Ed Walker grew up listening to radio in the ’40s and ’50s. Tuesday nights were the best, the aural equivalent of modern-day Must-See TV. Red Skelton, Bob Hope, and Fibber McGee and Molly provided millions of Americans with hours of classic “theater of the mind.”
Time was when Ronald Reagan pitched Chesterfield cigarettes and Marshal Matt Dillon kept watch over Dodge City, Kan., in Gunsmoke. (It was a radio program before it hit the small screen.) In the ’40s and ’50s, “you could turn the radio on any night and hear Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller,” says Walker, a vintage radio enthusiast and host of The Big Broadcast on WAMU 88.5 FM.
The show, which airs from 7 to 10 p.m. Sunday evenings, features broadcasts of vintage radio programs like Dragnet, The Jack Benny Program, The Lone Ranger, and The Fred Allen Show. Sunday, WAMU marks the 35th anniversary of The Big Broadcast with the original half-hour broadcast of the show from 1964. Walker took over host duties in 1990 after John Hickman, the program’s original host, retired.
When Hickman started the show, he was already hosting a similar program on WRC-AM. In the late ’50s, he produced a radio variety program for WRCThe Joy Boysa radio comedy program hosted by Willard Scott (yes, the weather man) and Ed Walker. As the decades wore on and radio networks dropped variety and feature programming, The Big Broadcast continued to provide the metro area with broadcasts from the golden age of radio.
Hickman remembers when WRC dumped radio theater in favor of an all-rock format in the ’60s. “It happened overnight,” he recalls.
“Television,” says Walker, “revolutionized American society. It made radio drama obsolete.” And though Walker counts schoolchildren among his listeners, he concedes that there isn’t much of a future in radio theater. “The big companies own everything. Nowadays, everything is formatted,” he complains. “I’m really disappointed in what radio has become.”Guy Raz
The Big Broadcast airs its anniversary show Sunday, Feb. 14, from 7 to 10 p.m. on WAMU 88.5 FM.