This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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FOUR KINDS OF OTR PREMIUMS
by Stephen A. Kallis, Jr. © 2004
(From Radio Recall, February 2005)
Every so often someone, speaking of radio premiums, makes the observation that today's children should see how much fun one could have "before there were computer games."
Although there are elements of truth in that, I think it's important to distinguish between radio premium types. I have previously described the Captain Midnight cryptological premiums -- "decoders" is the common, but not entirely accurate descriptor of such items -- as "equipment." Other programs, including Little Orphan Annie, Red Ryder, and Tom Mix also offered cryptological premiums. These too, were equipment. By that, I meant that they were designed to perform a certain function and delivered what they promised.
Most were based on an invention of the 15th Century, the cipher disk, invented by Leon Battista Alberti, who never thought of it as a toy. Likewise, the Radio Orphan Annie and Frank Buck Explorer Sun Watches were also valid equipment for campers, hikers, or the like. Each was about the size of a pocket watch. Both were miniature sundials with built-in magnetic compasses. By opening each, raising the gnomon (the thing that casts the shadow on the dial) to the appropriate angle, one could get the local time with some accuracy.
Also, any of the Tom Mix Compass-Magnifiers could be used by campers for orientation and (at sunny periods) as a fire starter, a good accessory for woodsmanship. Anything with inherent utility would be a piece of radio premium equipment, not unlike a Swiss Army Knife. The various pedometers qualify as equipment.
The second class of premium is the souvenir or memento. The Captain Midnight Aztec Sun God Ring is more than just another Secret Compartment ring; it's a memento of a Secret Squadron adventure in Mexico. The Jack Armstrong Dragon's Eye Ring is a "replica" of a mysterious ring that Uncle Jim Fairfield received from the Philippines to help him gain the cooperation of Sulu Sea natives during a search for a lost shipment of Uranium. (The buildup for the premium was brilliant, but they overproduced the ring.) Every souvenir premium brought the listener more into the program's story.
The third class of premium was the novelty. The Tom Mix Signal Arrowhead, for instance, had two lenses, a siren, and a set of panpipe whistles. I sent for one as a child, but don't recall any direct connection to the show. The Lone Ranger Flashlight Ring would hardly be a souvenir and certainly not equipment -- just a novelty. (In spades for the Kix Atomic Bomb ring [aka The Lone Ranger Atom Bomb ring].) Other items, such as the Shooting Propeller Plane Gun, Betty's Luminous Gardenia Bracelet, and the luminous Crocodile Whistle, all from the Jack Armstrong show, were novelties.
There was a fourth class: wartime premiums. The MJC-10 Plane Spotter from the Captain Midnight show, the Official Victory Airplane Spotter from the Terry and the Pirates program, Tru-Flite Airplanes from the Jack Armstrong show all provided the same "aircraft recognition" information that the armed forces and Civilian Defense (as it was called back then) observers had. The chances of a child in, say, Salina, Kansas, of spotting a Mitsubishi A-6 ("Zero") flying overhead during the war were infinitesimal, as the aircraft wouldn't have the range to reach that far into the country but the premiums helped the owners feel as if they were making a difference. *
The various luminous-paper blackout kits actually had some utility. Certainly the Captain Midnight Magic Blackout Lite-Ups were in a folder that illustrated was that the luminous paper might help during blackouts. These included placing small bits of paper by light switches, placing them at the edge of doors, steps, or firefighting equipment (sand buckets, etc.).
Some of the premiums were extremely creative, particularly those for the Sky King show. But most of them were novelties. The Teleblinker Ring, for instance, had a built-in telescope, but the imagery wasn't good enough to classify it as a piece of equipment.
Whether serious equipment or novelties, each formed a link with the show that offered it. And today, for those of us who lived through the times, each one we see evokes really fond memories.
* NOTE: It was pointed out to me that during WW II, a captured Mitsubishi A-6 "Zero" actually did fly across the United States for flight testing to determine countermeasures. So, a child with a Plane Spotter who happened to see it, would have been able to identify it.