Radio shows have come a long way over the last ninety years. From the highly-influential The Shadow of the 1930s to modern-day podcasts such as S-Town and Serial, radio shows have changed hugely in their audience, their method of transmission, their subject matter, and their user access. Most importantly, due to immense advantages in technology, we (especially at Backtracks) know more than ever about our audience: who is listening, how many are listening, where they’re listening, and in some cases — why.
The Shadow of the 1930s and beyond
At the heart of modern-day narrative podcast influence is the radio show The Shadow, known for having Orson Welles play the title character in its arguably most notable season in 1937. The Shadow was vocalized by Orson Welles in his trademark sinister tones, but there were other notable actors, such as Frank Readick Jr and Bret Morrison, who played the part during its history. The Shadow ran for 21 seasons and told the story of an ominous figure who fought crime as a vigilante, terrifying criminals after dark and bringing them to justice. He was a mysterious, awe-inspiring character who gripped listeners for over twenty years and was one of the first American superheroes.
The 1937–38 series of The Shadow was an important one. Not only was this the momentous fourth series that saw Welles voice the part, but it was a revamp to keep the series more in line with the pulp fiction series The Shadow — A Detective Magazine which had been on sale since 1931. In the magazine, The Shadow’s real identity was that of Kent Allard, and though Allard often assumed many identities, his most notable was that of Lamont Cranston. Cranston and Allard were separate characters in the magazine, but the radio show later made Cranston be The Shadow’s true identity, a decision the producers made to keep things simple. In the magazine, The Shadow wore a black hat and long black coat, utilizing martial arts and hypnotism to control people. In the radio show, he also practiced hypnotism, but specifically to “cloud men’s minds so they could not see him”, making himself an invisible vigilante who used superpowers to fight crime.
The Shadow — A Detective Magazine was made in response to the popularity of The Shadow character who had previously been just a narrator, a dark voice telling tales on CBS’s radio show Detective Story Hour which hit the airwaves in 1931. In Detective Story Hour, The Shadow told tales from Smith & Street’s Detective Story Magazine, a long-running publication which had been on the news-stands since 1915. Much to the surprise of those involved, this dark narrator of radio became extremely popular, more than the stories he was relating, and by January 1932 season 1 of The Shadow hit the airwaves as the character got his own radio show. It ran for three seasons until 1935, mostly with Frank Readick Jr playing the role, when Smith & Street decided on a revamp to keep the show more in line with The Shadow — A Detective Magazine, leading to season 4 with Welles, which hailed a new dawn for the program. In spite of Welles’ notoriety, he only played The Shadow for one season, but the show was now very popular indeed, running until 1954 with Bret Morrison playing the final Shadow. As television took over from radio as the more popular broadcast format, the show closed with its final episode “Murder By The Sea” on December 26, 1954.
There have been a number of film adaptations of The Shadow, the most notable being that with Alec Baldwin in the lead role, released in 1994. Critics of the film generally agreed that the plot was far-fetched, but that this was made up for by its “style and tone”, as noted by Roger Ebert, who gave the film 3 out of 4 stars. Empire Magazine and The New York Times were more lukewarm in their reception but still praised the film’s style. John Olsen from That’s Pulp, familiar with all 200 surviving radio shows and all 325 magazine publications, was cautious to articulate whether the radio shows were superior to the film, commenting, “this film is not of pure pulp derivation. And that’s not necessarily bad, because it’s not meant to be read; it’s to be watched. But it relies heavily on the pulp version of the character for its vision. I’d say it’s 75-percent pulp-inspired, 15-percent radio-inspired, and 10 percent created from neither.”
The Shadow was unusually long-running for a radio show. From its early seasons to its closure, it ran for 24 years. There are others which have run for longer, most notably the BBC’s The Archers, which is still running since its pilot in 1950. In its heyday, The Shadow was broadcast live weekly on Sunday afternoons from 5.30pm till 6pm, with Welles famously (or infamously) hiring ambulances to speed across New York so that he could make it in time from his other acting jobs.
Modern-day podcasting and analytics
In the 21st century, we are used to a very different method of broadcast. Since the internet revolutionized broadcasting, radio shows are now able to be released as podcasts and are made available in different ways. The popular podcast S-Town, for instance, was only one season long with seven episodes, all of which were made available simultaneously. Serial, the ongoing popular podcast, is in its third season with episodes being released mostly weekly, though occasionally bi-weekly or daily. Welcome to the Night Vale, a radio show for the fictional town of Night Vale, broadcasts on the 1st and 15th day of the month and has put out some shows live. Other modern podcasts, such as Alice Isn’t Dead, air either weekly or bi-weekly with bonus episodes available for subscribers. Horror podcast Pseudopod is released weekly and is on episode #617 at the time of writing: each episode is available in literary and audio formats on the show’s website.
These days, with the constant strides made by technology, it’s getting increasingly easy to see how popular podcasts are. Radio show popularity was largely a guess. Modern-day analytics are highly advanced, and it’s very simple using Backtracks for audio, podcast, and radio producers to see how many people are tuning in and how well a show is doing. Backtrackshas an “extraordinary” amount of podcast listener data and states that they can even predict listening behavior, with the quantities of data they hold going into petabytes (that’s millions of gigabytes).
So how did shows like The Shadow know how many people were listening before the internet existed and before complex algorithms were able to contribute to big data? The answer is simple — they phoned peoples’ houses and asked — or specifically, a third party did. As bizarre as it now seems, the Cooperative Analysis of Broadcasting (CAB), headed by Archibald Crossly (also called the Crossley ratings), was set up to call households at random and ask them what they had been tuning in to. Dividing the day into four sections, they found that people had been listening mostly to shows in the evenings. This was soon superseded by CE Hooper’s methodology, known as the Hooperatings, whereby households were asked what they were listening to at that very moment. The CAB later adopted this method, but not before the Hooperatings system had grown wildly more relevant to the industry, meaning the CAB had to be dissolved.
The Shadow knows…
Depending on your age and/or exposure to radio history, the impact of The Shadow looms large for you, not just for its influences on the radio serial but on superhero lore, particularly that of Batman. Hopefully, if you had not heard of The Shadow before, you give it a listen (the archives are online). The show, running for over two decades, stamped a mark on broadcasting and radio history, with modern-day podcasts now not only adopting its format but adding twists to how they make their own shows available. The ‘shadow’ of Welles, Readick and Morrison’s character will clearly always be lurking in the shadows of narrative audio-based series in radio and modern podcasting.