Zach Lennon-Simon is a filmmaker and storyteller who was born & raised in Brooklyn, NY. He has told stories for many different shows such as Kvetching & Kvelling, Everything is Bad, Beaver Helmet, and The Teacher’s Lounge. In his spare time, he tries his best to sing both parts of Judy & Babs’ “Get Happy/Happy Days Are Here Again” medley.
Travel back in time with JoyProject as we delve into the world of Old Time Radio Shows, a form of entertainment from the 1920s to the 1960s that had families and friends gathered around the radio to tune into their favorite mysteries, drama, and comedies. Zachary Lennon-Simon, a comedian and storyteller in Brooklyn, New York, is our guide through this delightful and light-hearted audio-forward history lesson.
At the end of the podcast, I share something that brought me joy this week related to the episode. I found a bunch of free online resources where you can tune into all kinds of old time radio shows with just a few taps on your computer or phone. I also share my two favorite apps where you can access thousands of free audiobooks through your local public library.
Topics discussed in this episode:
– How Zach discovered old time radio shows as a kid and rediscovered them after college
– Zach’s favorite shows and where to find them today
– The differences between old time radio shows, audiobooks, and narrative podcasts, and some good ones to check out
– The importance of sound design in old time radio
– Stars who made old time radio popular
Links to resources:
– Zach on Instagram – @lennonhyphensimon
– Zach on Twitter – @zachlennonsimon
– Zach’s short film, frantic delicate summer – https://vimeo.com/63383000
– Christa on Twitter – @christanyc
– Christa on Instagram – @christarosenyc
– Christa’s website – ChristaAvampato.com
– Old Time Radio Archive – https://www.youtube.com/c/OldTimeRadioArchive
– Old Time Radio Shows – https://www.youtube.com/c/OldTimeRadioShowsOnline
– MakeUsOf article – https://www.makeuseof.com/listen-old-time-radio-shows-online/
– Internet Archive – https://archive.org
– Relic Radio – https://www.relicradio.com/otr/
– RockIt Radio – https://rokitradio.com/
– Internet Radio – https://www.internet-radio.com/search/?radio=old+time+radio
– Pumpkin FM – https://pumpkinfm.com/
– RUSC – https://www.rusc.com/
– Libby App for free audiobooks – https://libbyapp.com/
– Cloud Library for free audiobooks – https://www.yourcloudlibrary.com/
The Joy of Old Time Radio Shows with Zachary Lennon-Simon
Tuesday, June 28, 2022 • 21:12 – This transcript has been edited for clarity
radio shows, old time radio, radio, shows, movie, audiobooks, joy, zach, hear, episode, audio, suspense, podcast, book, listen, called, comedy, christa, voices, costello
Zachary Lennon-Simon, Christa Avampato
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Christa Avampato 00:00
Hi everyone! Welcome back to the JoyProject. I’m Christa Avampato, your host. Every week I say we need joy now more than ever and every week that statement gains more truth. Joy is medicine. I learned that going through breast cancer treatment during the pandemic and it’s one of the things that motivated me to make this podcast for you.
One thing I love about this podcast is learning about hobbies and interests that I know nothing about. Today’s episode is a perfect example of this. I met our guest through a storytelling Facebook group we both belong to. He filled out the form to be a guest and when asked what brings him joy he said, “Old Time Radio Shows. I used to collect tapes of them in middle school and still listen to them to this day!”
When he said old time radio shows I imagined old Abbott and Costello bits like Who’s on First? Do tapes of those even exist outside of dusty old archives anymore? I don’t even have a device that plays CDs anymore, much less one that plays tapes. Though I’ll admit that a good mixed tape was one of the joys of my childhood!
Radio shows like Abbott and Costello is exactly what he meant, and that classic example isn’t even the tip of the iceberg of the rich history he shared me in our conversation. So settle in and take a trip back in time with me as we chat with the hilarious and entertaining comedian and old time radio show aficionado, Zachary Lennon-Simon. Zach, welcome to JoyProject!
Zachary Lennon-Simon 01:17
Hi, thanks for having me.
