The Golden Age of Radio: Learning American History through Classic Radio Broadcasts

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

In our present day there is a wide variety of entertainment sources available. From television to feature length films twenty-first American citizens have come to greatly rely on using media for entertainment.  Out of all of the choices for electronic media today the radio has been a consistent source of news, information and entertainment since its inception. Before television and movies became popular the radio was the primary source of electronic entertainment for many families in the US.

The Golden Age of Radio
A time in history when the radio was very popular was entitled the Golden Age of radio. The Golden Age of Radio was as an old-time radio era when radio programming in the United States was the primary electronic entertainment medium in nearly every home. The Golden Age began in the 1920’s and lasted through the 1940’s, when the appeal of television –offering both sound and imagery– began to become more affordable and took the place of radio.

Using Online Resources to Teach Effectively
People who experienced radio in the early to mid-twentieth century did not have easy access to archives of their favorite shows from childhood or young adulthood. But modern technology through the Internet, computers and online resources such as Youtube allow us to have access to countless media, in such a way that was not at all possible in the past. We now have access to thousands of classic radio broadcasts that offers an invaluable resource for middle school and high school teachers. Educators can use radio broadcasts to teach about certain time periods and ways of life during the early to mid-twentieth century. Teachers can help students have a more rich understanding of American history, civics and democracy via old radio archives.

Examples of Lessons and Units Using Classic Radio Broadcasts

  • Using historical speeches to teach American history and historic political ideas.A big part of good social studies teaching is the use of effective and meaningful primary sources. Primary sources do not only consist of print resources. In fact, nearly all radio archives can be considered primary sources. Teachers can use speeches to understand certain historical events or key figures in history. For example, students can listen to audio of US presidents from the past such as Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Harry Truman to help students understand the political climate of certain years or decades. The Internet offers many of the transcripts of these speeches that can allow students to do a text analysis of them for a closer read and understanding of the concepts.    
  • Using radio programs to teach students how people lived in certain time periods. Students can listen to radio shows of various genre’s such as westerns, mystery, suspense, thrillers, science fiction or comedy to create projects that give students a glimpse of what life was like in the early 1900’s. For example, students can listen to episodes of the western entitled Gunsmoke to supplement a unit on the American West and Native American culture. They can explore American perceptions of the west and how Native American’s were portrayed and how stereotypes persisted.
  • Using radio programs to teach students how people viewed life in certain time periods. The 1950’s was often idealized and projected an American utopia and innocent way of life through radio and television. Wonderful discussions and lessons can be built from these radio sources. For example, teachers can use sitcom radio programs such as I Love Lucy, The Aldrich Family or The Ozzy and Harriet Show to supplement a unit about what everyday life might have been like during the 1940’s and 50’s, verses how it was portrayed on the radio. In this same way, science fiction radio programs such as Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds can be used to explore American perceptions of science and outer space during the 1940’s.
  • Using historic radio news programs as primary sources to teach American history. Radio news archives can offer a treasure trove to students studying the early to mid-twentieth century America. For example, when teaching a unit of World War II teachers can integrate the audio archives of the news report of the attack on Pearl Harbor to get a sense of how the attack affected the American public.

Below I have offered a number of links to various radio broadcasts that can be used in the classroom. I have also provided sites that offer lessons on incorporating some aspect of radio in one’s teaching.

Lesson Plans and Classic Radio Program Archives

Science Fiction/Horror/Thriller

Golden Age of Radio: Program #51 (Oct 1, 2017)

Old Time Radio Drama Playlist

Orson Welles – War Of The Worlds – Radio Broadcast 1938

CBS Radio Mystery Theater, 487, Ghost Town

Escape “Man from Tomorrow” – Old Time Radio Science Fiction!

Hall Of Fantasy AUTOMATON – Old Time Radio Science Fiction Horror!

Dimension X “Almost Human” – Old Time Radio Science Fiction!

“The Lodger” 1946 CBS Radio – Vincent Price

Dracula Starring Orson Welles- Mercury Theater


Gunsmoke, Robin Hood

The Lone Ranger, Old Time Radio, 560509 In the Name of Justice

The Roy Rogers Show, Old Time Radio, OTR, 521023 Wrong Cowboy


Perry Mason: Case of the Deadly Double

Suspense: The Shelter – Classic Old Time Radio Horror Drama

Sherlock Holmes – The Camberwell Poisoning Case 1943 – Old Time Radio

Suspicion Alfred Hitchcock: One Hour Audio Drama / Classic Radio Theatre


The Aldrich Family – “Moving Day” 10/14/43 (HQ) Old Time Radio Comedy

The Ozzie and Harriet Radio Show December 26 1948 HD

I Love Lucy (pilot for proposed radio series)

Amos ‘n’ Andy Show – Missing Persons Bureau (February 4, 1944)

Abbott & Costello, Old Time Radio 400320 Lion Hunting

News, Speeches, Sports.

