[Ida B. Wells portrait from the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, via Google Arts and Culture]
Her New York Times obituary — 87 years after her death — called Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) “one of the nation’s most influential investigative reporters,” part of the newspaper-of-record’s 2018 attempt to set the record straight by publishing biographies of women whose lives and deaths had been under-covered in the past.
The Chicago black history radio series “Destination Freedom” dramatized Wells’ life earlier — in its episode 41, titled “Woman With A Mission,” broadcast April 10, 1949,
The program opens with scenes of her strength and courage — establishing a lifelong pattern of her fighting for people’s rights — when raising her seven siblings after her parents died of yellow fever, and winning an early suit against segregation laws, as well as her early careers in teaching and writing. Actress Weslan Tilden narrates, as Wells herself.
“My mission was to resist tyranny wherever I found it,” Wells summarizes in the broadcast, preparing to expose graft and corruption in the Memphis schools and segregation in business.
“I found trouble, but I also found the truth,” she says. That night, the Klan deposits a corpse at her door. (Was that scene supposed to be literally true, or an acceptable way to make a point dramatically in a short radio play? Her pamphlet “Southern Horrors: Lynch law in all its phases” provides more detail of what may be the case in question.)
Undeterred, Wells worked for almost 40 years as a journalist and activist, which included launching a major anti-lynching campaign with “Southern Horrors,” as well as writing for black-owned newspapers, and becoming editor and part owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight in 1889.
Her somewhat belated obituary in the New York Times called her ahead of her time in both journalism and civil rights: “She pioneered reporting techniques that remain central tenets of modern journalism. And… took on structural racism more than half a century before… the 1960s civil rights movement.”
Here’s a Green Hornet episode I haven’t written about yet: The 1948 tale’ s title “The Hornet Bats for a Pitcher” sums it up…
A pitcher sent back to the minors keeps losing, leading a Daily Sentinel sports reporter to suspect something is wrong involving gambling.
That leads his boss, publisher Britt Reid, to put on his Green Hornet mask and investigate …
Unfortunately, the reporter jumps to obvious conclusions and doesn’t catch on that the ballplayer is being framed… no great journalism tips here.
Even the eavesdropping Britt Reid reaches the wrong conclusion from an overheard phone call … but shows up just in time to help out the real heroes of the day — the young man’s pals from the baseball team.
The Adventures of Jane Arden, a thrilling drama of a fearless girl reporter, the most beautiful woman in the newspaper world. Jane Arden, star reporter for The Bulletin, important newspaper of a big American city.
It has taken six years, but I finally found a source for the second episode of radio’s attempt to turn the newspaper strip’s original “most beautiful girl in comics” into a soap opera, “The Adventures of Jane Arden.”
That leaves only about 36 weeks of missing daily episodes to go!
Perhaps it was the coming of World War II, or the similarity to the 1937 to 1939 Torchy Blane series of movies about another feisty “girl reporter,” but attempts to make Jane Arden as big a star on radio and movies as she was in the comics pages did not take off.
Jane was such a star reporter that in the first episode, we hear a young colleague saying, “Just give me a chance, and I’ll be the best male Jane Arden in the racket.”
Ms. Arden starred in the female reporter role on daily and Sunday comics pages for more than 40 years, 1927-1968, pre-dating other fictional-newsie heroines: Torchy Blane (1937) in the movies, Lois Lane (1938) in Superman comics (and newspaper strips, radio, cartoons and live-action movies), Penny Parker (1939) in a series of Nancy-Drew-style novels, Brenda Starr (1940) in the newspapers, and Hildy Johnson (1940) in the movie “His Girl Friday.”
After the opening description of Jane, the announcer also set the scene in The Bulletin’s 10th floor newsroom, full of “men in shirtsleeves, cuffs rolled up, green shades over their eyes…
“Far back in the room is the slot, the double-row of table-like desks over which the rewrite men finally shape the stories as they will appear in The Bulletin. And guardian of the slot, commander of the news staff, Eddie Dunn. city editor, sits, the final arbiter in the news of the day.”
There was one thing radio could not offer: Jane’s Sunday newspaper adventures came complete with Jane Arden paper doll fashion cutouts, a gimmick picked up by the competing “Brenda Starr” comic, back in the day when big cities might have two competing Sunday newspapers each buying its comics from a different syndicate.
The strip was created by newspaperman Monte Barrett in 1927 and kept running in syndication until 1968. (See the Monte Barrett bio at the Des Moines Register.) His comic was aimed at women readers, and the radio serial that followed a decade later was broadcast in the morning, prime time for soap operas and other programs aimed at women listeners. Jane Arden was promoted in newspaper display ads as “the most beautiful girl in comics,” which became “the most beautiful girl in the newspaper world” to radio listeners.
