Throughout the Golden Days: 1920s-1960s, everyday Australians switched on household radio sets for their daily doses of entertainment. Hear from curators and specialists in soaps, thrillers and Grace Gibson serials as they break down the essential moments of radios’ Golden Days era in these excerpts from the upcoming NFSA podcast ‘Who Listens to Radio?’
This feature is part of the NFSA's Radio 100 celebrations.
'Who Listens to the Radio' will launch in February 2024.
Curator at the National Film and Sound Archive
'I've got a particular interest in the horror radio serials and thrillers and the kind of moral panic around them. Before TV, before internet [radio] was your window to the world that was and especially before TV pushed radio into becoming more of a two-way system, with people being able to participate with things like talkback, you had a choice of what you could listen to. And it's also hard to imagine just the amount of choice that you did have as well – literally every genre of radio serial that you can listen to, theatre, plays, music.
We imported a lot of our programs directly from the US. So in the early days a serial would have been shipped from the US and just replayed on air here. What I find interesting was when the Second World War started and banned non-essential imports of goods, we suddenly couldn't do that anymore, which led to a huge, homegrown industry. They could still get their hands on US scripts of programs and they would be adapted for Australian audiences, so sometimes you can listen to the US recording of a radio drama and then the Australian recording of a radio drama and it's kind of telling you [through] the things they change [that it’s] either for Australian tastes or censorship. A lot can reveal itself when you're looking at how those things happen.
The other thing [is] the Binny Lum interviews and recordings. That's one of my favourite collections. Binny Lum was an amazing Chinese Australian broadcaster, who was super friendly and engaging and interesting – just as interesting as the interview subjects as well. There's gold in every one of her interviews. These were off-the-cuff interviews with both celebrities and non-celebrities around the country. She talked to The Beatles – got an interview before anyone else in London in April 1964 just by pestering them and because she was so friendly and had connections she could utilise. Listening through that collection when it came into us a few years ago was amazing. It only survived because Binny was working freelance so the station didn't have control of those recordings. The family did. And they held on to them until she passed away, when they came to us.'
Fulbright scholar and PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara in Theatre Studies
'When I was eight, my grandfather, for Christmas, bought me a little audio cassette tape of horror radio stories and I had this little pink boombox and I would put this audio tape in and it would be stories from Edgar Allan Poe. I remember it was The Pit and The Pendulum and these incredible stories.
I've [now] had the great pleasure of spending 2023 in Australia, going through the archives at the Arts Centre Melbourne, the National Film and Sound Archive, and the State Library of Victoria to uncover Australian horror radio's rich traditions.
What is a radio serial? Great question. Obviously theatre has a very long tradition. And then with the invention of radio and its propagation in the 20th century, it was pretty clear that not only was radio a medium of communication, but it was a medium for entertainment. And so radio plays start in the 1920s. The first American radio play was The Wolf by Eugene Walter in 1922. It's a log cabin drama. And then the BBC's Twelfth Night was the first British dramatic play to air in 1923. In Australia, it was 1925's The Barbarous Barber, so horror radio is embedded into Australian radio media and radio drama from the very beginning.
What's really cool about radio serials is, well, you think about it, you have to fill content, right? You've got all of this airspace and the radio serial is fantastic because it allows you to revisit the same characters, so you don't have to do all that groundwork, but you put them in new situations, and you can tell longer stories over a longer period of time. And that's where television serials are born. Television pulls a lot of the formats that we get out of radio. Quiz shows, newscasts, dramas, soap operas, get pulled in from this radio serial tradition that's growing globally.
Women's place in horror radio, both performance and horror radio audiences is really interesting because they were a huge part of the demographics that these shows appealed to. Broadcasters found that very quickly. If you look at the show, The Witch's Tale, which airs in America in 1931 for the first time, that's where the radio horror serial is thought to begin.
So, in Australia, it airs in Sydney, on 2UZ in 1942, And it's aired two times during the week. On Thursdays, at 7.30pm and 11am on Tuesdays. And who's listening? Kids are off to school and especially [in] radio’s early days [it] wasn't something that was very transportable. Women were listening. Women were making up huge amounts of the audience, but it also gave a lot of really great opportunities for female performers. So women had a really important place in horror radio on both sides of the microphone.'
Senior Curator of acquisition programs at the National Film and Sound Archive
'What we do here as an archive rather than as a museum is we're really capturing the expressions of Australian culture and popular culture. Radio is a fantastic way to do that, because most radio isn't designed to last for 100 years – it's designed to go out, have an immediate impact and that's why we get, in some ways, our truest cultural representation of the past.
It was predominantly for playing music and advertising at the beginning, and within 10 years you've got things like the radio serials, game shows and vaudeville-style shows, which are completely different. And I think that's what radio does – it morphs. It's so flexible.
We've got a huge collection of radio series for that period [of the] 30s through to 50s. One of the reasons is because they were commercially pressed in huge quantities that we sent all around the country. Every radio station would have their suite of radio series that they'd play. So those survived [but] things like game shows and the like, not so much. They weren't pressed and sent out in the same sort of numbers [although] we still have quite a few.
My favourite story amongst radio series is probably around Grace Gibson, who founded Grace Gibson Productions. She's American, she came out to Australia as a representative of an American company, because radio series came from all around the world. And Grace Gibson was a sales rep, but ended up staying, partly because she got stranded by the Second World War but secondly, she had a great head for business and founded what became the biggest radio series production company in Australia. They produced hundreds and hundreds of different titles. It also highlights the fact that particularly in that period, women were really at the centre of radio.
A lot of the biggest radio series were written by women, like Blue Hills. And also because they are dramas, a lot of female actors became really famous in Australia. The announcers were almost entirely men but a lot of what was going on in terms of writing and production, women were heavily involved.'
Owner of Grace Gibson Productions; the only Golden Age radio company still in operation
'The Golden Years of radio were fairly short. If we look back at it, it would have been from around about the late 1930s, but probably even post Second World War, when families started coming back from overseas service. From there through the next 20-odd years, they were the absolute Golden Years. That's the era of Jack Davey, John Dease with 'The Quiz Kids', and the Celtic's theatre, and the Nile Radio Players – all of these shows for both daytime but especially night-time.
I first got into the game in 1972 out in Charleville in Western Queensland. There was no television out [there then]. People loved the radio serials. They would have a radio serial at nine o'clock in the morning, 11 o'clock in the morning, another one in the afternoon, a few at night. When I first started, I had to play these things and initially, I thought, ‘What on earth is this?’ But I discovered how easily you could get roped into a storyline. Most of them of course, were Grace Gibson radio serials. It became appointment listening – for all of us announcers as well as our audience.
Grace Gibson is a fascinating woman. Where you hear the expression of 'glass ceiling' – in Grace's case, there were no glass ceilings. In 1944 she set up her own company Grace Gibson Productions.
Grace Gibson was the biggest producer of radio serials, not just in Australia, but in the British Empire and British Commonwealth later on, because she sold into so many other overseas markets. As the smaller companies ended up closing down, Grace would take over the representation of their product. And so the Gibson catalog just kept on growing and growing.
Grace's first serial for Grace Gibson productions was one called 'Medical File'. From there, however, her main trick was to buy American radio transcription scripts, and then bring them back here and get them Australianised. Her two big daytime soaps were 'Portia Faces Life' and 'Dr. Paul'. They started off being based on American scripts, but very quickly, she realized that she was getting much better material being written here by local Australian writers, so they she ended up moving away from the US scripts and just having them all scripted here in Australia.'
These excerpts have been condensed and edited for clarity.