Christa Avampato 01:19
Where are you joining us from today?
Zachary Lennon-Simon 01:21
Joining me from my bedroom in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Christa Avampato 01:24
I’m also a New Yorker. So I love talking to other New Yorkers. I feel like in this city, we definitely need more joy after what we’ve been through the last couple of years. So I’m excited for more joy in more places.
Zachary Lennon-Simon 01:35
Christa Avampato 01:35
So Zach, I want to start this conversation the way I start all the conversations on the podcast and ask you, “What brings you joy?”
Zachary Lennon-Simon 01:41
If we’re talking New York, it’s going to be pizza. Pizza has always brought me joy and maybe too many calories. Since I was a kid, old time radio shows have been the thing that has brought me the most joy, which is something that I am definitely too young to have gotten into. They were definitely something I got hooked on at an early age, and still to this day.
Christa Avampato 02:04
I don’t know anything about old ham radio shows. Tell me how you got into them. Do you remember the first time you heard one and what was so special about these old time radio shows?
Zachary Lennon-Simon 02:13
First of all, hardly anyone does know about those shows. So you’re not alone.
Christa Avampato 02:19
I don’t have to feel badly. Excellent.
Zachary Lennon-Simon 02:23
Yeah. I found myself then, and to this day, a little out of step with my generation. Kids in my class would be like, “Oh, did you see the new Hey Arnold?”and all that said I was like, “No, I was listening to Abbott and Costello from 1947.”
Old time radio is basically just radio shows from the 40s to the 60s. Everything was radio before they invented the TV. The first one that I really got hooked on as a kid was my parents loved showing me black and white movies like old timey screwball comedies or westerns and science fiction things and things like that. This was kind of like an extension of that because they had a show back in the 40s called Lux Radio Theatre, where they would do a condensed audio version of a movie that was playing so you could hear this and be like, “Oh, this sounds pretty good. I can’t wait to see the movie someday.”
Christa Avampato 03:14
They were audio trailers for these movies?
Zachary Lennon-Simon 03:17
Yeah. And it’d be the full movie. So you’d hear a whole hour-long movie and it was performed in front of a live studio audience with a live orchestra. If it was a comedy, there were lots of laughs and things which is really fun. My parents bought me on cassette of a show and then I’d go to the movie rental store Hole in the Wall Video on Court Street here in New York. I go pick it up, watch it, and some of the movies, I realized “Oh, these things are very different” because they have to, you know, make it obviously more audio oriented than visual.
So I always remembered my favorite detective movie growing up with like Alan Ladd or Virginia Hale in this movie This Gun for Hire around Ladd’s an assassin. And they have this great part that I love. And I would immitate it throughout my whole house. I’d come up to my parents and there’s this henchman who’s whistling in the house now and Ladd says, “You know, it’s bad luck to whistle in the house” with this very old timey voice. I got so hooked on those accents.
And the guy’s like, “Who are you?” And he’s like, “I just told you—bad luck.”
That is such a cool line. It’s so cool that he said that before killing that guy. I love it. And I like was so excited to watch the movie and see my favorite line. And it wasn’t in the movie and I was so confused by that as a kid. Why would you not have the coolest line in the movie? But it was obviously because they went for a more visual murder scene, which is also very good.
Christa Avampato 04:57
Do you have favorite episodes or favorite shows?
Zachary Lennon-Simon 05:01
Oh yeah, absolutely. My parents who are so kind and encouraging for me to have such weird habits. They got me a subscription so every month they’d send me a CD with two episodes like a sampler pack of different radio shows and you get a little binder to keep them in and they have little factoids about each one.
So I sampled a whole array radio shows from back then.
I really liked Abbott and Costello they were so funny and had fantastic banter and wordplay. That was a favorite of mine.
