Radio Utopia: Postwar Audio Documentary in the Public Interest

Matthew C. Ehrlich [order book here]

American journalism is confronting epochal change. The press is struggling to adapt to changing technology while trying to develop new business models in the face of increasing financial pressures. At the same time, public service broadcasting faces pressures of its own, with National Public Radio having been targeted for what some perceive to be its liberal slant.

In such a climate, the story of American network radio documentary immediately following World War II is instructive. Audio documentary experienced a brief flowering between 1945 and 1951, grounded in the belief that radio could and should help remake America for the better. Journalists and dramatists joined forces in producing programs that advocated action on juvenile delinquency, slums, race relations, venereal disease, atomic energy, and arms control. For a time, their efforts were enabled by the commercial broadcasting industry, which was under pressure from the Federal Communications Commission to demonstrate that it was serving the public interest. By 1951, however, radio had been supplanted by television, the “good war” against fascism had given way to the cold war against communism, and many of radio’s top documentarians had landed on the blacklist.

A group of liberal-minded radio writers came of age during the Depression and wrote wartime dramas looking forward to a more just, peaceful world. The most prominent among them was Norman Corwin, with his most celebrated program being On a Note of Triumph that aired on CBS the night of the Nazi surrender in Europe. In 1946, Corwin won the “One World Flight” award. It allowed him to embark on a round-the-world trip to assess the prospects for postwar peace. He took along a recording engineer and a primitive wire recorder, resulting in a 13-part radio series that aired on CBS the following year.

  • Listen to an excerpt from the final installment of One World Flight from April 1947, including portions of Corwin’s overseas wire recordings and a snippet of a BBC recording of the London Blitz (5:32)
  • Listen to a 2006 audio feature on Corwin’s One World Flight, including comments from Corwin himself (13:10)

At the same time, CBS was setting up a documentary unit under Edward R. Murrow’s supervision. Broadcasting just after the war was under the gun from the FCC “Blue Book” report that outlined new public service standards for radio. Broadcasters attacked the report, but CBS created the new documentary unit in part to show that the networks were socially responsible.

The early CBS documentaries differed from One World Flight in that they did not use recordings. The wire recorder that Corwin had used was bulky and prone to breakdowns; plastic audiotape would not come into widespread use for another couple of years. Furthermore, CBS and NBC banned airing most recordings (with One World Flight being a rare exception). The networks felt that allowing recordings would undermine their status as nationwide providers of live entertainment. So what was called “documentary” then routinely used actors, music, and sound effects, and it was all produced live in the studio.

Such was the case with CBS’s The Eagle’s Brood, which aired in March 1947. It drew inspiration from Saul Alinsky in calling for the nationwide development of neighborhood councils to fight juvenile delinquency. The program was written and directed by Robert Lewis Shayon in a docudrama format, with actor Joseph Cotten  playing a Shayon-like journalist and actor Luther Adler playing an Alinsky-like community organizer.

  • Listen to an excerpt of The Eagle’s Brood with Cotten recreating Shayon’s cross-country travels and the civic apathy, despair, and hypocrisy he encountered regarding delinquency (2:11)
  • Listen to the conclusion of The Eagle’s Brood, with Adler extolling the benefits of grassroots common action and collective responsibility in fighting delinquency (1:24)

The other networks followed CBS’s lead in producing docudrama-type series. NBC’s first such  postwar effort was Living 1948, featuring network announcer Ben Grauer. As with CBS’s documentaries, Living routinely called for public action to tackle the nation’s problems.

  • Listen to excerpts of the beginning and conclusion of a September 1948 Living broadcast on the nation’s hospitals (5:30)

ABC produced especially innovative documentaries. The network then lagged behind CBS and NBC in audiences and hit programs, encouraging it to take chances. It even produced a musical documentary, 1960?? Jiminy Cricket! The program dramatized an 800-page think tank report on the country’s needs and resources. It was helped by Walt Disney’s studio, which loaned characters and music to promote Disney’s new animated feature Fun and Fancy Free. According to the ABC documentary, 1960 promised an America of improved labor relations, shorter work weeks, and improved housing and transportation.

