Real Life and True-to-Life: Assurances of Authenticity in Radio Soap Operas
Old-time radio soap operas are probably best remembered today for their dramatic and sometimes sensational plots. Another important reason for the popularity and longevity of these domestic daytime serials, however, was their substantial and frequently explicit identification with the world and circumstances of their listeners. The stated themes and signature openings of many of these programs give assurance that the content will reflect "real life" or will be "true-to-life."
One popular soap, Aunt Jenny's Real Life Stories, embodies this concept in its very title. Significantly, the show was known as Aunt Jenny's True Life Stories for a large portion of its existence.
The opening to Just Plain Bill describes it as "the real life story of a man who might be your own next door neighbor and of people just like people we all know." We are similarly informed that "Pepper Young's Family is the true-to-life story of your friends, the Youngs." Long-running David Harum was billed as "the true-to-life story of David Harum. . . ." Other soaps whose signature openings contain the phrase "real life" or "true-to-life" are Stella Dallas, Stepmother, and Linda's First Love.
Some series, though less explicitly so, make similar claims to a fidelity to everyday life. The beginning of Lorenzo Jones states that "we all know couples like" Lorenzo and his wife Belle. "Their struggle for security is anybody's story." Life Can Be Beautiful, we are told, "is an inspiring message of faith drawn from life."
Another group of radio soaps making an obvious identification with the large daytime audience of stay-at-home mothers are those prominently featuring motherhood itself. Thus Stella Dallas is "the true-to-life story of mother love and sacrifice." Young Widder Brown is "the story of the age-old conflict between a mother's duty and a woman's heart." The aforementioned Stepmother asks the question, "can a stepmother successfully raise another woman's children?"
It seems that the deliberate blending of the dramatic and the down-to-earth, which is far more characteristic of soap operas than of any other radio genre, contributed to the tremendous popularity that soaps experienced for so long. The audience enjoyed all the emotional upheavals, but liked them when tempered with authenticity (the "real life" and the "true-to-life" elements), and when at least sometimes they involved "people just like people we all know."