Old-Time Radio Guru Chuck Schaden Retires
Many people — including former Sun-Times media critic Robert Feder — credit Chuck Schaden with single-handedly keeping old-time radio alive for generations. But Schaden is stepping down in May, after 39 years of doing his Saturday afternoon radio show, “Those Were The Days” (1 to 5 p.m. on WDCB-FM 90.9 and www.wdcb.org).
Schaden was inducted into the Radio Hall Of Fame in 1993 for his work preserving those historic shows, and grew up glued to the radio. “Radio in those days was for everybody,” he says. “When I was a kid, my mother was on the sofa darning socks and my dad was sitting in his easy chair reading a newspaper or magazine and my brother and I were on the floor, all listening to the same program.
“Every network and many of the independent stations all had a variety of programming; the networks would have comedy shows, mystery shows, adventure programs, programs for women during the day, kids’ shows after school, news in the morning, classical-music hours, quiz programs, news broadcasts, intellectual programs. You could go to any one station and hear all of these things.”
He calls radio’s golden age — from the mid to late 1930s to the late 1950s — “the shortest golden age of anything.” Although he loved Jack Benny and “Fibber McGee And Molly,” his favorite show was the “Lux Radio Theater,” which did hour-long radio versions of movies — usually with the original stars.
In those days, shows were produced by a single advertiser, and 30-minute programs would have only three minutes of ads. “There was a lot of respect for listeners on the part of sponsors and producers,” he says. A typical season was 39 weeks, with replacement shows airing in the summer. “While there were ratings, the real rating was whether the show sold the product,” he says. “If a program was number 17, but they couldn’t keep the product on the shelves anymore, they didn’t care that it wasn’t number one.”
Schaden started seeking out the shows after television all but killed off radio in the 1950s. “Finally, in the late 1960s a friend of mine sent me a couple of reels of tape with shows on them from the Armed Forces Radio Service,” he says. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I rolled up my sleeves and started searching everywhere I could to find people who had copies of them — performers, production people, ad agencies, sponsors, technicians.”
Most of them were on reel-to-reel tape, but some were also on 16-inch records. “In the beginning, people just came over to my home and sat around and listened, but soon we ran out of potato chips,” he quips. “It’s not a group thing anyway; radio is kind of personal.”
Although he didn’t think he had the voice for it, he landed a Saturday-afternoon gig on Evanston’s 1,000-watt WNMP on May 2nd, 1970. To his surprise, the show caught on. Since then, he has spent Saturday afternoons playing old-time radio shows alongside the historic interviews he has conducted over the years with its key players, which are collected in his 1998 book, Speaking Of Radio: Chuck Schaden’s Conversations With The Stars Of The Golden Age Of Radio.
But Schaden says he’s most proud of his five-year look at World War II, during which he aired programs from December 1941 through V-J Day in 1945 in chronological order from 1991 to 1995. The programming included news broadcasts, speeches by everyone from Winston Churchill to Chiang Kai-shek, as well as radio shows that did programming about the war. “The radio programs all got behind the war effort,” he says. “It may get a footnote in history books, but it comes to life on radio.”
In July, Schaden will hand the reins of the show to fellow fan and listener (and former IE contributor) Steve Darnall, who took over his Nostalgia Digest magazine in 2005.
“I’m 75-years old,” he says. “I’ve done this for more than half of my life. While I’ve loved every minute of it, it’s time for my wife and I to move into another phase of life — one that has no other obligations other than to ourselves and to our family.”
His final live broadcast will be an open house on June 27th at The Morton Grove Civic Center (visit Nostalgiadigest.com, click on “Those Were The Days,” and scroll down to “June 27″ for more).
“It’s been terrific for me, because I’ve been able to do something I love to do and have found that the people I’m doing it for loved it as well,” he says, noting that 39 is the age Jack Benny claimed to be for decades. “It’s a win-win situation. You can’t beat that.”
ODDS N SODS: The world is indeed topsy-turvy: Garry Meier has a radio show and Steve Dahl does not — and on WGN-AM (890) no less. Meier now holds down weekdays from 1 to 4 p.m., with help from his former WCKG-FM sidekick (and IE contributor), Jim Turano . . . “Crazy” Howard McGee is back on Chicago airwaves in a minimal way, co-hosting “The Jeffery Leving Father’s Rights Legal Show” Sundays at 2 on Soul 106.3 (WSRB-FM) . . . Conscious Choice magazine’s April issue was its last gasp (no joke); former staffers are starting up Mindful Metropolis, due to hit the streets May 1st. More at Mindfulmetropolis.com . . . Sports talker and Webio founder Mike North has a new book, Settling The Score: Talkin’ Chicago Sports (Triumph Books, $16.95, co-written by Steve Silverman). He’ll flog it Thursday, May 14th at 12:30 p.m. at Borders Books & Music, 150 N. State. Visit www.northtonorth.com.
– Cara Jepsen
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