Kevin Mims is known to readers of the Dell mystery magazines primarily as a short-story writer. In 2013, one of his stories for EQMM received a nomination for the International Thriller Award, and he has also contributed memorable stories to our sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. But he is also an essayist whose pieces have frequently appeared in the New York Times, on NPR, and elsewhere. This is his fourth post for this site. In it he talks about the heyday of the radio mystery.—Janet Hutchings
“The wonderful thing about radio is that it can be enjoyed in complete darkness. And isn’t darkness the natural medium for mystery?”
— E.G. Marshall
Host of the CBS Radio Mystery Theater
When I was young my father used to tell me how much better the days of radio were than the days of TV. You had to use your imagination more, he said. I nodded as if to agree, but of course I thought this was bunk. TV had everything that radio had—plus pictures! Lately, though, I’ve begun to think that, as a media-consumer in the 1970s, I had more in common with the listeners of the old-time radio era than I do now with the TV viewers of our present video-saturated era.
The Portland Trailblazers began play in 1970, my thirteenth year. Over the next several years I listened to nearly every game on the radio. But I didn’t just sit in a chair and passively soak up the broadcast. I set up a makeshift basketball court in my bedroom. I had a backboard made out of a cardboard box, a metal rim made out of a coat hanger, and ball that I cut out of some upholstery foam. While the Blazers did battle with the Seattle Supersonics or the Los Angeles Lakers, I did battle with imaginary opponents of my own. I shot long-range jumpers, free throws, and hook shots from the lane. It was probably the most interactive experience I ever had as a sports fan.
Back then, Portland was also the home of the mighty Portland Buckaroos of the Western Hockey League. As much a Buckaroo fan as a Blazer fan, I listened to nearly every Buckaroo game on the radio. Curiously, I didn’t set up a mock hockey arena in my bedroom. No, when listening to a Bucks game, I did just what I did while listening to the Blazers: I shot baskets on my homemade hoop. I always felt that both the Blazers and the Bucks did better against their opponents if I played as hard as I could while listening to them.
But it wasn’t just sports that I experienced as a radio listener. Beginning in 1974, I became a regular listener of a show called the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which was hosted by actor E.G. Marshall and broadcast every weeknight on radio stations all across the country. In my youth I was a devout fan of crime novels (by writers like Agatha Christie, Lawrence Sanders, Elmore Leonard), crime TV shows (The Rockford Files, Streets of San Francisco) and crime films (Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, The Last of Sheila). And though the mysteries produced by CBS Radio were rarely as intriguing as a good crime novel or as well acted as, say, The Sting, they might have been the mysteries I enjoyed most during that formative time of my life. The cheesiness of the dialog and the implausibility of the plots gave them a pulp campiness that spoke to me in the same way that old grindhouse movies must have spoken to Quentin Tarantino when he was a teen. Plus, I loved the sound effects. As a child of the TV era, I was familiar with the sight of a door opening, or a man climbing a flight of stairs, or a lone woman walking down a deserted street at night, but I had never paid much attention to how these things sounded. Obviously the special-effects wizards at CBS Radio paid plenty of attention to these sounds, because sound was all they had to work with. CBS billed the program as “The Fear You Can Hear!” and “The Sound of Suspense,” emphasizing its status as a purely aural experience. When listening to these mysteries, I would lie in my bed after dark, with the radio held right up against my ear. That’s probably the most intimate I’ve ever been with a crime drama—I literally slept with it.
The CBS Radio Mystery Theater went off the air in 1982. After that, the closest thing I could find to replace it with was pulp mystery magazines. In the 1980s there were a few national pulp crime magazines still in publication: Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. I was originally drawn to these pulps because the short stories in them—usually very clever and compelling but also often recounted in a traditional mode that harkened back to the days Dorothy Sayers and Dashiell Hammet—reminded me so much of the stories broadcast nightly for eight years or so on the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. I became a devotee of pulp fiction magazines because of my love for the old-time radio dramas. Later I would even sell a few stories to these magazines, and I owed it all to those late-night radio broadcasts.
On nights when there were no basketball games or mystery programs on the local radio schedule, I would often lie awake and listen to broadcasts from far away cities. I especially liked listening to commercials for business establishments I had never heard of before. They were like advertisements from an alternative universe.
On my round, blue Panasonic portable radio I knew exactly where the dial had to be set in order to pick up the most powerful radio stations in Phoenix, San Diego, Denver, Salt Lake, the Bay Area. I couldn’t always get them. The night had to be clear. But when I found one, it always seemed like a bit of magic. A transmission from an astronaut thought to have been lost in space.
