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Erika Janik

Writer, Historian, Inveterate Seeker. Curious About Everything (especially history). Passionate About Writing.

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Sleuthing on the Airwaves

Phyl_Coe_CD_Cover
Old Time Radio Archives

The music swells and then fades. Suddenly there’s drum beat and then a scream. “Ladies and gentlemen, quiet please. A murder has been committed,” intones the announcer. “Here’s your chance to play detective! Phyl Coe Mysteries on the Air.”

Young sleuth Phyl Coe, a name derived from the show sponsor Philco, a maker of batteries and radios, made her detecting debut in 1936. She solved mysteries “right before your ears.” It was up the listeners to determine how she did it.

As a woman in radio, I’m drawn to the stories of other women in early radio – even fictional ones.

From the 1920s onward, film, radio, and, eventually, television, were obsessed with crime. Most of these programs featured male detectives but a few young female detectives found their way into broadcast media early.

Described as “the beautiful girl detective,” Phyl Coe starred in fifteen-minute episodes that invited listeners to solve the mystery using official entry blanks from their local Philco dealer to win “huge cash prizes.” Coe was smart and unafraid to take charge of the situation. In one case, she attends a magic show with her boyfriend only to have the magician shot dead on the stage. She manages to solve the case before the police arrive.

Coe lasted only one year, though. The next year, Philco decided to change the gender of its detective, turning feminine Phyl into masculine Phil.

But the airwaves were not without a female sleuth for long.

Kitty Keene, Inc., a soap opera that centered on a former Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl turned detective in mid-life, joined Phil in radio detecting in September of 1937. When Keene’s daughter had a baby, Keene became the only sleuthing grandmother on the radio. The show ran for four years, with three actresses playing Keene, the longest run for a radio female sleuth.

Movie stars Joan Blondell and Dick Powell starred in the short-lived radio serial Miss Pinkerton, Inc., in 1941, based on characters created by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Blondell played Mary Vance, a law school graduate who inherits her uncle’s detective agency and earns the nickname “Miss Pinkerton” from New York City police sergeant Dennis Murray, played by Powell.

The year 1946 was a banner year for sleuths with three women arriving on the scene. Meet Miss Sherlock played as much for laughs as detection, with ditzy amateur sleuth Jane Sherlock solving cases along with her attorney boyfriend, Peter Blossom. The Affairs of Ann Scotland starred radio and stage star Arlene Francis as a sexy girl detective.

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Miss Sherlock (OTR)

Finally, real-life New York City policewoman Mary Sullivan inspired the series Policewoman, which dramatized cases from her career. Sullivan herself added postscripts to the episodes, enhancing the reality of the crimes depicted. This series marked the first pure female sleuth, devoid of comedy or the melodrama of soaps.

Candy Matson was the first hard-boiled woman on the airwaves, debuting in 1949. Sassy, sexy, and sensible, Matson carries a gun, never hesitates to enter the lowliest dive bar for a case, and doesn’t take anyone’s guff. Monty Masters created Matson and cast his wife, Natalie Parks, in the lead role. Every thirty-minute episode opens with a ringing telephone answered, “Hello, YUKON 2–8209. Yes, this is Candy Matson,” followed by the swell of the theme song. Matson’s work took her from her apartment on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill to real locations around the Bay Area. Matson works with her best friend and sidekick, Rembrandt Watson, though he is not a doctor like the most famous Watson; he provides more comic relief than actual help. Her boyfriend, San Francisco police lieutenant Ray Mallard, continually underestimates her skill, even as she reliably solves cases before him. The show ran on various NBC stations until 1951

The glory days of the smart detecting woman did not last, however. Matson, radio’s last lady crime fighter, went off the air in the early 1950s.

 

Marketplace of the Marvelous News

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It’s been a busy few weeks bringing the stories of irregular healing and 19th century medicine to the airwaves and print. Some highlights:

I love history books (no surprise) and here are a few I recommend in this “Just Read It” feature.