And then I really got very into this show called Suspense, which was an anthology, kind of like The Twilight Zone but for radio. It was so cool because every week they’d have a Hollywood guest star so you could hear Lucille Ball being very dramatic for example. And each story was set with this kind of supernatural tone to it. They’d say, “Tune in tonight for a tale so calculated to keep you in…suspense!” and then there would be this sound effects of “bum bum”. My sister and I loved the advert. “Robo wines made in California for your enjoyment throughout the land!” I love it so much. I had a best of collection. And then I would just buy more and more collections. I don’t really watch a lot of scary movies. But I love these kind of old timey short stories with gimmicks.
Christa Avampato 06:25
For a while I got really into Welcome to Nightvale. I went to their live show and they put out a book. I’m also an auditory learner. If I go to a lecture years later, I can almost verbatim recite it back. It’s one reason I love podcasts. I love listening to them all day long while I’m working.
As somebody who is steeped in the history of these radio shows, do you think podcasts are the modern version of them? Do you think this idea of a narrative podcast will find more popularity? I felt like it was popular for a hot second, and then kind of faded away a little bit. But I think there is something so interesting about that art form.
Zachary Lennon-Simon 07:13
I absolutely agree. I love Nightvale. It’s one of my modern day favorites. Definitely has that kind of old radio vibe. And it’s an eerie, weird show. It’s so funny. I think I struggled to get into other narrative podcasts because I’m comparing them to these NBC radio shows in the 40s where I’m like, “Oh, the acting here is so good. And the direction, the sound stuff.” And sometimes, I’ll listen to a narrative podcast and it still sounds off. To me something about the acting is a little too accessible. I don’t know what it is. But I’d love to listen to more modern versions of what I’ve been listening to forever. I think that’d be really cool way to continue this tradition.
The interesting thing about old time radio shows is they really got killed by TV. Once the TV was wheeled into everyone’s living room, there wasn’t much of a market and some of them tried to do the leap to TV, and it didn’t work. So I’d love it if podcasts could kind of bring back that mantle because it’s so fun. Like you, I’m also more of an auditory learner. And I like being able to get a little clue of what’s going on and have my mind make up the rest of what it looks like, which is why I prefer to audio to TV or film.
Christa Avampato 08:33
I also love audiobooks. I’ve listened to a lot more than I ever used to in the past couple of years especially. I’ll listen to audiobooks while I’m out on a walk or I’ll be making dinner or cleaning the house and I have an audio book on. I love it especially either when the narrator does all of the different voices or you have different voices coming in. How would you compare radio shows and audiobooks?
Zachary Lennon-Simon 09:03
Oh, that’s a great question. That’s probably why my parents got me radio shows. I loved reading but I loved audiobooks more. I’d fall asleep to a different book every night. I think the difference is the sound design in radio shows. I feel like audiobooks are mostly just the voices themselves without the sound effects like little footstep or doors opening…
Christa Avampato 09:28
Someone walks into a room or someone slams the door. In radio shows, you actually hear the action via a sound effect?
Zachary Lennon-Simon 09:35
Yeah, exactly. Now that I think about it, some audiobooks do that, too. Like the Series of Unfortunate Events books by Lemony Snicket.
Christa Avampato 09:43
I love that whole story. I love that franchise. I loved the film, too. I just I love that whole world. What did you love especially about that audio for that one?
Zachary Lennon-Simon 09:53
It’s all done by Tim Curry. He narrated it and had different voices and tones for each character. And then one for the narrator. And then each book began with an original song by Steven Merritt about the book you’re about to hear. Such a nice setting of the stage in kind of an old timey showman kind of way.
Another audiobook like that is Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. I listened to the audiobook on a road trip. And I was astounded by it. The narrator had a regular voice, but then the book within the book had a totally different voice. And then there’s a twist late in the book that I don’t want to give away, where those two voices meet and I was like, “Whoa, I don’t know how I would have experienced that on the page!” It was incredible. It flew me right back old Suspense episodes with Agnes Morehead where you were like, “Oh, no! Here it comes!” There is something so suspenseful about just having the audio.
Christa Avampato 10:30
Another thing I love is celebrity memoirs because a lot of people are reading their own memoirs now. To hear somebody’s intonation, or their emotional state as they’re reading some part of their story. To me, it just adds a whole new layer where you really do feel like, “Oh, they’re talking to me. They’re sitting next to me. They’re telling me their story.” I’m really hoping narrative audio storytelling somehow makes a comeback.
