For long-time radio fans, it is no surprise that the rise of radio in the late 1920s and 1930s roughly corresponded to the rise in the number of popular weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly magazines available to the public. Both outlets were a godsend for writers, particularly during the Great Depression, in that both demanded an endless supply of short fiction of all types, written to quickly grab the attention of readers and listeners. By the 1940s, there were literally hundreds of local, national, and institutional magazines regularly buying the fictional short stories of writers, as well as any number of radio series constantly in search of new material in the most popular genres.
The qualities required for a good magazine short story were roughly similar to those required for radio: familiar (or, at least, identifiable) character types; a setting that was either recognizable to most listeners or easily defined with a few descriptive words, distinctive music, or provocative sound effects; get-to-the-point plots that were intriguing but not overly complex; an opening sequence that, either through action, dialogue, or situation, quickly grabbed interest; and a reading/running time that wouldn’t exceed thirty or sixty minutes. Stories from all of the major genres were needed - romances, westerns, high adventure, humor - but the most popular and most enduring genre was the mystery story, as regularly featured in periodicals such as “Mammoth Detective,” “True Detective,” and “Dime Detective Magazine”.
On radio, aside from series based on specific characters like Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen, the bulk of the mystery stories adapted for the medium were first aired on the popular anthology shows of the time: “Suspense,” “The Molle Mystery Theater,” and “Murder at Midnight,” to name just a few. A long-time staple of radio entertainment, mystery shows always attracted large numbers of listeners - particularly when aired in time slots between 10:00 PM and midnight - with a combination of action, suspense, and the unexplained. Some programs, such as “The Radio Reader’s Digest” and “Front Page Drama,” which took its stories from “The American Weekly Magazine”, readily credited the original source of their stories; others simply offered author credit. But it was clear that a good story was a good story, whether in print or on the air, and many a scribe receiving two checks rather than one appreciated the chance to profit twice from their labors.
All of the major networks aired mysteries, but the diverse Mutual Radio Network led the way in terms of sheer numbers of mystery shows created and aired. There were three primary motivations for this: popularity, expense, and redistribution. Mystery shows were always popular, so even the simplest series would usually attract some sort of audience. In terms of cost, mysteries were relatively inexpensive to produce, in that they featured small casts, few if any stars, a skilled organist to provide spooky music, and one or two on-staff sound effects technicians to get the plot across.
For Mutual, redistribution via post-network syndication was a major financial consideration. Unlike CBS, ABC, or NBC, which offered their live programs via closed circuit lines to affiliated stations, Mutual was a network of primarily small stations in small markets - some of which were out of range of radio-quality phone lines. For these affiliates, Mutual would often record their New York or Los Angeles based series, edit out commercials and time-specific references, and then send them in syndication packages to their stations on 16” vinyl discs. This not only provided the stations with network quality programming, but also allowed them to pay a flat fee for the shows and sell the commercial time to a local advertiser at a profit. For Mutual, a two-season live series that would have otherwise been broadcast and forgotten could continue to generate revenue for years to come -- which is exactly the case with the shows in this collection: “Mystery Is My Hobby.”
First aired between 1945 and 1947, “Mystery is My Hobby” (which Mutual originally broadcast as “Murder is My Hobby”) is a good example of a typical mystery series from radio’s “golden age”. Glenn Langan stars as mystery writer Barton Drake, author of both short stories and a series of best-selling anthology books. Drake is a well-spoken sophisticate, fascinated by the ways of the criminal mind, and is intrigued by mysteries the same way that other hobbyists - ornithologists, for instance - are intrigued with birds. His stories and books have given him a comfortable income, allowing him to freely pursue the details of whatever new case or crime may come his way - and come they do, on a weekly basis, with a seemingly endless array of robberies, shootings, suspicious deaths, damsels in distress, and unsolved murders to occupy his time and fascinate his interests. (One can’t help but wonder if, after 39 weeks in which every knock at the door, phone call, or chance encounter led to some form of mayhem or bloodshed, the poor fellow wasn’t tempted to lock the door, turn off the phone, and hide under his bed -- if only to get some relief!)
An urbane mixture of Ellery Queen and Philo Vance (with a surfeit of Boston Blackie thrown in for good measure), Barton Drake is a pleasant, friendly, and knowledgeable fellow who is always willing to assist both perfect strangers and the police in solving some mystery or other, if only to fill his need for serviceable story plots. Some of his cases deal with the solutions to impossible crimes - dead men committing murder, for instance - but the majority are bread-and-butter for a radio detective: basically, who’s dead, whodunit, and how’d they do it? In the programs, lead Glenn Langan is assisted by many of the “usual suspects” - the top character actors of Radio Row - including such talents as Norman Field, Ken Christy, Betty Lou Gerson, Willard Waterman, Junius Matthews, and Jack Edwards Jr.
For modern audiences, used to watching graphic and bloody violence while dining off a TV tray in front of the tube, “Mystery Is My Hobby”may seem a bit tame in comparison. But for those who enjoy hearing the details of an intriguing crime full of twists, turns, and drama, the series remains a pleasant and captivating way to spend a half-hour or so in your personal “theater of the mind”. This collection offers twenty programs from the series - all original Mutual Radio Network broadcasts later reedited for syndication. You’ll find no commercials in these shows, but you’ll find plenty of blackmail, suicide, theft, deception, poisoning, mystery, mayhem, and murder. Truly, who could ask for a more wholesome package of radio entertainment?