a whole generation that never watched Gunsmoke, and here they are listening to the version that predated (the television series),” he said. “We’re introducing shows to a whole new generation.”
Bell said a lot of his audience members are long-haul truckers, pointing out it’s only logical those listeners would develop an interest in old time radio. He said truckers spend a lot of time on the road and can only enjoy music, politics and sports shows for so long. Most of them are driving trucks equipped with satellite radios, so it only makes sense for them to tune in to shows that will capture their attention for long periods of time and are always on — driving out of range of the signal from a traditional radio station is an obvious problem for people who are on the road constantly, but satellite signals follow them wherever they go.
The fact old time radio shows tend to last for half an hour and satellite radio fans don’t have to search for stations or lose signals also means that vacationers and people on long commutes gravitate toward Bell’s program.
Bell said the entertainment value of his shows are important, but he’s excited about the art of preservation — in making sure people still have access to the shows and can appreciate them as an art form and realize the historic value of them. Those shows, he said, reflect the culture from which they came — America in the 1930s through the 1950s.
“Every single one of these is a history lesson,” he said.
Want to find schedules for both When Radio Was and Radio Classics? No problem — just click here to head to Bell’s site and find the appropriate link.
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.