Remembering 'One Man’s Family': Radio’s Longest-Running Serial

Long before the sensation that is Serial, the hit podcast that tells an ongoing, enthralling story each week, a radio serial tied to the City captured the ears—and later eyes—of a nation.

One Man’s Family, created by former San Francisco journalist Carlton E. Morse, and centered around the San Francisco-dwelling Barbour family, aired from April 29th, 1932 to May 8th, 1959, making it the longest-running uninterrupted serial in American radio.

It debuted from NBC Studios, Studio C, at 111 Sutter St., on the NBC Pacific Coast Network, airing in San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles. The following month, it expanded to the full West Coast NBC network, and on May 17th, 1933 it was listened to coast to coast. What started as a weekly, half-hour show soon blossomed into a daily 15-minute national pastime, spanning 27 years, 136 books, and 3,256 chapters.

Typewriter used by Carlton E. Morse. | Photo: National Museum of American History Smothsonian Institute/Flickr

Sea Cliff was the idyllic setting for this nostalgic look at wholesome Americana. It is here that we learn all about stockbroker Henry Barbour, his loyal wife Fanny, and five offspring: Paul, Hazel, twins Clifford and Claudia, and Jack. Just listening to an episode or two will take you back to the time of family values, nightly dinners and old-school ideology.

The trusty announcer declares, “One Man’s Family, brought to you by Fleischmann’s Yeast,” and “dedicated to the mothers and fathers of younger generation and their bewildering offspring,” before sweeping music of the opening theme, “Destiny Waltz,” trumpets the start of the show. Henry doles out wise advice, Fanny plays the supportive and submissive wife, and the children do their best to make their parents proud. According to the Radio Hall of Fame, “Morse was interested in creating a serial which would reflect his belief that the family unit was a primary source of moral and spiritual strength. Inspired by John Galsworthy’s novel The Forsyte Saga, Morse divided his show’s stories into ‘books,’ with each episode a “chapter.”’

Photo: Archive.org

This introduction, sourced from the Bay Area Radio Museum, paints a picture of the Barbour family and what they represent:

... Dedicated to the proposition that the American family is the bulwark of the American nation. And that so long as family life as we know it thrives, this America will be a good place in which to live. Our story deals with the family of Henry and Fanny Barbour...A retired stock and bond broker, a man with a truly green thumb in his garden, and a great advocate of the American family way of life.

The “American family way of life” back in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, as portrayed in “One Man’s Family” is both halcyon, and a little scary. The characters talk in pleasant tones, never seem to have a major problem, and never swear. Everyone in the family lives within walking distance of one another. Family life is paramount, but the ideals are antiquated, as is to be expected. Women are identified by who they are married to and who their children are, and marriage for women is portrayed as better than having a career outside the home.

However outdated those views may be nowadays, the radio serial is a great slice of life in America during those years. “I remember “One Man’s Family” on the radio,” says San Francisco resident Margaret Hardy. “It was a really good show.”

San Francisco indeed played a major role in this show. There were references to the Golden Gate Bridge, which the Barbours could see from their window, and odes to the City like this one from daughter Claudia: “What a lovely day, as are all days in San Francisco, whether hot or cold, windy or foggy.”

“One Man’s Family,” in addition to being a successful radio show, became a television show, written, cast, produced and directed by Carlton E. Morse. It aired on primetime television from 1949 to 1952, and on daytime from 1954 to 1955. Two Australian versions also aired in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Below you will find links to both the radio show and the TV show, so you can walk back in time with the Barbour family of San Francisco and take a listen to—or peek into—how life was back then.

For a step back in time, check out the show's radio archives here.

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One mans family radios longest running serial