Zachary Lennon-Simon 11:47
I agree with you like nobody’s quite cracked it yet, like the way that there was with this real fandom around these radio shows, but I absolutely think there could be.
I think the most famous one is War of the Worlds by Orson Welles. It was one of the most experimental ones with craft because he took the short stories of HG Wells. The first half is all done as a faux radio show like a faux news program. They have a broadcaster and an orchestra. Then they keep saying, “We bring you now to Hackensack New Jersey, where there’s a report of a strange saucer flying in the air”. At the time some people who joined later and missed the intro of, “This is War of the Worlds” they thought it was a real show. And so there was really a panic amongst radio listeners where they actually thought aliens were above Hackensack, New Jersey. It’s incredibly acted, very well done so if you’re interested, I would start with that one.
For Suspense, I would definitely check out Agnes Morehead in Sorry, Wrong Number. She’s such a crazy actress. Like she gets so into it. It’s like you were talking about—it takes a very specific talent, to just use audio. She gives it everything she has. I’ve seen pictures of her where she’ll start in full makeup, nice hair, and glasses in the beginning of the show. And by the end her shoes are on the other side of the studio because she’s getting so hysterical and so into this character. She an invalid woman who overhears on the phone a plan of someone’s wife being murdered and she’s desperately trying to figure out who it is so she can save their life. And she’s also trying to see where her husband is and it’s 30 minutes of white-knuckle suspense. I listened to it all the time. It’s really incredible.
Christa Avampato 13:44
How does somebody find those recordings?
Zachary Lennon-Simon 13:46
It’s so nice to have YouTube. I think you could just type YouTube + Suspense + Sorry Wrong Number and it would probably pop up.
There are downloads if you’d like a download person. Archive.org is a really good resource. I’m a big completist so right now I’m trying to listen to every episode of some broadcast shows in order. And then if you want to be like a real weirdo like me, Radio Spirits still exists. You can buy their last five CDs that they have on sale!
Christa Avampato 14:16
I don’t know, Zach. I feel like we should do something to stage a comeback for these radio shows.
Zachary Lennon-Simon 14:26
I feel like there’s something kind of magical and I admire them so much for what they’re doing. They’re keeping me alive almost. Should we just hire like a car with a giant bullhorn and play some episodes?
Christa Avampato 14:37
Yes, drive around New York City imitating Agnes Morehead. Where were these show performed? Were they all in front of a live audience?
Zachary Lennon-Simon 14:45
Suspense wasn’t. They couldn’t have an audience because they were so dependent on sound quality.
Some episodes of Suspense were written by Ray Bradbury, which is an incredible find. And I remember this one called like The Screaming Woman which is terrifying. This little girl is in an abandoned lot and keeps hearing this howling, screaming woman and the sound is so chaotically terrifying. They wouldn’t record in the studio with an audience because it would scare the hell out of them. But the comedies, they were the sitcoms of the day so they’d have an audience at a vaudeville theater. Kind of like our little studio audiences today. And they would also do it for the movies as well. There’s some very funny audience-actor interaction sometimes because it’s all live and broadcast and movie actors weren’t used to live. So sometimes they would flub a line. And it’s very funny to hear that back in the day.
Christa Avampato 15:53
I feel like Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me is trying to tap into that a little bit. Even though we know it’s being filmed today, it has an old time radio feel to it. And it has that live element where you’re never quite sure what’s gonna happen or what people are gonna say.
Zachary Lennon-Simon 16:12
Definitely. There were a few of those NPR ones, like A Prairie Home Companion that felt like it was kind of like a homage to old time radio show. We know it’s hokey, and we’re going to kind of make fun of it. There’s a great live show called The Thrilling Adventure Hour. That was incredible. It’s a two and a half hour live show where each half hour is a different spoof of old time radio shows. You’d have a Western, a space adventure, and a ghost detective show all in the same episode.
