It was called “the theater of the mind.” Back before television families would huddle around their radio and listen to such popular shows as “Gunsmoke” or “Burns and Allen.” I still have fond memories as a young boy going to bed on Sunday nights and listening to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, drifting off to sleep while picturing the program’s action in my head.
I bought a Sirius/XM radio for my car because I love to listen to the music of the 1970s. But more often than not you’ll find me tooling down the road listening to a great old radio drama on Channel 148, hosted by Greg Bell. I recently had the opportunity to ask Greg some questions about his interest in Classic Radio and why it’s still so popular 50 years after the last program aired.
Mike Smith: Where did you develop your interest in the radio programs of the past?
Greg Bell: As I was born in the 1960s, I was too young to have listened to these shows when they originally played. What is often called “The Golden Age Of Radio” wrapped up in 1962, when CBS, the last network still playing weekly radio theater, ended that with the final episodes of “Suspense” and “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.” Personally I was always a fan of classic media, old films, TV shows and radio. I grew up listening to the revival radio shows including Himan Brown’s “CBS Radio Mystery Theater” in the 1970s and The Elliott Lewis led “Sears Radio Theater” in the late 70s and early 80s. And later I listened to “When Radio Was” during the Art Fleming and Stan Freberg era. The entire reason the XM (now Sirius XM) RadioClassics channel was created was to introduce all these wonderful shows to a whole new audience, who like myself, were not around when they originally aired. Great storytelling is truly timeless, and these shows prove that.
MS: How did the gig at Sirius come about?
GB: In December of 2001, I was hired at XM Satellite Radio in DC for the now-defunct USA Today channel (basically a radio version of the newspaper.) In the summer of 2002, they launched two new spoken word channels, Sonic Theater and RadioClassics. I was hired to run the classic radio channel, and was able to draw on my knowledge of classic films and television to also host the channel. XM merged with Sirius in 2008, and I was retained as the host of RadioClassics. And then following the retirement of Stan Freberg in 2006, I took over as the host of the syndicated series “When Radio Was” airing on approximately 200 radio stations across North America.
MS: You’ve hosted several radio themed cruises. What all do they entail?
GB: What a blast! We are currently preparing for the Fourth Annual Radio Spirits sponsored sea cruise: www.cruisingwithgregbell.com The first three were tremendous successes. While at sea we re-create both classic and original radio plays live on stage with the fans as the actors as well as handling the sound effects also created live. We also have old time radio trivia, show discussions, listening parties, gift bags, and perhaps most importantly it’s a place where I lot of folks, from all over the nation, who love the same stuff (classic radio theater) can meet.
MS: What are some of your favorite radio programs?
GB: Only way to answer that is to break it down by genre:
Comedies: Jack Benny is the king, but for great chemistry and timeless humor; my favorite is “The Phil Harris & Alice Faye Program.” Harris and Elliott Lewis as his pal, Frankie Remley were Cramden and Norton before the “Honeymooners” came along.
The top thriller and mystery series: For me they are “Suspense” and “The Whistler.” Both had tremendous storytelling and featured different themes each week, so it might be a murder mystery one week, science fiction the next and so on.
Police dramas: “Dragnet” was a radio show first and is very well done, but I also recommend “Broadway Is My Beat” (follows NYPD detective Danny Clover) and “The Lineup.”
The Westerns; sure everyone remembers “The Lone Ranger,” “Hopalong Cassidy” and “Red Ryder,” and they are entertaining but were targeted for younger listeners. So my favorites are “The Six-Shooter” (with Jimmy Stewart), “Fort Laramie” (featuring future “Perry Mason” star Raymond Burr) and “Gunsmoke.” Radio’s “Gunsmoke” which debuted three years before the TV version, is easily the best of the bunch. With a whole different cast (William Conrad was the voice of Marshall Dillon) “Gunsmoke” was much more than a western. The writers tackled issues of the 1950s like racism, xenophobia, domestic abuse, etc while setting the stories in the late 19th Century American West.
MS: Why do you think the medium is still popular?
GB: As I said earlier, great storytelling is truly timeless!
MS: With the popularity of satellite radio growing, do you think that radio dramas/comedies could return? Maybe “Screen Directors Playhouse presents ‘Jaws’?”
GB: It’s already here; there are tons of modern radio theater groups all over the country performing both classic and original scripts, so it’s truly alive and well.
MS: Do you have any new programs coming to the channel this year?
GB: There will always be series that our exclusive content provider, Radio Spirits, is able to get legal broadcasting rights to air and/or have digitally restored and prepped for satellite radio, plus they periodically supply us with more “new to the channel” episodes from series we currently feature.
For a list of the weekly shows, click here http://www.siriusxm.com/radioclassics/weeklyschedule