And it was a pretty exciting series launch at that, starting with a murder in the newspaper building’s elevator, and Jane giving orders to the coroner, the police and her boss! By the second episode, the newspaper’s reputation was an issue — imagine, letting someone literally get away with murder in the newspaper’s own building… Computing papers dive right into the fun of teasing the editor.
John Dunning’s 1998 edition of “On the Air, the Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio” lists the series title as simply “Jane Arden,” without “The adventures of…” and says it was broadcast until June 23, 1939, as a Blue Network soap opera, weekday mornings at 10:15. Time zones and other concerns may have shifted the timeslot; I’ve seen one station’s newspaper ad for a late-afternoon broadcast. And a quick check of 1938-39 Chicago Tribune radio listings confirms the program was on at 9:15 a.m. on WLS in the Central time zone, with a music program taking over its time slot on Monday, June 26. Sorry, Jane.
Alas, since the program was a 12-minute daily serial, even having two episodes will leave you hanging, but you do get quick introductions to the characters and their relationships.
Eddie Dunn, the editor, wants Jane to investigate another company in the newspaper’s building, but she is sidetracked by breaking news: Someone is stabbed to the death in the crowded elevator while Jane and Jerry, the cub reporter, are headed out for coffee.
Even with just two episodes to go by, there are features familiar to other portrayals of journalists in radio, film and fiction. For example, Jane and the editor engage in some of the “show some respect for your editor” banter familiar in most appearances of Hollywood’s Torchy Blane or comicdom’s Lois Lane.
“No other woman on the staff calls me ‘Eddie.'” — Jane’s editor
Similarly, a “police-journalist cooperation” theme I’ve noticed in other crime radio series also shows up in the first “Jane Arden” episode. Not only is Jane on a first-name basis with Mike, the Irish cop in her newspaper building and knows his badge number when she calls the morgue and police headquarters — where she doesn’t have to explain who she is.
Editor Dunn sounds a bit grumpy about her calling the morgue and the police before telling him all the details of the murder. Actually, he asks her a good set of questions for the story — and she provides descriptive details for the elevator murder.
Jane, billed as “star reporter,” sounds experienced at hard-news crime reporting; the body in the elevator apparently isn’t the first fresh corpse she’s seen. She says the dead man was good-looking, then adds:
“Death has a way of painting a mask over a face,” — Jane Arden.
Both Jane and the cub reporter demonstrate good reporting skills — remembering details like the killer’s brown tweed suit, brown hat and limp.
Eddie Dunn sounds like more of a mentor than some fictional editors when Jane asks him to give Jerry, the cub reporter, a break.
“I am giving him a break — I’m breaking him in” — editor Dunn on his treatment of a cub reporter.
In a soap opera format of daily continuing episodes, there is no telling how many days or weeks it took to resolve the murder in the elevator story, or where Jane’s adventures went next. John Dunning’s history of radio mentions Jane Arden story lines including reporter competition and a newspaper merger that are not featured in these first two episodes, so there may be more radio adventures — audio transcription discs or broadcast scripts — in collectors’ hands or library archives.
If I find them, I will update these blog posts into a full page in the Soaps or Adventure section listed on the menu at the top of this page.
It has been a while since I have written about old-time radio’s portrayal of the relationship between newspaper reporters and police officers.
This 1944 Green Hornet episode goes beyond the series’ usual scenes of camaraderie between the cops and former policeman Mike Axford — who was part reporter and part bodyguard for Daily Sentinel publisher Britt Reid without being sharp enough to figure out that Reid was also the Green Hornet.
This time the Sentinel’s star reporter Ed Lowrey is at center stage, not through any reporting skill. A gang of bank robbers recognize that Lowrey is known and respected by the police. So they set him up with a pretty girl who plays a key role in a bank robbery, having conveniently planned to meet Lowrey at the bank — where he arrives just as the police are beginning to suspect she might have been an accomplice.
“Sure I know her… She’s O.K.,” he tells the police.
“As long as Lowrey says you’re okay, you’re alright with me,” the sergeant tells the woman, sending her on her way.
But, after Axford describes the whole scene to Reid, the publisher get suspicious about Lowrey’s girlfriend, and plants some seeds of doubt.
Meanwhile, her real boyfriend, the head of the bank robber gang, begins to get jealous…
Let’s just say that the episode also continues the frequent Hollywood theme of newspaper careers being risky for romantic relationships.
The episode “Lowrey’s Big Moment” was originally broadcast on January 15, 1944, and is available at the Old Time radio Researchers Library, otrrlib.org.
“Ghost Editor” is a well-dramatized biography of Roscoe Dunjee, who founded the Black Dispatch, the first African American newspaper in 1915 Oklahoma City.
