I'd like to offer up a few thoughts on old time radio from a slightly
Being a fan for several years and collecting original transcriptions,
I started up a blog (http://randsesotericotr.podbean.com/) to offer up
some of my discs and give back to the otr community. With some issues
with work and family, and a desire to explore some otr ideas, I put
the blog on hiatus.
Also keep in mind as you read this that I'm coming from a background
in History and have worked in libraries and with faculty in pedagogy
and research for several years at a couple of universities.
Now that's out of the way, I'll bore you with my thoughts on an
"iTunes for otr".
There is a small specialist market for otr as others have mentioned.
However, it seems to be confined to a small group of enthusiasts -
some interested in radio drama as a "lost art", others in nostalgia,
still others in radio history, and some in very specialized areas like
music broadcasts in particular genres or even news broadcasts.
What I noticed with my blog was a couple of things. First off, I got
some faculty in different subject areas interested in otr as primary
source material when I used the blog as an example when talking about
making a blog for their course. They hadn't really thought of otr as
something they could use and just had no awareness of what was out
there. These are researchers who regularly use films, current and
vintage television, commercially released music, documentary and art
photography and artwork, as well as more traditional print sources in
their work. OTR just isn't on their radar.
I also noticed that individuals interested as hobbyists or fans in
other areas such as films, theater or even local history would wind up
on my blog from google searches, finding a particular show with some
little piece of history they were interested in.
So, I feel the problem with old time radio is that it isn't indexed
and catalogued to be useful to anyone except otr fans and hardcore otr
If you're interested in using films or tv shows in your research, you
can go to the IMDB and other resources and easily find individual
films, including obscure shorts, and individual television episodes
that are not only documented with the title of the series, particular
episode, casts lists and description, but also keywords and other
For otr, the situation is much more scattered.
You can look at some of what the OTR Researchers Group has done, which
basically gives you dates of episodes and show titles. The Goldin
index on the web ( http://www.radiogoldindex.com/ ) is better, giving
you a brief description of a show and a cast list. Libraries and
archives might tell you they have part of a series or sometimes list
particular shows, but not tell you anything about them.
However, all this is pretty useless if you're looking, for example,
for depictions of unwed mothers in media, or comic routines revolving
around early television, or a program that might include a particular
Access to shows is really scattershot. If you find something in
Goldin, you might get lucky and find a copy at archive.org (sometimes
placed there by the OTR Researchers Group) or on a website for
download. Maybe it might be available from a vendor or Radio Spirits
- the holdings and the way they're indexed makes it hard to tell
sometimes. If you're not so lucky, it might be in a library or
archives, but, again, it's often hard to tell what they have.
What I've been investigating while on hiatus from my blog as a bit of
a "back of the envelope" exercise is what it would take to actually
make old time radio as searchable and useable as films or television
I did some calculations and figured out that if you had a staff of
about twenty people working full-time for a year, they could fully
index all of the old time radio programs that are currently in digital
The way that I would do it would be to set up a standard metadata
format for otr that documents not only the dates and origins of
particular shows, casts lists, and descriptions, but also more
detailed information about the content - music that's heard on a show,
more detailed plot outlines or subjects of routines or news items,
commercials heard, etc. Most importantly, I'd add searchable keywords
to each program that could let you drill down to the content in a very
specific way and, where available, information on the origins of the
recording or even photos of original disc labels and such. I've got a
whole detailed metadata schema I've designed for the thing.
Having something like this would make otr of much more interest both
to researchers in a wide range of areas, but also to the general
public - it makes otr as easy to search as old books and magazines on
Google (perhaps even more so).
By the way - did you know that YouTube is using voice recognition
software to create text scripts of videos uploaded to the site? Yep -
they use this info as one of the data points for searching videos at
the site. And the same technology could be applied to otr.
Now, the next question that occurred to me was how to make something
like this economically viable. My first thought was that it could be
done as a commercial library database. Indeed, running some numbers
about how much library subscriptions typically run and the possible
number of libraries that might subscribe, it could make it as a viable
My thinking was that such a commercial database could include shows
for direct streaming and, for shows that are only available from a
commercial vendor or on-site in an archival collection, pointers to
sources to obtain or listen to the program.
The thing that stopped me in my tracks with the idea was the copyright
and ownership of the particular programs or series.
Mike Biel hinted at it in his post, but the ownership issues are very
complex. The shows were intended for a single live or recorded
performance or syndicated in recorded form for a limited time. The
original series were paid for by sponsors or networks, so the original
contracts are a mess of agreements between talent, unions, networks or
syndication companies, sponsors, and advertising agencies. The
contracts just didn't account for "reruns" or eventual release of
shows in other formats.
That's why many radio entities just neglected their otr holdings -
sorting out ownership and creating new agreements to make reuse of the
shows commercially viable was just too expensive. And, with the
coming of television and radio's switch to being an outlet for news
and music, there was no perceived market there.
OTR is basically in copyright limbo and owners with a stake in the
shows have just ignored the folks who sell shows or distribute them
through open outlets like archive.org. Some is public domain and some
isn't and for much of it, it's tough to determine who stakeholders are
and even if they have any rights to the material anymore.
The series like "The Shadow", "The Green Hornet" or "The Lone Ranger"
that still are protected vigorously by owners is due to a syndication
company that created the program maintaining ownership of the series
or through ownership of a character or original stories used in the
programs. They're characters and shows that have commercial life
beyond old time radio in comics, films, etc.
If a comprehensive commercial service were started, with material
thoroughly indexed, it would create a larger (and more viable)
commercial market for otr, piquing the interest of ASCAP, BMI,
musician's unions, authors' and performer's estates, and anyone else
who breathed near a radio microphone between 1930 and 1960.
If you create any kind of viable commercial market beyond otr
enthusiasts, rights holders will come out of the woodwork like
So, I think the only way an "iTunes for OTR" can happen is if a heavy
hitter like Google or an entity like the Library of Congress put money
and effort behind it.
Making otr indexed and fully searchable isn't that difficult.
Negotiating some blanket contracts with major unions, networks and
other parties to clear the way to exploit the material is the work
that would need to be done by a major player in the tech world,
entertainment industry, or in library and archival circles to make it
If radio drama had survived on the commercial networks, I'm betting we
wouldn't be in this mess - sometime in the 60s or 70s, with the
possibility of income from syndication or reruns, the networks would
have taken the time to renegotiate contracts and renew copyrights on
popular shows, creating a model that could be used for lesser known
programming. But, unlike commercial record companies reissuing
material or films that were syndicated to television and released on
home video, there was just no reason to even think about it.