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August 6, 2008

Kentuckiana Radio Addicts: Tuning up the past

Pay particular attention or you might pass it. Hidden behind the trees on Frankfort Avenue and distinguishable only by the book box near the sidewalk is Crescent Hill Public Library, home to, among many other things, Kentuckiana Radio Addicts. Around 6:30 p.m. every third Monday of the month, anywhere from three to eight members hang around and discuss — spoiler alert — radio. The real deal, pre-FM, none of this satellite stuff. We’re talking old-time radio, with dramas, soap operas, mysteries, comedy. 

Founded a decade ago by the late Tom McConnell, KRA is essentially a series of conversations that tend to drift naturally from old-time radio to current events to true-life stories (ask to hear the one about a man who stole a plaster ham) and sometimes back again. 

“Once you get involved in (old-time radio) and start listening to (shows), it sort of grows on you,” says Charles Niren, who estimates he’s gathered 5,000 radio shows since he started collecting in 1970. That’s a small collection compared to some. 

Members — including author and historian Jim Cox, who penned “The Great Radio Soap Operas” — gather to share clips from shows they own or have recently acquired. A favorite is Jack Benny, the famous vaudeville, radio and television personality.

“You can listen 20 years ago or 40 years ago or 20 years from now, and (Jack Benny) will be relevant because he is talking about things that everybody talks about,” Niren says. “You listen to Bob Hope, and unless you are familiar with the history of the time — because he was so political — he’d talk about this guy or that guy. But 20 years later, you don’t know who that guy is.”

Similar to Hope and Benny, a number of radio actors transitioned to television and played parts in popular shows such as “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “The Andy Griffith Show,” or lent their voices to cartoons like “The Flintstones,” “Looney Tunes” and “The Huckleberry Hound Show.” The people here are full of stories about these characters and eager to share. Rare is the unanswered question. 

“We are all fountains of knowledge — some useful and some not,” says member Glenn Brownstein, who lists National Public Radio’s “Car Talk,” “Whad’Ya Know” and “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” atop his current-radio list. 

During this meeting, Brownstein, Niren and fellow member Arnold Levitz recall stories about the downfall of Fred Allen after “Stop The Music,” a low-rated 1948 radio game show that lured an audience by randomly calling people to play. It also featured popular radio ventriloquist/comedian Edgar Bergen, whose show also shepherded Orson Welles’ infamous 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast, one of the most well-known radio happenings in history.

“From the about middle of September to about the middle of October, virtually every night people thought World War II was going to start any day,” Brownstein remembers. 

Radio aided listeners’ imaginations with soundmen, who created sound effects for programs — a door creaking, a horse galloping, glass breaking or explosions, as in the case of “War of the Worlds.” While shows on NPR approximate it, there is nothing on American radio today like radio of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, Niren says.

While the group focuses on old-time radio, Niren says he records important television and radio programs from today, including the first four hours of news coverage after the 9/11 attacks. Someday it will be considered history, he says. 


Caitlin is entering her sophomore year as a print-journalism major at Ohio University and enjoys reading … her own work.