On April 18, 1938, a new superhero appeared in the colorful pages of a comic book. Created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster Superman first took on evildoers in Action Comics #1 (cover dated June 1938). Action Comics and Superman were an immediate success. Soon, the Man of Steel was fighting villains in all sorts of formats from newspaper strips to theatrical cartoons. Less than two years after he first appeared in Action Comics #1, Superman took a mighty leap to radio.
The Adventures of Superman was “a long-running radio serial that originally aired from 1940 to 1951.” Originally marketed for a juvenile and teen audience, Superman’s radio show was a huge success and included a large audience of adult fans. The show started out as 15 minute episodes three times a week via prerecorded transcription discs. Over the years, the Superman radio show expanded to five days a week then to 30 minute episodes and even went to live broadcasts. The stories changed, too, from individual episodes to multi-part cliffhanger stories. One epic story arc “spanned 76 episodes, airing from September 1945 to January 1946”.
The Adventures of Superman radio show added a lot of original content to the growing Superman mythos. Who can forget one of the most famous openings in radio history, delivered in thrilling tones by the show’s announcer-narrator Jackson Beck:
“Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Look! Up in the sky!
It’s a bird!
It’s a plane!
But the radio show also gave birth to several iconic characters including Daily Planet editor Perry White, copy boy Jimmy Olsen, and Police Inspector Bill Henderson. In March 1945, the radio Superman met Gotham City’s caped crusaders, Batman and Robin, for the first time. Superman “regularly teamed with Batman and Robin on radio long before the comics”. Batman and Robin also substituted for Superman whenever Bud Collyer, the talented voice of both Clark Kent and Superman, needed a vacation from his grueling schedule. The Adventures of Superman also originated kryptonite, Superman’s greatest weakness. The radio show did have a few differences from the comic book. On radio, Krypton was a large planet orbiting on the opposite side of our sun from Earth and baby “Kal-L”grew to adulthood while on his journey and arrived on Earth as a full-grown man. Also, in the radio show, Superman is “quickly commissioned as an undercover Secret Service operative”.
Bud Collyer, voice of Superman and Clark Kent, originally did not want to take the iconic role. He refused several times because “the whole idea embarrassed me”. When Bud did finally take on the role, DC Comics wanted the identity of the voice of its greatest hero to be kept a sort of secret (only “sort of” because while Bud was left off the show’s credits, magazine interviews as early as 1942 reviled his identity). Bud agreed to the initial secrecy because, while he took the role, he still feared it would ruin his career as a “serious actor”.
The Adventures of Superman is a stirring and sensational radio show. There’s dramatic mood music, thrilling voice acting, and hair-raising cliffhanging adventures. There is also an almost schizophrenic treatment of race. The show swings wildly from racist slurs to endorsements of tolerance. Superman was at the height of its popularity during World War II and Superman fought against hateful Nazis and spoke out against untrustworthy “Orientals”. Yet, in other episodes, Superman actively opposed anti-Semites and other racists. One of the most famous and popular of the radio story arcs was “The Clan of the Fiery Cross”. Real life human rights activist Stetson Kennedy had managed to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s. He wrote extensively about racists groups but he also searched for new ways to expose and ridicule the KKK. In 1946, Stetson contacted Superman’s producers and proposed a story idea. “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” resulted. Stetson provided secret codewords and details of KKK rituals and the Superman writers trivialized and ridiculed the Klan’s mystique. Klan leaders denounced the show and urged a boycott but the show’s sponsor stood firm and the story arc earned spectacular ratings and was reportedly responsible for Klan membership taking a nosedive. “It sounds hokey to say it, but when the show used its hero’s powers for good, it could actually change the world for the better”.
The Adventures of Superman radio show ran for more than 2,000 episodes, most of those episodes are FREE in the Public Domain (a few are apparently lost). The Internet Archive has many different collections of Superman radio episodes. I did not have time to listen to all of them, but those that I did all had very clear and crisp audio. One of the best collections, in my opinion, is Adventures of Superman – combined arcs. This puts each of the story arcs into separate mp3 files for easy listening and handy access (including “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” which is number 11). 172 radio episodes can be found at The Adventures of Superman. 92 episodes can be found at The Best of Superman. Then there are many smaller collections. This search page lists links to most of them. Wikipedia has a list of all episodes but I like The Adventures of Superman (radio) much better because it describes the individual episodes and story arcs as well as pointing out important developments such as the introduction of characters or change in actors. The episodes are from 11 minutes to 30 minutes long, some collections include original commercials, some do not. But the short length is perfect for short car rides, bathroom “me” time, or relaxing before bedtime. Many of these episodes were originally geared towards younger fans but there is still a lot of racism and violence. In just “The Clan of the Fiery Cross” alone various characters, including main characters, get beaten up, nearly blown up, kidnapped, threatened with tar and feathering, threatened with death and this includes adult villains actively plotting against and physically assaulting teenage characters. So tender-hearted fans should beware. Still, overall, this is an exciting and interesting radio series. Before you rush off to see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, get to know Superman in his first ever appearance in a media other than print!