Salon ran an excerpt from the conclusion while The Atlantic ran an excerpt from the phrenology chapter (a personal favorite).

Loved talking with Simon Moncrieff on Newstalk Ireland from Dublin (if only I could have done the interview in studio).

Doctor Radio with Dr. Ira Breite on Sirius XM was a lot of fun.

The Wisconsin State Journal ran a nice Q&A with me at the end of January.

And Madison’s alt-weekly Isthmus ran a profile under the headline “Textual Healing,” which cracked me up. Should I have called the book that instead?

You can hear me talk about the book on The Larry Meiller show on Wisconsin Public Radio.

The Boston Globe featured the book in their nonfiction book briefs.

 

This week, I’ll be speaking at Boswell Books in Milwaukee on Tuesday, February 11th at 7PM. And on Sunday,  February 16th, I’ll be at one of my favorite places, Arcadia Books in Spring Green, speaking at 2PM. Hope to see you there!

Before MOOCs, There Was Radio

Waiting for a coworker for lunch today, I happened to take a closer look at a display case that I pass every day without really looking. Inside are pieces of Wisconsin Public Radio history, including a brief description of the education programs that WHA (today’s WPR) offered to listeners starting in the 1930s. Full classes, many taught by professors and other experts in their fields, covering a range of subjects and delivered over the latest technological marvel – radio – that its creators hoped to use to reach and educate people with limited access to education? Sounds like a MOOC to me.

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, are the latest thing in education, promising unlimited participation and access via the technological marvel of our time – the internet. Professors at dozens of universities are teaching online courses and nearly every other university that hasn’t joined in is seriously considering their options. It’s new and hip and marketed as the way to reach people in the modern world.

But isn’t this just what the radio was doing in Wisconsin nearly a century ago?

In 1930, WHA began offering music and discussion of current events to students in rural schools in Dane County. The ten-week trial program proved a tremendous success and the station planned to incorporate classroom instruction into the regular broadcast schedule the following year.

Debuting in October of 1931, the “Wisconsin School of the Air,” as it was called, was designed for use in elementary and high school classrooms around the state.  Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction assisted with the creation of lessons that they hoped would be particularly valuable to the students attending the state’s more than 6,000 one- and two-room schools. Producers believed that the radio curriculum would increase exposure to new ideas, enhance the learning experience, and most importantly of all, help to close the very real gap in educational resources and quality that existed between rural and urban areas.

Aline Hazard interviewing a guest on the Homemaker Program Source: Wisconsin Historical Society
Aline Hazard interviewing a guest on the Homemaker Program
Source: Wisconsin Historical Society

 

Radio lesson topics included government, history, music, art, nature, health, and English. The series included programs like “Let’s Draw” (an art appreciation course where students mailed their artwork to Madison for grading) and “Afield with Ranger Mac”(a nature program hosted by Wakelin McNeel) that ran for decades. Teachers received study guides and educational suppliers offered higher quality radios to schools.

WHA also initiated the Wisconsin College of the Air to extend and improve adult education across the state. One of the most popular programs on the college slate was the Homemaker Program hosted by the affable Aline Hazard. She offered tips for cleaning, cooking, childcare, gardening, and introduced the latest tools and science of home economics. Together, the Wisconsin School and College of the Air brought useful information and education into homes and schools across the state on a technological platform that was relatively accessible to anyone.

At the end of the first semester in 1931, WHA reported nearly 11,000 regular listeners. By the next year, the regular audience had more than doubled to 23,000. The audience only continued to grow so that by 1960, roughly 290,000 students used the programs.

Other states followed Wisconsin’s lead in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly as commercial networks cut back on children’s programming. Nearly all were linked to universities or colleges, just like MOOCs today.

It seems to me that MOOCs are just a modern incarnation of the School of the Air, an attempt to give everyone a quality education using technology, whether on the air or online.

 

 

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