Zombie Media at the Superior Public Library Sale

During the Friends of the Library Book Sale at the Superior Public Library, I saw many things I’ve never seen before. I saw someone come by and buy all of the VHS tapes. (Luckily, I saw them before he did — there was nothing I liked.) I understand that there is a collector market for VHS, as movies that were never issued to DVD and will likely not be streaming are only found on that medium.

I saw an absolute dearth of science-fiction books, which disappointed me, but I was excited to see a decent collection hidden away in this suitcase. Men in their forties used to carry cases like this around in the 1980s, trading the gems inside with other collectors.

What was inside were cassettes, likely purchased or traded through mail order.

For the youth who read this (likely my students, when I assign this blog in my classes), a cassette was a medium for audio recording that looked like this. People my age used them to tape songs off the radio, to record love letters to people far away with whom we wanted to share our voice, and to record messages for answering machines. Later, we would use them to make “mix tapes,” an art you have lost.

What was on these cassettes was old-time radio — the dramas and comedies that broadcast instead of (typically live) music on the radio in the 1930s through the advent of television, more or less, in the 1950s. (For more about the collecting of old-time radio, see radiospirits.com).

At the Superior Library Sale, I found a trove of materials purchased or traded from someone in Illinois. The cassettes were likely produced by running a blank tape, bought in bulk and label-less, through what was called a dual-deck cassette player. One deck played the tape with the audio that the other deck immediately recorded onto the blank tape. The person in Illinois would wait until the recording was done, then type the labels and stick them by hand onto the blank tape.

Anyway. I hung out at a comics shop (the Turning Page in Milwaukee, under its old owner, Ron Kilian), and tape trading (both audio and VHS) happened there on weekends.

I loved old-time radio even before I met Ron, though — I just didn’t entirely understand what it was. In Milwaukee, at night, when the solar radiation didn’t mess up the signal, you could get WBBM-AM in Chicago, which broadcast old-time radio. I remember being enchanted by the idea that someone was telling me a story after dark, one I could take in with my eyes closed.


This little suitcase was a trove. Did I mention that?

If you’d like such a trove, NPR has a podcast of old-time radio (Old Time Radio), which is very deep catalog. There is an online collection at otrr.org. The Internet Archive maintains one at archive.org. This cassette collection skims across the surface, kind of a “greatest hits.” Here is some of what was inside:

The Green Hornet
Lights Out
Inner Sanctum
Hopalong Cassidy
Candy Matson
Mr & Mrs North
Fibber McGee & Molly
Burns & Allen
Melody Ranch
Charlie McCarthy
The Shadow
The Haunting Hour
The Lone Ranger
I Love a Mystery
The Whistler
Have Gun, Will Travel
Quiet, Please
Jack Benny
Abbott & Costello
X Minus One
Amos & Andy
Bing Crosby
Phil Harris & Alice Faye
My Friend Irma
The Great Gildersleeve
Box 13
Spike Jones, Tex Williams, and Dorthy Shay
Red Skelton
Wild Bill Hickok
Crime Photographer
Theatre 10:30
Mysterious Traveler

Many of these may end up in Little Free Libraries around town, or if some of them interest you, drop me a note.


Matthew James

about 2 weeks ago

I'd enjoy adding an old radio show to my podcast rotation but you've offered a bit of a gluttony of choice above. Could you recommend a few programs that might be good to start with?

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