Actor Fred Pinkard narrates the series as Dunjee in this episode of the “Destination Freedom” African American history series, which was created by journalist Richard Durham at WMAQ in Chicago in 1948-50. (Remarkably, that was also the station that introduced the long-running African-American dialect comedy hit “Amos and Andy,” started by two white actors.)
As the episode title suggests, Dunjee began working as a ghostwriter, going back and forth between white papers and a previous black paper in Tulsa — until it was blown up while campaigning against a voter suppression bill.
In a particularly dramatic scene, Dunjee fights off a group of assailants, with a last-minute assist from some oilfield workers. “The Klan’s against some of us too,” a big red-haired worker with an Irish accent tells the editor, which helps convince him not to leave Oklahoma.
In another scene, a federal agent encourages Dunjee to go undercover to investigate a Texas lynching — a dangerous reporting technique. But he manages to get key evidence by impersonating the brother of the hanged man, and letting a key figure in the lynching leap to the conclusion that he had the right to sell the murdered man’s land.
Obviously a 30-minute radio drama had to pick and choose action scenes to tell a life story, and may have taken poetic liberties, but I have not read Dunjee’s biography (beyond, I will admit, Wikipedia) to see how close the script came to real events. My project here is just to explore how journalists were portrayed in radio dramas, and this episode does make its points about the editor’s independence, initiative and courage.
From November 1952, this is no Thanksgiving story… A San Francisco newspaper columnist gets involved with bad Italian accents, puns on his name (“Mann”), a picture postcard and a mystery.
Supposedly based on a true story, this episode of the long-running series “Suspense” has an assault on a ferryboat concertina player, a redhead with a mysterious parcel, a word that sounds like “cuspidor,” and a doctor who says he charges wealthy customers more so he can patch up the occasional concertina player for free… and the doc has a neat trick smoking two cigarettes a yard apart.
It would be too much of a coincidence to have one of those 1950s medical doctor cigarette advertisements in this episode. But the sponsor is the Autolite spark plug company, not a tobacco manufacturer.
The real reporter and newspaper the story is supposedly based on are not identified, unlike the series the Big Story, which you will find elsewhere on the menu above, and which did have a tobacco sponsor. Or perhaps the reporter character is entirely fictional, added to frame the story, while the only “true story” aspect involves that postcard. Seems to me that I would have heard about this reporter in the Pulitzer Prize archives if his part in the story was as advertised.
If you know the inspiration for this episode, please drop me a note in the comments below.
Titled “Mann Alive” or “Man Alive,” it could have been “Man Overboard” for part of the plot.
In my collection of radio portrayals of journalists, this is both reporter-as-narrator and the detective-reporter, complete with foghorns and overcoat, putting himself in harm’s way, turning a small local story into something of national significance. The question of whether he will survive a life threatening situation is somewhat spoiled by the fact that he is the narrator.
Actor Paul Douglas delivers the dramatic dialogue. William Conrad is a familiar voice in the cast.
Today’s coincidence is that I had car trouble this morning and it really did turn out to be the sparkplugs.
The 1940 CBS radio series “Forecast” was a summer showcase for ideas for new series… what television later called “pilots,” and a drama about an Indiana newspaperman was part of the series’ first edition.
However the newspaperman story wasn’t the series idea: It was to be called “The American Theatre” and would produce a new radio drama each week based on a different American work of fiction.
The pilot episode July 15, 1940, used Booth Tarkington’s 1899 novel “The Gentleman from Indiana” as its source, with John Houseman doing the adaptation and directing… shoehorning the tale into a half hour.
The husband-and-wife team of Frederic March and Florence Eldridge starred, and apparently were to continue in new “American Theatre” episodes if the series idea had been accepted. Perhaps they were to become the core of a repertory company like Houseman’s and Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater.
Instead, Academy Award winner March made three films in 1941, and next played a (sometime) newspaperman in the title role of the 1944 “Adventures of Mark Twain.”
Houseman became active and the United States government propaganda effort during World War II. But in 1941, he also found time to direct an episode of another CBS anthology series, The Columbia Workshop production of”The Trojan Women,” according to radio historian J. David Goldin’s RadioGoldindex.com
The novel fleshes out the characters quite a bit more, but even in Houseman’s half-hour we still get the crusading –perhaps reckless — newspaperman taking on corrupt politicians and gun-slinging white-capped vigilantes. And we get a valiant woman editor taking over for him when he is hospitalized.
Houseman had been associated with not only Mercury Theatre, but also — for a while — Welles’ film newspaper-related film project, “Citizen Kane” until he and Welles parted company. Coincidentally, another Tarkington novel was the basis for Welles’ film “The Magnificent Ambersons.”
I haven’t looked at Houseman’s autobiography yet to see whether he reveals more about this radio production. Something for the to- do list.