It is no secret that I am a science fiction buff; my colleague Doug Zanger ribs me about it as often as I rib him about his sports obsession. It is this trait that brings you today’s post. We’ve just seen an anniversary go by. Last week was the 76th Anniversary of the show that would eventually be renamed Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
For fifteen years, the sounds of death rays and robots, missiles and spaceships thrilled listeners across America. The iconic space hero graduated from the daily comic strips to the dramatic and wonderful world of audio with a bang (and a zotz! and a bleep!).
Via Randy Alfred of Wired:
Buck’s psychic destruction ray was really a Schick electric razor held at just the right distance from the microphone. The sound effects crew could also simulate anything from a regiment of marching robots to a scary rocket-ship crash.
He also notes the innovative means of promotion used:
The show debuted the night before Franklin D. Roosevelt trounced incumbent President Herbert Hoover in the presidential election. It was an instant hit, in no small measure due to the premiums listeners could get by sending in cereal boxtops or other proofs of purchase. Gifts included a map of the planets, a cardboard space helmet and Big Little Books (3-5/8 inches by 4-1/2 inches) of Buck Rogers comics.
In honor of the anniversary, I have hunted down a website where one can listen to these radio classics in their entirety online in the RealMedia format. I’ll confess the hunt was not that hard since the recordings are located on Buck-Rogers.com. What is nice is the additional commentary on the premiums that is found on the accompanying page of their site. Keep in mind as you read it that this is the Depression Era that is being referenced.
Underscoring the program’s phenomenal popularity was the response to mail-order gifts offered to listeners. An initial offering of a map of the planets brought 125,000 requests. A subsequent offering of a cardboard space helmet was made more difficult to get, with the proviso that a metal seal from a can of Cocomalt, the show’s sponsor, had to accompany the request. Depression-era children nevertheless sent in more than 140,000 strips of tin for the highly desirable premium, which has since become an extremely rare and valuable collectors’ item.
Now that is a testament to both the power of radio both as a medium and during bad economic times. Something to consider as we look to the weeks ahead. Now, go give them a listen!