The return of old time radio

Smart speakers are resurrecting an old tradition

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Christian radio was the soundtrack of my family when I was growing up. Specifically, the sounds of variety shows and praise worship meant my dad was working on a project around the house, car or garage, with his old coat-hanger antenna radio tuned to WVCY.

As a teenager, I was too cool for this. I listened to CDs of Green Day and Soundgarden and Nirvana on my discman. But I couldn’t escape my dad’s radio station.

The familiar genre of Christian radio is burned into my memories: Contemporary praise music songs. Evangelist preachers like Billy Graham and Ravi Zacharias. And, of course, the long-running radio drama UNSHACKLED! featuring voice actors punctuated by sound effects and organ music.

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Started in 1950, UNSHACKLED! told the stories of down-and-out individuals who hit rock bottom with drugs, alcohol or atheism before finding and accepting Jesus Christ, whereby they became… UNSHACKLED!

According to the UNSHACKLED! official history on its website, “the program progressed with a style that was highly esteemed in both secular and religious radio circles. Not only did the quality of the program exceed expectation, but its audience was continuing to grow as well. Lives of listeners through the years have been dramatically changed.”

Today, UNSHACKLED! is still produced like an old-timey radio show. It continues to use live voice actors reading a script, along with hyper-dramatic organ music woven in live during the taping.

But now this feels like a different era, in a world where our entertainment choices are dominated by Netflix and Amazon Prime video and HBO.

Or maybe it’s not?

Recently, Jess Cigelske and I binge-listened to Dirty John (a new true-crime podcast from Los Angeles Times). We started it in the car, and then finished it on our Sonos while folding laundry.

My kids love to play interactive quiz shows with our Google Mini, which remind me a bit of the Little Orphan Annie decoder puzzle (minus the Ovaltine promotion) from A Christmas Story.

And now when I’m doing projects around the house, I like to turn on music playlists and podcasts (including the radio drama Homeland from Gimlet Media).

Interactive speaker technology like Sonos, Alexa, Google Home and Google Mini have a lot of bells and whistles. You can order products, lock the doors in your house, send driving directions to your phone, and a lot more.

But at the heart of the technology, it really feels like… old-fashioned radio. It sounds a lot like the music and variety programming that my dad listened to while he was working around the house.

For more than a half century, TV has been the dominant entertainment medium in American households, leaving radio behind in the dust. That probably won’t change.

But it seems like the futuristic speakers taking over our houses now are kind of a throwback to the magic of radio’s songs and storytelling. They’re bringing music, voices and stories into our homes like we haven’t heard since the likes of Truth or Consequences and FDR’s fireside chats.

Over the years, radio has fallen on hard times. It’s struggled, hit rock bottom, but found a way to survive.

And with the rise of smart speaker technology, it’s like radio has become… UNSHACKLED!

Written by

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity:

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