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serial radio

The NPR podcast Serial is getting a lot of attention these days. An offshoot of This American Life, it’s an ongoing reinvestigation of an old murder case by an intrepid reporter, Sarah Koenig. The trick is that Koenig is, to some extent, making it up as she goes. She digs up evidence, she thinks about it, she interviews people, she tells us what tentative conclusions she has, and she moves on. She regularly changes her mind as new evidence comes to her, and it’s interesting to listen as she talks her way through inconsistencies in the story. The result is that, while there are some intriguing characters, including Adnan Syed, who is serving time for the murder, the central character is Sarah Koenig. She is the person we identify with … she is the person doing our work for us, digging through old evidence, interviewing Syed, and rehashing everything in her mind.

Serial is increasingly popular (popular being relative … I’d guess it’s far more popular with NPR listeners than with the general populace, who likely have never heard of it). Reddit hosts discussions, there are parody versions, and critics jabber back and forth about what it all means. From a technical standpoint, it seems to be generally agreed upon that Serial marks an important point in the history of podcasts. Also, Serial invites the same kind of communal attention of many television series today. As far as I know, in that, Serial is unique. We don’t use radio that way any longer.

Well, this being Throwback Thursday, I thought perhaps I’d take this time to confess once again to one of my more obscure pastimes: I listen to Old-Time Radio. I “use” OTR the way we currently use Serial. Obviously, I don’t get together for coffee or tea to hash over the most recent edition of The Adventures of Sam Spade. But the act of listening to the radio as a form of narrative entertainment, which for a couple of decades prior to the growth of television was how most people used radio … well, let’s just say I don’t find it hard to take in the format of Serial.

And so I thought for Throwback Thursday, I’d stick an old radio show on the blog. It’s not easy to make a selection. Gunsmoke was probably the best radio drama, Jack Benny probably had the best radio comedy series, and there are other surprisingly good shows (surprising to us, because of what those shows became). I’m thinking in particular of Dragnet, which in its 60s version was something us hippies and hippie wannabes watched for the laughs it provided. Jack Webb as Joe Friday offered a stone-like image that imprinted itself on our brains, such that when they remade Dragnet as a movie in the 80s, Dan Ackroyd didn’t play Friday as much as he inhabited the ghost of Jack Webb.

But when you listen to a lot of old radio shows, you begin to appreciate Jack Webb. He had a vision for Dragnet, and if it played goofy on TV in the 60s, well, it worked just fine on the radio in the 50s. And it wasn’t a dumb show … on the contrary, Webb placed a vice on Dragnet so that it always did what he wanted. And what he wanted was reality. This was most famously shown (er, heard) when Friday had to make a person-to-person long distance phone call from Los Angeles to a small town in Utah. Webb wanted to be sure he got it right, so they made an actual long-distance call and recorded it for use in the show:

Spellbinding stuff!

A few years before he made his name with Dragnet, Webb appeared in Pat Novak, for Hire, a private-detective show that is less famous than the ones devoted to characters like Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe. Pat Novak needs to be heard to be believed. it’s not quite a parody on the level of a Naked Gun, which actually makes it more fascinating. Pat Novak, for Hire is the most hard-boiled of hard-boiled series, such that it spills over into comedy. And the dialogue is often so hilarious that you must believe the people behind the show knew what they were doing: making a comedy. It’s unlike the Jack Webb of legend. Here’s an episode, chosen at random (i.e. I found it on YouTube):

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