03 October 2009

The Ghost-Grey Cat Presents: (2) Radio-dial games

The CBS Radio Mystery Theater succeeded as well as it did for a wide range of reasons, most of them having little to do with the plots of its episodes.  At some point, I'll have a complete list of success factors, but tonight, I'll start with three.

As its name implies, RMT aired on CBS Radio affiliates* that broadcast their signals on the AM spectrum. (In 1974, radio stations preferred AM signals to FM -- though that was changing.)  CBS Radio let its member stations run RMT at any time they desired.  Most stations did this every evening, at seven minutes past some hour.   Chicago's WBBM was the big exception, to which I'll come back presently.

If you've ever played with an AM radio at night, you know that, unlike FM stations, you can easily catch stations from hundreds of kilometers away.  Even today, some of the most powerful AM stations in the US count on having nighttime listeners well outside their home markets (and away from the Internet).  For me, a third-grader listening in exurban Chicago, it meant that, on a given night, I could catch an episode at 20:00 aired in Louisville or Detroit, hear it again at 21:00 from Minneapolis or Denver, then catch it a third time from WBBM -- at 22:30.  It's hard to imagine that RMT didn't get a noticeable part of its audience from nighttime road travelers.

But back to Chicago and WBBM.  Since Chicago is in the Central time zone, and not the Eastern or Pacific, 22:30 was (and remains) the airtime for NBC's Tonight Show.  In other words, WBBM scheduled RMT to intentionally challenge Johnny Carson's popular late-night show.  With David Letterman and ABC's Nightline still well into the future, WBBM's gamble succeeded brilliantly.

At least it did with the grade-school set.  In 1974, as now, most families put their younger children to bed at 22:00 on school nights, if not before then.  Watching TV of any kind at 22:30 was a no-no for kids.  Back then, few families had more than two television sets in the whole house; sneaking peeks at Johnny Carson was simply impossible.  Sneaking a listen to RMT, by contrast, was easy.  While few bedrooms had TV sets, almost every bedroom could have at least one cheap radio, like the one at left.  Even with a radio that big, it was a trivial matter for a kid like me to curl up to it, set it to WBBM hide everything, myself included, under the blanket.  Mom and Dad didn't suspect a thing.  It wasn't hard to imagine that kind of scene repeating itself thousands of times every night, in Chicagoland alone.

Elsewhere, I suspect, a weaker version of the same thing happened.  RMT succeeded partly because it became "appointment radio," and partly because, in an era when broadcast networks still dominated television, there just wasn't anything better on the boob tube.

But did I simply listen to the RMT episodes?  Well, at first, I did.   Soon enough, I realized that certain curtains -- those pieces of music that marked the end of each of an episode's three acts -- frightened me.  What's really weird is that only one these particular curtains, three of which you can hear below, showed up in horror stories.  Most of them occurred instead in crime dramas.

Curtain 1 from And Nothing but the Truth
Curtain 1 from The Lady Is a Jinx
Curtain 2 from The Lady Is a Jinx

Over time, I turned my fear into a game.  As the end of any act approached, I put my had on either the volume dial or the tuning dial.  The moment I thought a curtain would start, I turned the dial, waited a second, then moved the dial back to its original position.  If I avoided the start of any of these curtains, or if a less scary curtain turned up instead, I "won."

The thing is, in RMT's early years, its curtains used very sharp music, such as the samples above.  I have no doubt that, not unlike John Williams' efforts in Star Wars I-III, that music effectively masked an awful lot of awful plots.

*The big exception was RKO Radio flagship WOR, which carried RMT in New York.

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