Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Man of Steel first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938. The following year, the newspaper comic strip began and four audition radio programs were prepared to sell Superman as a radio series. When Superman was first heard on radio less than two years after the comic book appearance, the character took on an added dimension with Bud Collyer in the title role. During World War II and the post-war years, the juvenile adventure radio serial, sponsored by Kellogg's Pep, was a huge success, with many listeners following the quest for "truth and justice" in the daily radio broadcasts, the comic book stories and the newspaper comic strip. Airing in the late afternoon (variously at 5:15pm, 5:30pm and 5:45pm), the radio serial engaged its young after-school audience with its exciting and distinctive opening, which changed slightly as the series progressed. Most familiar today is the television opening, which copied the radio opening from 1945 onward (save for "and the American Way" line, which was an even later addition) but the most-oft-heard radio opening through the mid-1940s was:"Presenting the transcription feature, Superman."
(followed by Superman's "flying" audio effect)
Up in the sky! Look!
It's a bird!
It's a plane!
"Yes, it's Superman--strange visitor from the planet Krypton who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, race a speeding bullet to its target, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth and justice."
By September 5, 1945, the opening, (repeated at the close), had morphed into:"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!
In the first few episodes, Superman's home planet of Krypton is located on the far side of the Sun, as opposed to a distant star system as it is in most stories. During the journey to Earth, baby Kal-L grows into an adult and emerges fully grown from his ship after it lands on Earth. He is never adopted by the Kents, but immediately begins his superhero career. This was eventually retconned in later episodes to match the narrative of the comic books.
This serial introduced the fictional mineral kryptonite, whose radiation can weaken and even kill Superman. Aside from giving Superman's foes a way to fight him, it also allowed Superman's voice actor to take the occasional break: Superman would spend the next episode incapacitated, his groans voiced by a substitute actor.
That well known signature opening, one of the most famous in radio history, was delivered by Jackson Beck, the announcer-narrator for the program from 1943 to 1950. He also had recurring roles, voicing an occasional tough guy and also portraying Beany Martin, the Daily Planet's teenage copy boy. On Superman episodes featuring Batman, he played Bruce Wayne's butler, Alfred Pennyworth. Decades later, Beck portrayed Perry White, Clark Kent's boss, in Filmation's The New Adventures of Superman animated series (1966–70) in addition to serving as the show's narrator.
Just as Superman's true identity remained a secret, the identity of radio actor Collyer also remained a secret from 1940 until 1946, when the character of Superman was used in a promotional campaign for racial and religious tolerance and Collyer did a Time magazine interview about that campaign.
Since there were no reruns at that time, the series often used plot devices and plot twists to allow Collyer to have vacation time. Kryptonite allowed Superman to be incapacitated and incoherent with pain while the secondary characters took the focus instead. At other times, Batman (Stacy Harris) and Robin (Ronald Liss) appeared on the program in Superman's absence.
The scripts by B.P. Freeman and Jack Johnstone were directed by Robert and Jessica Maxwell, George Lowther, Allen Ducovny and Mitchell Grayson. Sound effects were created by Jack Keane, Al Binnie, Keene Crockett and John Glennon.
Many aspects associated with Superman, such as kryptonite, originated on radio, as did certain characters, including Daily Planet editor Perry White, copy boy Jimmy Olsen and police inspector Bill Henderson. On March 2, 1945, Superman met Batman and Robin for the first time.
Paramount's animated Superman short films used voices by the radio actors, and Columbia's Superman movie serials (1948, 1950) were "adapted from the Superman radio program broadcast on the Mutual Network".
In Australia, Superman was portrayed on radio by Leonard Teale (1922–1994).
In 1946 the series delivered a powerful blow against the Ku Klux Klan's prospects in the northern USA. The human rights activist Stetson Kennedy infiltrated the KKK and other racist/terrorist groups. Concerned that the organization had links to the government and police forces, Kennedy decided to use his findings to strike at the Klan in a different way. He contacted the Superman producers and proposed a story where the superhero battles the Klan. Looking for new villains, the producers eagerly agreed. To that end, he provided information—including secret codewords and details of Klan rituals—to the writers. The result was a series of episodes, “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” in which Superman took on the Klan. Kennedy intended to strip away the Klan's mystique. The trivialization of the Klan's rituals and codewords had a negative impact on Klan recruiting and membership.