Years later, when I read the opening lines of The Dick Gibson Show, Stanley Elkin’s cult novel about the heyday of radio, I felt as if they had been written about me:
When Dick Gibson was a little boy . . . he could get Omaha, could get Detroit, could get Memphis; New Orleans he could get. And once—it was not a particularly cold or clear night; for that matter it may even have rained earlier—he got Seattle, Washington. He listened almost until sign-off, hoping that the staff announcer would say something about the wattage put out by the station. Then, after the midnight news but before the amen of the sermonette, the station faded irrecoverably.
Curiously, even my TV consumption in the 1970s was often more like a radio experience than a television experience. For my 13th birthday, my parents gave me a portable tape recorder and a handful of Ampex cassette tapes. As a result, I became a fiend for audio recordation. My friend Mark Weise and I would sneak the recorder into various sporting events and “announce” them as if we were professional sportscasters, passing the microphone back and forth between us. Occasionally I would wander the neighborhood and record ambient sounds—cars whizzing down busy streets, kids playing ball, barking dogs. Mostly, though, I used my tape recorder to record TV shows. This was back before VHS recorders were available for home use, so I had to settle for recording only the audio portion of a program. Primarily I recorded half-hour comedies. Dramas were generally an hour long and required flipping the tape over at the halfway mark. Also, in order to appreciate a TV detective show, you had to be able to watch for visual clues that couldn’t be captured on audiotape. Thus, while I was listening to a Blazer game upstairs in my room, I could be recording an episode of M*A*S*H on a spare TV in the basement. By the time my teenage years ended, I owned hundreds of audiotapes upon which I had recorded not only TV sitcoms but also Blazer and Buckaroo games. Sometimes, if a game was exciting enough, I saved the recording and would listen to the entire game all over again. Once, during a Buckaroo game, Portland defenseman/enforcer Connie Madigan committed the unimaginable crime of punching a referee in the face during play. I was recording the game on tape when it happened. To this day I can still recall the incredulity in the voice of radio announcer Bill Anderson as he screamed, “Madigan hit the referee! Madigan decked Dave Newell!” My friend Mark hadn’t been listening when it happened. He didn’t find out about it until he read about it in the paper the next day. He was furious to have missed it. I told him, “Don’t worry. Come over to my house after school and I’ll replay it for you.” We listened to it over and over again.
Connie Madigan’s assault on Dave Newell was a fusion of many of my teenage interests: crime, sports, entertainment, and audiotape. Throw in a beautiful bikini-clad babe and it would have been the quintessence of my teenage fantasies.
On weekend nights, when there were no radio mysteries to listen to, I would lie in my bed and listen to entire movies whose audio tracks I had recorded on tape. This worked best with musicals and comedies. I remember listening to Guys and Dolls over and over again. To this day I still know all the lyrics to all the songs that Frank Leosser wrote for the show. Once I snuck my tape recorder into Portland’s Aladdin Theater (admission: 65 cents back in those days) and taped Neil Simon’s Murder By Death, trembling with fear every time I had to change the cassette.
In the first years of our marriage I would astonish my wife with my ability to recite long stretches of dialog from movies such as The Cheap Detective and Murder By Death, as well as from TV shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Bob Newhart Show. When the audio is all you have, the words tend to stick in your memory.
As a teen, I preferred recording sitcoms to dramas, but I nonetheless frequently recorded syndicated episodes of the original Perry Mason because I loved listening to the courtroom showdowns. Years later, when watching reruns with my wife, I was able to impress her by accurately predicting exactly which character would improbably spring up in the courtroom gallery during the episode’s climactic scene and confess his guilt.
After turning 18, I led a peripatetic life for awhile. My parents moved to Sacramento in 1976 before returning to Portland in 1980. I moved back and forth between the two cities a few times, not sure which one I wanted to settle in. At some point it must have become a burden to keep moving my hundreds of audiotapes from apartment to apartment. I’m not sure exactly when or how I got rid of them. For all I know, they could be gathering dust in the basement of my parents’ current home in Portland. It would take an amateur gumshoe with far greater skills than mine to figure out what became of those old cassettes. All I know is that they brought me a great deal of joy back in the 1970s.
I used to think my father was crazy to prefer a mere audio experience to a fully immersive audio-visual one, but now it seems to me that the old man knew what he was talking about. When I reminisce about my teenage years, I find that many of my mental images of the era have grown old and faded. But I can still recite much of the dialog of that era word for word.