Vital Signs

The Theater of the Mind, R.I.P.

Step back from the home-theater system for a moment and try to wrap your brain around this one: Just a couple of generations ago, high-tech “home entertainment” consisted solely of words and sounds delivered to the household via a static-plagued monophonic speaker.  Even if you remember it firsthand, you might be starting to wonder if it really happened at all, or if the idea is just a trick: something that was dreamed up and implanted in the collective unconscious—a “Lost City of Atlantis” of broadcasting history.

Well, it did happen: The all-too-brief Golden Age of Radio spanned the most pivotal decades of the American Century: the 1930’s through the 1950’s.  Nowadays, many young people in their teens, 20’s, and even 30’s cannot fathom the idea of dramatic presentations created solely for the audio realm; without a corresponding image, they are cast adrift, unable to focus on the content of what they are hearing.  Yet during the Golden Age, young and old people alike had no trouble conjuring images in their minds to accompany the rich soundscapes emanating from their bulky Crosley sets.  Three major networks—CBS, NBC-red, and NBC-blue (later to become ABC)—fed this “theater of the mind” with thousands of high-budget comedy, drama, and news programs.  Some of Hollywood’s biggest names (Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil B. DeMille,...

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