Reportedly, Klan leaders denounced the show and called for a boycott of Kellogg's products. However, the story arc earned spectacular ratings, and the food company stood by its support of the show.
Superman historian Michael Hayde has cast doubt on whether actual KKK codewords and details were broadcast in the Clan of the Fiery Cross story arc. He wrote, "[O]ne is hard pressed to uncover anything that might be construed as proprietary to the KKK, with the exception of one — and only one — sequence, heard in episode #2".
The syndicated series, titled simply Superman, first aired via pre-recorded transcription disks over 11 stations beginning on February 12, 1940, with an origin story, "The Baby from Krypton". The series aired in 15-minute episodes three times a week until May 9, 1941, with the conclusion of the "Nitrate Shipment" storyline. By that time, it had expanded to 63 stations.
All 325 episodes of the syndicated series are available in circulation.
The first 19 episodes had individual titles that told three overall stories:
The series then moved to multi-part cliffhanger stories, beginning with "The Mystery of Dyerville". Some stories spanned just a few episodes; others, like "The Last of the Clipper Ships", went on for up to 20 parts.
Beginning August 25, 1941, a second series of transcriptions designed to air five days per week (although many stations continued the previous three-per-week schedule) aired. These concluded after 26 weeks with the final installment of "A Mystery for Superman" airing on February 20, 1942:
By the time the syndicated series ceased production, it was airing in 85 North American markets. In June, the Mutual Network discovered it would be losing its #1 juvenile show, "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy" to NBC's Blue Network at the end of August. To counter, MBS decided to revive the show, now officially titled The Adventures of Superman, on August 31, 1942. The new series aired live, five days a week. The revival began with two individual episodes, and then returned to the cliffhanger serial format.
The stories were of varying lengths—some stories were only five parts, while others could go into the dozens. Some of the longer stories include "Looking for Kryptonite" (25 episodes), "The Hate Mongers' Organization" (25 episodes) and "Superman vs Kryptonite" (33 episodes).
All stories broadcast from August 31, 1942 to September 3, 1945 are either wholly or partially missing. For those stories where some episodes are available in circulation, it will be noted which parts are available.
From September 4, 1945 (Part 1 of "Dr. Blythe's Confidence Gang") to September 2, 1948 (Part 3 of "The Mystery of the Silver Buffalo") all stories are fully available in circulation except for "Looking for Kryptonite", "The Hate Mongers' Organization", "Pennies for Plunder", and "Hunger, Inc." which are all missing a handful of episodes. For these 4 serials, it will be specified which parts are missing.
The remaining serialized stories are all either wholly or partially missing. For those stories where some episodes are available in circulation, it will be noted which parts are available.
Beginning February 7, 1949, The Adventures of Superman episodes expanded to 30 minutes each.All were transcribed. Each episode was self-contained and had an individual story title. Only "The Mystery of the $10,000 Ghost". "The Mystery of the Flying Monster", and "The Case of the Double Trouble" are available in circulation.
The series left MBS with the 60th half-hour show, "The Mystery of the Frozen Monster," on June 24, 1949. It returned as a mystery program targeted toward adults on Saturday, October 29, 1949 at 8:30pm over the ABC network. ABC aired this adult-themed version for 13 weeks, concluding with "Dead Men Tell No Tales" on January 21, 1950. This broadcast marked the final radio appearance of Bud Collyer as Clark Kent/Superman.
On June 5, 1950, ABC revived The Adventures of Superman as a twice-weekly afternoon half-hour series. This version reused the scripts for the 60 MBS half-hour episodes and the 13 "adult" ABC episodes but with new cast members. Michael Fitzmaurice replaced Collyer as Kent/Superman, Jack Grimes replaced Jackie Kelk as Jimmy Olsen, and Ross Martin replaced Jackson Beck as narrator. A total of 78 episodes were produced, with the final broadcast, "The Mystery of the Prehistoric Monster," on March 1, 1951. By then, producer Robert Maxwell was actively preparing Adventures of Superman for television.Superman/Clark Kent:
Bud Collyer (1940–1950)
Michael Fitzmaurice (1950–1951)
Jimmy (Professor's son):
The Yellow Mask:
Beany Martin (Daily Planet copyboy):
George Lowther (1940–1942)
Jackson Beck (1943–1951)
Ross Martin (1951)
In the 1950s, an Australian version of the series had a different cast with Superman played by Leonard Teale.