Old time radio is definitely a niche thing, which I don’t mind. I’ve realized that the things that bring me joy might not be the most popular, but they don’t have to be. I love them anyway and they bring me joy.
Christa Avampato 16:54
It’s so true. That’s why I’m so interested in this podcast and talking to so many different people about what brings them joy. When you wrote in and said, “Oh, I want to talk about old time radio shows” I wasl like, “I never even thought about that!”
I love that joy can take all types of forms. And it can be whatever you’re into. And it doesn’t have to be something that’s massively popular. It doesn’t have to be something that anybody even knows anything about. It’s just these shows that sort of bring you back to your childhood, that you rediscovered as an adult, and that you continue to have so much appreciation for, which I think is terrific.
Thank you so much for joining us. I know that you’re also a comedian and a performer and if somebody wanted to know more about the work that you do, how would they follow you? How would they find out about what you’re doing?
Zachary Lennon-Simon 17:41
They can find me on Instagram. That’s where I usually am these days at @Lennonhyphensimon, all one word. Sometimes I do storytelling shows, pandemic willing. I used to host a pizza review show on YouTube. You’ll see a Bob Ross looking guy and that’s me!
Christa Avampato 18:03
As a true pizza aficionado who would eat pizza every day of my life if I could, I’m gonna go to YouTube immediately and look up your pizza review YouTube show. Great to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining us and I can’t wait to listen to all of these fantastic radio shows. I really think we have to figure out how to bring them back.
Zachary Lennon-Simon 18:20
Thank you! Me too!
Christa Avampato 18:37
Goodness, I have all kinds of nostalgia now for this by-gone era. This episode made me want to dive right into an audio-only time machine and be a part of these productions. We owe a lot to them, the precursors to today’s podcasts and audiobooks.
If you want to get a taste of these shows that Zach loves so much, there are loads of ways to listen for free and a huge community of fans for them out there. Zach mentioned YouTube as a great option. There is a YouTube channel called Old Time Radio Shows with almost 12,000 subscribers. On there you’ll find shows like Sherlock Holmes, Lone Ranger, and one of Zach’s favorites, Suspense. There’s another one called Old Time Radio Archive. It’s fanbase is even bigger with over 33,000 subscribers. Suspense is big on there along with other classics like The Green Hornet, Gunsmoke, and Dragnet.
MakeUseOf.com recently wrote an article with some other resources. I’ll link to them in the show notes for this episode on ChristaAvampato.com/joyproject. There you’ll find links to Relic Radio, Vintage ROKiT Radio, InternetRadio, Pumpkin FM, and RUSC, which stands for R U Sitting Comfortably:
In addition to having Old Time Radio Shows, the site The Internet Archive is a nonprofit library that has literally millions of free books, movies, software, music, and websites. It’s an incredible resource for any kind of media you’re looking for. They’re at https://archive.org/
If audiobooks are your thing, did you know your local public library has so many options that are just a few clicks away? I use two apps for public library audiobooks. One is called Libby. The other is called cloudLibrary. Both completely free to use by entering your local public library card number.
It’s a tough world out there right now, friends. We’ve got to take care of our wellbeing so we can take care of each other. So if today’s world’s got you down and you need to escape into a good radio drama, mystery, or comedy, we’ve got you covered. If you tune into any of these resources, let me know what you think. You can find me on Twitter at @christanyc, on Instagram at @christarosenyc, and through the website for this podcast christaavampato.com/joyproject.
Thanks for spending part of your day with you me. I hope it gave you a spark of joy to hear about Zach’s love of old time radio shows. Big thank you to Zach for joining us and opening up this world for me. If you want to check out everything Zach’s doing, you can find him on Instagram at @lennonhyphensimon and on Twitter at @zachlennonsimon. He made a short documentary that’s on Vimeo called frantic delicate summer. Again, all these links are in the show notes for this episode at ChristaAvampato.com/joyproject.
I’ll be back in two weeks on Tuesday, July 12th, with another interview episode of JoyProject. Until then, take care of yourself and take care of each other. Have a joy-filled week and I’ll chat with you soon.