Compilation of World War II Radio Broadcasts: Part 1

Joe Louis vs. Jack Sharkey over KHJ Radio, August 18, 1936
1949 World Series Game 1 Dodgers at Yankees Classic Radio Broadcast

Franklin Roosevelt – Fireside Chat #1, On the Banking Crisis (1933)

Franklin D Roosevelt – Four Freedoms Speech – January 6, 1941

1949 Inauguration Speech of Harry Truman (Full)

A Conversation with Herbert Hoover

JFK Secret Societies Speech (full version)

Pearl Harbor Attack Emergency Radio Broadcast

The Only Live News Report from the Attack on Pearl Harbor

Documentaries on History of Radio

Oldtime Radio Documentary “The First 50 Years” The History of Radio Part One

Amazing Short Film on Old Time Radio Sound Effects: “Back of the Mike” (1938)

Teaching Resources/Lesson Plans

Radio Curriculum

Radios in the Classroom: Curriculum Integration and Communication Skills

A Lesson Plan and Project on the Invention of the Radio


Golden Age of American radio American Radio Industry

Golden Age of Radio

The History of Radio

A Short History of Radio


  1. When I first read this, I could already see the value of listening to historic speeches in class. Listening to great orators like Churchill is something that can’t be matched by most of the world leaders of today. These historical figures had to focus on the power of their words since radio was the main vessel for their communication to the world. While reading thins though, I immediately flashed to Wells’ War of the Worlds and how useful that radio broadcast is to today’s classrooms. Although the idea of checking the validity of news reports, websites, and experts is considered a new precaution, especially after the boom of the internet, the effects of this program on the populace show that it has been and will always be a concern.

  2. Radio broadcasts are one of my favorite resources to use in the classroom. Their authenticity reveals how influential they were across America and how much they impacted the culture. Whether it is in excerpt of an advertisement or the calming words of a president in times of distress, the radio was the epicenter of nearly every family room in America. Hearing the broadcast of a speech and recognizing the individual sutters or sternness in one’s voice is far more effective than reading a printed copy of the same words. Radio broadcasts off a glimpse of the past where students can imagine themselves listening and hearing the information for the first time. Taking on perspectives of others throughout history increases one’s understanding, and radio broadcasts make this process highly approachable to almost anyone.

  3. I think learning through classic broadcast would have been a great tool when I was in school. I think it is a good idea to show students what that time period was really like and to put themselves in that situation. It is also a way for students to feel more engaged in a topic when they are hearing exactly what people who heard from that time period.

  4. Growing up in an era where it was when technology started to sky rocket, and seeing the before and after, it is kind of weird to thin how I might have to explain to kids one day what it is like to not have a television. I always had a TV growing up, but I think TVs and technology in general were just fresh enough that I was still able to imagine what it would be like without those things, but with this new generation it is going to be much more difficult. They were born into fast technology, so that is all that they know. Explaining the old technology might be more difficult than I originally thought.

  5. I can remember hearing stories from my great grandmother about when the radio first became popular. She described the sound in the songs and the shows, and later about the war broadcasts. The radio is an amazing asset to humanity. Harnessing a wavelength to generate a network of communication and organization is a phenomenal feat. The nation truly became united and the progress of cities bustled after the radio.

  6. I think that using old radio broadcasts could be a stimulating way to teach students about the past. Any type of media usually catches the attention of students more than just reading. This is a great way to give a snapshot of the era by showing them a slice of what things were like; from everyday life to the changing political climate. I personally believe that history can often best be learned by direct connections to the past. For example, reading a newspaper or something from a certain time period can often give the reader a better idea of what things were actually like as opposed to just reading a summary of events from that time.

  7. It’s interesting to know how much the lifestyles have changed in almost 100 years. We started from a radio that was a form of entertainment for families, to TV’s that had sounds and showed video in black and white to eventually pictures in color. Electronics have emerged so much in a short time span, and when I think about life if I was in the time where radio was a sort of entertainment, I’m not sure I could do it. I am on my phone so much and I use that to keep me entertained. I find it interesting to see how the times have evolved. I think it would be cool to teach students about the resources available back then and how people survived during this life style.

  8. I find it really interesting that the radio was used for entertainment back in the day. It makes me think of the family sitting around the radio instead of sitting around a tv. I  also had no idea that I could possibly use these radio clips in my future classroom! I love the examples of these lessons provided in this article! I will definitely look deeper into radio broadcasts and the ways to incorporate them into my classroom.

  9. Learning through classic radio broadcast is such a fun way to learn about our past. It shows the true version of the time period from people that lived it. Right now radio is one of the top things that gets new information passed along to people all over the country. It’s also a great way for learning about other countries past and present history.

  10. Radio in history was their way of communicating to a huge population of people. Radio was used by very influenceable people throughout history such as presidents and even the royal Queen Elizabeth II. On the Netflix series The Crown, Queen Elizabeth II is shown multiple times using radio to speak to her people. The families are shown gathered around the radio, people in public places gathered around a speaker, etc. It is very nostalgic to pull up one of her Christmas Broadcast on Google and listen.

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