  • Listen to the conclusion of 1960?? Jiminy Cricket! from September 1947 featuring actor Cliff Edwards as the voice of Jiminy Cricket (1:49)

Perhaps the most audacious experiment in postwar documentary was conducted by Robert Lewis Shayon with his series CBS Is There, later and better known as You Are There. The series recreated historical events through the pretense of having real-life CBS journalists “cover” them with what then were the latest radio news technologies and techniques. Frequently the series expressed Shayon’s liberal sensibilities concerning postwar isolationism, prejudice, and freedom of thought. At the same time, it told tales of heroic individualism that celebrated classically American virtues.

  • Listen to excerpts of the July 1947 debut of CBS Is There on President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, with CBS’s John Daly and Don Hollenbeck purportedly broadcasting live from a booth inside Ford’s Theater (4:52)

By 1948, the political climate was shifting. Utopian dreams of a united peaceful world were giving way to anticommunism as the cold war intensified. ABC and writer Morton Wishengrad produced Communism—U.S. Brand, which told of an American communist stooge named “Phil Blake” who attempts to engineer takeovers of labor unions and form front organizations to dupe liberals into supporting the communist cause.

  • Listen to an excerpt of Communism—U.S. Brand from August 1948 as “Phil Blake” is confronted by a tough-minded liberal doctor (1:09)
  • Listen to the conclusion of Communism—U.S. Brand warning of the perceived communist threat and what should be done about it (1:43)

Changes accelerated in 1949 and 1950. The networks were increasingly devoting their attention to television and cutting costs in radio. NBC and CBS dropped their recording ban, and radio news began incorporating recorded actualities. The communist takeover of China, the Soviet development of the atomic bomb, and the eruption of war in Korea further fueled the cold war, and the redbaiting book Red Channels appeared, leading to the blacklisting of several leading documentarians.

Against that backdrop, Fred Friendly and NBC produced the four-part documentary The Quick and the Dead on the development of the atomic bomb and the looming specter of the hydrogen bomb. The series also explored the promise of atomic energy. It was co-hosted by Bob Hope and New York Times science correspondent William Laurence and aired in July 1950.

  • Listen to the introduction to part three of The Quick and the Dead with NBC’s Bob Hope and Robert Trout, David Lilienthal of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Deak Parsons of the Enola Gay crew that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the New York Times’s William Laurence (2:36)

Not long after The Quick and the Dead aired, CBS hired Fred Friendly and paired him with Edward R. Murrow in creating a new radio documentary series, Hear It Now. In contrast to the dramatized documentaries that had been the norm up until then, the new series centered around recordings and strove to present a grimly realistic portrait of the ongoing war in Korea.

  • Listen to excerpts of a “biography of a pint of blood” (referred to here as “your bottle” and as “bottle 3685E”); this February 1951 Hear It Now broadcast led to hundreds of thousands of blood donations nationwide (4:59)

Hear It Now ceased production in June 1951, moving to television later that year as the celebrated series See It Now. That marked the end of the heyday of the postwar radio documentary.

Postwar documentaries offer a number of lessons for the present day. They show that regulation, or at least the threat of it, can have an impact on corporate media. The “Blue Book” played a role in encouraging the networks to undertake documentaries. Competition also played a role. CBS led the way in documentaries in part to differentiate itself from NBC, with NBC struggling to catch up and match its competitor. Meanwhile, ABC produced innovative documentaries such as the Jiminy Cricket one to attract attention at a time when it lagged far behind the other networks in income and audience share.

Beyond that, we can see journalism and broadcasting to be “the product of  large institutions” and “the exercise of power,” to quote historian David Paul Nord, and at the same time an “exercise in poetry and utopian politics,” as media scholar James Carey said that journalism should ideally be. The postwar radio documentary was an example of poetry and utopian politics temporarily aligning with the interests of powerful individuals and institutions. We do need to emphasize “temporarily”—the networks soon shifted their focus to television, and utopian sentiments became increasingly suspect as the cold war deepened, culminating in Red Channels and the blacklist. Furthermore, the broadcasting reform movement represented by the Blue Book soon fizzled in the face of fierce corporate opposition.

Still, the programs captured the spirit of a brief historical moment just after the war. As Robert Lewis Shayon described it years later, they reflected “idealism in the flush of military triumph over evil—amid the sense that a new world was about to be born.” We should continue to be sensitive to such moments when flux in the institutional and cultural environment make room for innovative, public-spirited work, including that produced by the major media that are often seen as having been traditionally inhospitable to such work. We also should be sensitive to alternative journalistic forms such as the audio documentary, which has experienced a resurgence in America in recent years. Through such studies across different genres and eras, we can uncover glimmers of journalism and documentary rooted in hope.