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‘CBS Radio Mystery Theater’ — in case you missed it the first time around (Part 1 of 2)

By: 20 January 2012 4 Comments

Back in 1974, Hiram Brown established a new radio drama — the CBS Radio Mystery Theater (CBSRMT).

The program owed much to old time radio (OTR) programs, even if it aired long after the Golden Age of radio had passed. From January 1974 through the end of 1982, 1,399 episodes were produced and broadcast every weeknight.  That fact leads to a question — how did the program find an audience at a time when OTR was virtually extinct?

Paul Chester of CBSRMT.com — a site dedicated to the preservation of CBS Radio Mystery Theater — has an answer or two to that question. In a nutshell, Brown launched the series in the wake of the success of American Graffiti, a coming of age film staring Ron Howard that was released in 1973 and set in the 1950s.

Himan Brown sold Radio Mystery Theater on a couple of different levels,” Chester said. “The big thing he was trying to tap into was the ‘nostalgia craze’ that was sweeping the country after the release of American Graffiti. I think the second was that there was an incredible pool of talent available for him to draw upon.”

Brown was well familiar with that talent pool as he cut his teeth in old time radio as a producer of a number of programs — The Adventures of the Thin Man, Bulldog Drummond, Dick Tracy and Flash Gordon, to name but a few show in which Brown was involved during OTR’s heyday.

“Some of this talent were included the great voices that (Brown) had worked with before in the Golden Age of Radio,” Chester explained. “And of course Brown had worked with lot of different talent through more than seventy years in the radio business! The other talent pool were the up and coming actors and actresses from CBS television in the ‘70s. When CBSRMT started, most of CBS’s soap operas were being produced in New York.”

Chester said the actors attracted to the program were in it mostly for fun, but some were out to build their resumes.

“Just about everyone who appeared on CBSRMT was paid ‘scale,’ the entertainment industry equivalent to minimum wage, so it was worth their while to make an appearance for the fun of it, But it was not a living for any of the talent,” he said.

The show connected with both people who were fans of OTR when it ruled the airwaves, but Chester said Radio Mystery Theater also connected with younger fans who were intrigued by the stories. He said those programs still hold up and CBSRMT.com was established to both preserve the legacy of the series and to find new listeners. Visitors to that site can read up on the history of Radio Mystery Theater and stream all 1,399 episodes for free.

“We officially launched CBSRMT.com in 2010 because we wanted to share these great shows, and hopefully expose them to a new audience,” Chester said. “We have taken the time on CBSRMT.com to bring listeners some of the back-story behind the series. To us, that is the real fun of OTR; not only are the shows themselves great entertainment, but listening to them while being aware of the context they were broadcast in doubles the experience.

“That’s why I like to expose people to the episodes with the commercials intact when ever possible. The mental comparison between the modern beer commercials and bubbly King of Beers (Budweiser) spots are great fun. There are a few ‘70s era American made cars still wheezing around my neighborhood, and I get a big kick from hearing about when those cars were the new thing.”

While there’s a certain amount of nostalgia associated with Radio Mystery Theater and OTR in general, Chester said that only goes so far. If audiences aren’t entertained, they won’t come back for more.

“There is much more to CBSRMT than nostalgia,” he said. “After you’ve spent an hour listening to a CBSRMT show, you don’t think, “That was a neat artifact of the ‘70s.’ You think ‘Wow! That story scared my socks off!’

“I would like to think that there are a bunch of kids out there who have iPods full on these shows hidden under their pillows. I am sure they must listen under the blankets with one earbud in and give themselves nightmares just as intense as the kids in the 70s did listening to their AM transistors.”

Nostalgia, in fact, plays a considerably smaller role than it did when Radio Mystery Theater was new.

“The truth is that most of the people who are nostalgic for original old time radio are almost all gone,” Chester said. “That doesn’t change the fact that OTR is still great entertainment. I know people who like to listen to OTR programs while they are working out on the treadmill at the gym. I hate to think of all the extra gas my parents have burned waiting for the end of a program after driving home from the city! And I know there are a bunch of university kids who have begun swapping mp3 files of old soap operas.”

Click here for Part 2 of this article.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

4 Comments »

  • Donnie Pitchford said:

    I remember struggling with my AM radio to try to hear this great series in the 1970s. I went so far as to climb a couple of trees and try to construct an aerial! I was in East Texas and the only station I could find was in Chicago! It’s great to see this series available again!

  • Pat Flannagan said:

    Thanks for this article. I believe we are now living in a second Golden Age of Radio Drama on the Web. Independent productions can be hear 24/7 on Sound Stages Radio and OTR on 20th Century Radio site among others. CBSRMT.com is a rich resource for a series that bridged classic radio drama and made a damn good effort to update to the 70s. Unfortunately it still sounded kind of frumpy and was mostly confined to AM stations across America..I know. I worked at WDBO-AM in Orlando where my job was to roll tape at midnight for CBS Radio Mystery Theatre every night.
    Now on Internet radio we have access to current cutting edge productions as well as every OTR show ever recorded. So why watch network TV ever again?
    I strongly recommend The Byron Chronicles from DarkerProjects.com or nightly at Sound Stages Radio for original storytelling in a compelling series.
    And of course there’s the BBCIplayer with drama productions from more than 3 channels to choose from.
    It’s a new Golden Age of Radio Drama.

  • Warren W. Jones said:

    Great article… as I will be 50 in September, I can tell you I was “there”. My single parent household mother sent us to bed pretty early in the 1970’s, and my 3 siblings and I listened to the shows most every night. There are not a lot of guys my age into OTR, but the CBSRMT was a big part of that, well, that and a little push from 1960’s cartoons. I have had the honor of being in 7 OTR re-creations in the last few years (2 for SPERDVAC, 5 for REPS). One of them can be found on you-tube at “REPS 2009 Groucho, Benny, Allen, part 1, 2 and 3. It was the last re-creation of Jack Benny impersonator Eddie Carroll before he passed away. I got to play the Announcer role. I will be sure to bookmark CBSRMT.com on my laptop to give me something to listen to at nights while I lay in my motel bed(s) while traveling for work in the Wind Turbine industry.

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