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Hooked on old-time radio shows, Carl Amari vowed to 'put this stuff back on the radio.'

Carl Amari's life would serve as a dandy plot for one of those radio melodramas of the 1930s or 1940s with titles like She Married Her Boss and Pride of the Marines. Both, as it happens, are for sale by Amari's company, Radio Spirits Inc. (#198) as audiocassettes or CDs.

Radio Spirits, in Schaumburg, Ill., is thriving by recycling programs from radio's yesteryear. That's the happy ending to his story.

The beginning? Just as happy.

In 1975 Amari, then 12, watched TV like almost every other kid his age. But one night at a sleep-over the father of a friend played a radio mystery classic from the popular Suspense series titled On a Country Road, starring Cary Grant. "He and his wife are in a car, and it runs out of gas," recalls Amari, "and there's a lunatic armed with a meat cleaver who breaks into the car. And we listened to it in the dark, and it flipped me out."

Amari started taping vintage radio programs, some of which he got from other enthusiasts, stuffing shoe box after shoe box with cassettes. He staked out the basement, dubbing shows over the drone of a washing machine. "My mother thought I was nuts," he recalls, "because I would be up at a quarter to six to tape old-time radio shows."

In 1981, needing college money, Amari had an inkling: why not sell vintage radio shows to cover expenses? He began acquiring the sales and rebroadcast rights to as many shows as he could. The relative obscurity of old-time radio enhanced his negotiating clout, if not his sales. The classified advertisements he placed in magazines generated only marginal interest. How, he wondered, might he win over a new generation of Americans to something they scarcely knew?

There was only one way: "I decided, hey, if I put this stuff back on the radio, people are going to hear it for free and go, 'Wow, that's cool,' like what happened to me." Amari resolved to create his own old-time radio show. Getting his products heard on the radio--a variation on the cheese-on-a-toothpick-sampling salespeople who haunt supermarket aisles--would become his key marketing strategy. To do that, all he needed was a radio station. But stations, he quickly discovered, tuned him out.

So in 1982 he bought an hour of airtime on a small Chicago station for $100 a week, launched a program called When Radio Was, and hustled for sponsors. When his sponsorship evaporated, another station rescued the show and actually paid Amari a modest fee to continue it. Still, his business--selling cassettes--only poked along.

It only poked along, that is, until When Radio Was caught the ear of Dick Brescia. A retired CBS radio executive, Brescia had founded a radio-syndication company and was shopping for inexpensive broadcast material. In Amari's trove of old-time radio shows he found it. The two formed a joint venture in 1989.

Brescia worked his radio connections to snare time for a syndicated version of When Radio Was on some of the nation's most powerful stations. Emceed by satirist Stan Freberg, it is carried every weeknight by almost 300 stations. Each one-hour package includes a sampler of radio classics, commercials, and a plug for Radio Spirits' free catalog.

Syndication itself is a break-even proposition for Amari, he says, but by captivating listeners it has dynamically propelled sales of his products--both by mail order and at the 4,000 stores that carry them.

Despite all his years immersed in old-time radio, Amari says, "I'm nuttier than ever for it." The writers of an old-time soap--say, Jack Armstrong, All American Boy--could hardly have scripted it better.