Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cincinatti Old Time Radio Convention

Every spring, I, along with a dozen good friends, make the annual migration to Cincinnati to attend the Cincinnati Old Time Radio Convention. This year was a monumental occasion because the convention celebrated its 25th year. Attendees come from St. Louis, Buffalo (NY), England and this year one from Finland!

If you love old time radio programs, this is a convention worth checking out. Dan Hughes hosts a superb trivia contest. Winners get to select a prize from a donation table. There's an hour-long film screening of vintage film shorts with a connection to old time radio. There's a presentation on researching old time radio. And recreations on stage are certainly a highlight. And we can all thanks Bob Burchett for all his hard work and effort to make this year's convention worth paying the ransom at the gas pump. 

(Top) The Trivia Contest and (Bottom) Recreation on Stage

(Left to Right) Rich Opp and Bob Burchett
"I would go the Friends of Old Time Radio convention every year, and come back to give a report to our local radio club," Bob Burchett explained. "The question would always come up, why don’t we have a convention in Cincinnati? Nothing ever happened until one year we had a new member join named Jim Skyrm. Jim had some experience with conventions, so he found a small motel in Kentucky where we had our first convention. We had 17 dealers tables. There were no guest or re-creations."

"I had been going to the Friends of Old Radio for eleven years, so I had made friends with a lot of the dealers," continued Bob. "When I asked three of them if they would come to Cincinnati if we held a convention, they said 'sure.' Terry Salomonson, Bob Burnham, and Gary Kramer were the established dealers who came. Terry set a pattern of coming late that he has kept up over the years. Gary’s daughter got married one time, and he almost didn’t go to the wedding. Bob has missed a few, but for the most part all three of them have supported the convention all 25 years."

"The Cincinnati club had a member by the name of Don Clayton who was a big fan of Lum & Abner," recalled Robert Newman. "He built a working replica of the Jot 'Em Down Store, with furnishings, supplies, lights, in short the works.  That first year when you walked into the dealers room and looked to the left, that display grabbed your eye immediately. After the first year the convention moved to Chester Road, underneath the Windjammer Restaurant." For many years, Robert Newman and Bob Burchett were the two men responsible for the entire operation. "As you know, getting setup for the dealers and recreations is a demanding and at times, trying procedure.  Our most trying one was when a tornado came right at us.  While I was trying to get everything set up that year, the hotel evacuated everyone to our area, with some carrying plates of food.  Needless to say, I ran a little late that year.  Fortunately, the tornado went right over our heads without touching down until it was past us.  It was worse than the year before when the dealers and recreation rooms were not yet completely set up and the crew that was doing it, without saying a word to anyone, decided to go home and finish it the next day. I will not repeat what I said to management or how I got the job done."

Actress Rosemary Rice
One of the highlights, for myself, is meeting up with Rosemary Rice. A dear friend who sent Michelle and I a wedding gift when we got married. Rosemary has attended the convention for years and I hope she will continue every year. Rosemary played the role of Katryn on television's I Remember Mama.

Neal Ellis and Ken Stockinger of Radio Once More chose to broadcast from the event again. Their radio network has grown in popularity and you could tell a difference between last year's convention appearance and this year's. People not only knew who they were, but recalled numerous broadcasts of the past year. Radio Once More has become a rising force in the hobby.

Rick Payne brought a number of high-value items for sale. From sheet music, movie posters and magazines (some of which had white pages!), Rick had them all available for sale and he was perhaps one of the most popular vendors in the room. 

Neal Ellis, Gary Lowe and Ken Stockinger
Awards are given out every year, at the close of the convention. This year's award winners include Penny Swanberg, who received the Dave Warren Award. Randy Larson received the same award. Way to go Penny and Randy! Neal Ellis and Ken Stockinger won the Stone/Waterman Award. Roy Bright won the Parley Baer Award. 

Recreations this year included The Whistler, Gunsmoke and Dragnet

"You can imagine my surprise the first year I met Hal Stone (Jughead on Archie Andrews)," recalled Newman. "After we were introduced he told me that he had an Uncle Bob and insisted that I sit down, then immediately jumped in my lap, threw his arms about me, and said, now your my Uncle Bob, and usually that was how he addressed me."

Rick Payne
This year I was treated to a tour of a private archive that made the jaws drop. It was an invitation I accepted and made the entire trip worth it. With luck, I'll be returning to that same archive for a research project in July or August. The late-night sessions with friends, talking about the hobby in general, is also a highlight. After focusing on the highlights, I'd like to offer a small observation (if I may). The attendance was down in size this year. And noticeably. Could it have been the rising gas prices? I doubt it.

Let's be honest, the hobby of old time radio is a dying breed. Very little (if any) effort has been applied to attract a younger audience. Old Time Radio suffers from an aging fan base and a declined economy has not helped recent years. But this is no fault to the convention promoter. Why? Because it's been happening all over. In fact, I've only seen two conventions (of the 20 plus that I attend every year) that has grown in size. What we really need are more young people in the hobby. Heck, a convention promoter from the West Coast told me from his mouth to my ears, "Old Time Radio has pretty much run its course."

Transcription discs for sale. Dollar bill in picture for size comparison.

The free download thing hasn't helped much, either. Allow me to explain. A percentage of the attendance comes to spend money from the vendor tables. A percentage come to watch the radio creations on stage. A percentage come for the seminars and movie screening. A percentage come repeatedly, hell or high water, because it's a family reunion where no one is related. And a percentage come for more than one of these reasons. But when the vendors slowly bail out and stop attending, that's one less venue promoting the convention. After all, vendors distribute flyers at other events (and insert flyers in their mail orders) but why would they promote an event they are not setting up at? Vendors bail out because sales are down. And why would people buy old time radio shows when they can download them off the internet for free? Yeah, free is free, but someone paid for the transcription discs and took the time to transfer them to audio files. One vendor in Arkansas, who used to show up at all of the old time radio conventions, told me that when he spent $1,000 for 40 plus transcription discs, and transferred them to audio CDs and then sold them, three days later the same recordings were up on a web-site for free downloads. Since then, he ceased buying transcription discs when they were offered to him. "Why would I want to spend that kind of an investment when my returns are diminished to zero overnight?" I don't blame him. And neither do the other vendors who decided to follow his lead. So in part, free downloading of radio shows have hurt the hobby. Vendors don't make sales, they stop attending, and attendees who came to wander a glorified vendor room get disappointed and stop coming. It's a cycle that keeps revolving.

"It breaks my heart to see what is happening to OTR," concluded Newman. "Most, if not all of the clubs are having trouble attracting new members and use of the libraries continues to spiral down.  So many of the conventions have stopped.  I have been told that this is the last year for Newark. I pray that some how we can come up with a way to bring about a revival so that future generations will have the opportunity and pleasure to know how great it was and still can be."
Now that I'm off my soap box, I'd like to add that Bob puts on a good show and deserves more. If you live within driving distance of Cincinnati, Ohio, consider coming to the 2012 event. If you want to learn more about the 2012 event, visit: http://cincyotr.info/

It's all about the friends. Back row, left to right: Chris Holm, Rick Payne, Janie Bright, Mary Lowe, myself, Rodney Bowcock, Gary Lowe and Grant Gardner. Front row, left to right: Neal Ellis, Roy Bright, Ken Stockinger and Robert Ellis.



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