Celebrating the 120 Years of Italian Radio, by remembering how it all started
It was 1995 when Italians celebrated the 100 years anniversary of the invention of the radio. Guglielmo Marconi was the mind behind a creation that was to change human comunication for ever. Today, 120 years after that faithful day, the radio still represents a companion to the days of many. And not only that: radio signals are still a relevant way of communicating in specific fields, such as aviation.
… It was more than a century ago when Guglielmo Marconi, up on top of a small hill, began his long and beautiful story …
When, in that faithful night of 1912, the Titanic send its first SOS to land, it was the serene and clear voice of Maria Luisa Boncompagni that answered them; she was the operator of the Araldo Telephonic company, the first to provide a radio paid subscription that allowed to contact the company directly and propel messages through radio waves to wherever it was needed. Mrs. Boncompagni could even answer questions about social and shopping promotions. She knew it all, and was an ante-litteram version of cell phones: she could put you in contact with everyone.
It was in the 1920s that the radio evolved into what we know today.
Italian families began to be interested and seek for these wooden boxes connected to an antenna placed high up on their home’s roof: through it, they listened to music and to the news. Those were also the years of Fascism, and the radio became an essential instrument for the régime’s propaganda: Mussolini insisted that all radio programs should be grouped under the acronym EIAR (Ente Italiano per le Audizioni Radiofoniche), the state-run company from which RAI (Italy’s national tv) was to be born only a couple of decades later.
Some remember it was in Rome, in Via Maria Adelaide, that EIAR set its first home: a grand lounge room, with desks but little furniture, would have welcomed visitors. Here, heavy velour curtains were drawn on front of a large microphone each and everytime an emission was on.
Soon, the radio became a place for entertainment: the first radio drama company to be established had grand things in mind: it hired well known actors Ettore Piergiovanni and Giovanna Scotto, already the first actress of Bragaglia. Tito Angeletti and Minnie Lyses, whom acted nationally in a theatre on Via IV Novembre, were hired for musical plays. By superior orders, Minnie had to change her name to Minia, a derivative of “Erminia.” Every week, there would be a musical or a comical performance, supported by maestro Riccardo Santarelli’s symphonic orchestra. The musicians were so many they barely fitted into the radio lounge room. The director of projects was the Maestro “Gasco.”
The régime quickly realized the importance of radio. EIAR had its headquarters both in Turin (on Via Arsenale 21) and Rome, in the usual Via Adelaide, as well as in a new location, in the Bel Liberty Building, in Via Asiago. It later transferred to another location, in Via delle Botteghe Oscure.
Radio presenters turned into household names: Franco Cremascoli’s sport commentaries became legendary, as did those of Nicolò Carosio, for decades associated to the radio commentaries of the Italian Nazionale di Calcio. He was the voice of Italy’s first two world titles, in 1934 and 1938.
But the radio was not only and simply a propaganda or enterteinment instrument: the radio helped to unify the country where armies could not do it. It is through the radio, for instance, that the North and the South of Italy learnt about each other and each other’s cultures and customs: famous were musical emissions from Naples, through which the whole country became acquainted with the “canzone napoletana.” These shows were followed by Radio Orchestra numero 4, and the familiar voice of singer Rosa Moretti.
Voices for the radio were carefully chosen: they had to be musical, clear, alluring and friendly: this was not always a simple task. One of the voices that made the cut was that of Massimo Felici Ridolfi. Sergio Pugliese took care of the dramas, plays and musical comedies.
The more time passed, the more the radio developed, proposing new shows and creating new characters. Radio comedies, fanciful radio literature, radio magazines formed the majority of radio listings of the 1930s and 1940s along with, of course, plenty of music. And who was en vogue then? Well, several artists were, indeed. Vittorio Belleli and Luciana Dolliver; Nuccia Natale and Gino del Signore. And some you may be well familiar with, too, like Nilla Pizzi, Gino Latilla and Clara Jajone. All were accompanied by the incredible notes of popular orchestras such as the Barzizza, the Angelini and the Kramer.
At the end of 1939, a young boy sat on the knee of Guglielmo Marconi and thought of the many amazing things the radio had proposed to its audience up to then: there was the engaging radio drama “La Serenata al Vento,” by Carlo Veneziani and the show “The Gramophone of Truth,” lead by futurist Italian poet Luciano Folgore; another futurist artist, Lucio D’Ambra, had proposed “The Literary and Artistic Life,” whereas Marga Sevilla Sartorio hosted everyone in her radiophonic lounge.
Pre-World War II Italian radio was a real melting pot of creativity and ideas. When Sergio Ugliese created his “Musical and Comic Theatre Company,” his productions quickly became so popular and appreciated that many artists gladly accepted to participate (especially after the great success of “The Three Musketeers”).
WIth the war, the radio stopped being a simple place for entertainment, and turned into the only way to learn about events, battles, tragedies. The war ended the age of innocence of Italian radio, which suddenly and violently became of age. After the 8th of September 1943 and the fall of Mussolini, the Germans took Rome over: these are the years of Rome as an open city, a period and a figurative image so well expressed, in 1945, by Roberto Rossellini in “Roma Città Aperta,” a classic of Italian cinema.
The Germans closed down the radio headquarters of Via Asiago and EIAR stopped airing for a while. Nevermind, there was always Radio Roma and Radio Londra, to keep Italians updated about the news from the front.
It was through the radio that Italians learnt the war had ended. It was the voice of Corrado Mantoni, who was to become one of the best known Italian tv presenters of all times, to announce to the country with a special radio announcement the end of the hostilities, on the 25th of April 1945.
In Italy, history was truly made through the radio, a means of comunication with just as much popularity in the 1950s, after war, as it had in the previous three decades. Even with the coming of television, the radio maintained its relevance for many years, as tv sets were pricey and not all families were able to afford them for quite a while.
Today, the radio of yore is still surrounded by an aura of romanticism and the scratchy, yet soft recordings of its emissions have the power to bring us back in time with ease. Modern radio is still popular: useful, entertaining and simple to access on and offline: but how we do miss the charme of those early, carefree emissions…
by Jackie L. Jarvis