The Future of News Could Be Risky

“Inside Story” by Richard Wilson, was a 1957 episode of the science fiction series “X-Minus-One.” It featured a reporter for “Galactic News Service” (GNS) investigating a mysterious epidemic on a colonized planet. (Curiously “X-Minus-One” was for part of its run embedded in NBC’s “Nightline” series, a radio magazine that also included news and feature interviews. Walter O’Keefe’s Nightline introduction is included on this recording.)

MansfieldTTYThe sounds of old-fashioned teletype machines persisted into this program’s future, along with editors’ continuing belief in a “silly season” between legislative sessions, when slack news prompts reporters to run dull Zoological Society stories on the longevity of Martian sand lizards, or risk stretching things despite something called the “Publications Responsibility Act of 1997.” That law apparently carried a 20-year prison sentence for some cases of “fan the flames” irresponsible journalism! (Note that 1997 was exactly 40 years in the future at the time of the broadcast. Meanwhile, that teletype machine in the photo is the actual one my Hartford Courant Mansfield bureau colleagues and I used to bang out stories in the 1970s. It was replaced with a computer and modem around 1979, which is why I’m amused to hear teletype noises continuing into the days of interplanetary travel on this X Minus One episode.)

Like many newspaper dramas since the days of Nellie Bly, the 1957 broadcast “Inside Story” has a reporter going undercover to get a scoop. In this high-tech future his “cover” is literal — an invisible suit designed to protect him from whatever mutated virus has caused an epidemic on the planet called Null-E (or “nullie”) fever. Symptoms of the disease include madness and violence, and it’s pretty brave of the reporter to go out with only a plastic film protecting himself from people who are irrational, belligerent, and infectious.

On the plus side, the drama shows that even space-age reporters would be willing to risk life and limb for a story.

“I may be a little reckless following a story but believe me there isn’t a bonus big enough to make a hero out of me. I had no intention to contracting Null-E fever just to provide a byline story for old GNS…”

His heatproof, air-tight invisible suit also may be a case of journalists being too ready to dive into new technology. Its “miniature dental mic hanging on a front tooth” does sound impressive, though. And so does the reporter’s dedication to getting the story, interviewing a paranoid “nullie” victim who is an admitted murderer, and an armed guard threatening to kill him for crossing into a mysterious gang’s private territory.

Under intimidation from the rival gang, he even joins a screaming mob crossing that border.
In the end, he gets quite a story, although the 20-minute drama does seem to rush to the ending, with a lot of medical reporting, a quarantine, come communication hacks, and still the sound of those old-fashioned teletypes clacking in the background — apparently 1957’s view of the future didn’t include CRT monitors, digital news files and laser printers.


NOTES: I’m also adding a duplicate of this blog post to an update of my always-in-progress overview page about newspaper characters in radio’s science fiction dramas.

Meanwhile, I haven’t read much about the “NBC Nightline” radio program, which apparently combined introductions to series like “X Minus One” and “Biography in Sound” with feature interviews and news reporting. For example, the blog linked below has more than an hour of another Walter O’Keefe era broadcast, juxtaposing a contemporary 1957 Cold War report about the first U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launch with an interview with an eyewitness to the Wright Brothers first airplane flight more than a half-century earlier! Richard Burton and Susan Strasberg are also interviewed about their current Broadway play, and there is some Hanukkah-Chritmas news.
Thanks to audio collector Gordon Skene for sharing this as part of his Past Daily blog, December 17, 1957.

Posted in 1950s, adventure, journalism, reporters, science fiction, sensationalism, undercover | Leave a comment

Soaps and Circulation

An editor and “ace reporter” debated the news value and audience interest in a sensational murder case — versus coverage of the Korean War — in this December 1950 episode of “The Guiding Light” soap opera.

Joe Roberts of the City Times walks a soap-slippery ethical tightrope here, brought to you by Duz Detergent. And doesn’t that commercial announcer’s voice sound a bit newsroom-familiar?

If you need to know what happened next (or previously), try the collected (but incomplete) episodes at the OldTime Radio Researchers Library.

I hadn’t listened to enough of this series to know how long the City Times newsroom characters were regulars, but the episode title “Newspaper has story about murder” caught my attention… and ethical details about interviews with the accused woman may be a plot point. Here’s a second 15-minute episode from the following day.

And the next day, the accused woman — suffering from amnesia, the soap opera curse — tells her lawyer that she talked to Roberts because she thought the former war correspondent was someone from her past, and she didn’t know he was a reporter.

“When a newspaperman is out to get a story, fairness doesn’t enter into his assignment. Get a story, by hook or crook,” the lawyer tells her, but Roberts isn’t that cynical.

The Guiding Light was created by Irna Phillips in 1937 and in the 1950s made the transition from radio to TV, where it continued until 2009.

From J.David Goldin’s radiogoldindex.com episode summaries and Wikipedia, it looks like the 1950 murder case courtroom drama continued for months — more than 100 episodes, with reporter Roberts’ stories weaving in and out of the plot and leading to (in a triumph of soap opera plotting over journalism ethics?) love and marriage.

Roberts was played by several actors through most of the years that the program was on both radio and television. The radio series ended in 1956.

Goldin mentions that announcer Clayton Bud Collyer, who identifies himself after the last commercial, also played a radio news reporter in a later episode of the courtroom drama.

But that man of many radio voices was also a much more famous reporter — playing both radio’s (tenor voice) Clark Kent and (baritone voice) Superman! However, for most of his years on The Adventures of Superman, Collyer’s name was not given on the air to maintain the Superman mystique… And saving him from typecasting.

One last journalism connection, presumably just a coincidence… But the murdered man behind that murder trial was an advertising executive named Theodore (Ted) White — not to be confused with newsman Theodore H. White , who became even better known for his The Making of the President books in the coming decades.

For other cases of newspaper reporters appearing in soap operas and romantic series, see the JHeroes Soaps page on the main menu above, or at this link.

Updated from original Feb. 5, 2018, post.

Posted in 1950s, courtroom, crime, ethics, Korea, newspapers, reporters, reporting, sensationalism, soap opera | Leave a comment

A Truman-era Front Page!?


Movie publicity shot of Dick PowellIn 1948, ABC radio tried out an updated version of the Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur newsroom classic The Front Page as a 13-week summer-replacement series. Newsroom-background sounds set the opening scene, not unlike the start of the gender-shifted Front Page remake, “His Girl Friday,” but the similarity ended quickly, at least in the one episode I’ve heard — and which you can play here. With familiar radio voices Dick Powell, starring as reporter Hildy Johnson, and William Conrad, as a rather diminished version of editor Walter Burns, this was neither the original “stop-the-hanging and keep Hildy from quitting” plot nor the anything-goes Roaring Twenties setting of the original play. But what should we expect from a Truman-era Front Page?

FrontPagePoster1931One June 3, 1948, episode of the series survives in online archives, including RadioEchoes and the Old Time Radio Researchers group online library. It’s “The Frightened Swede,” with Hildy learning that his Swedish roots could get him a story from an eccentric old man who is giving away $10 bills on a street corner. Powell even gets to speak a couple of lines in Swedish! The story is more reminiscent of some “Night Beat” human interest plots and — with a murder added — which reminds me of Powell’s movie and radio detective roles (Rogue’s Gallery, summers 1945 & ’46 and Richard Diamond, 1949-53). At least Powell’s Hildy doesn’t get knocked unconscious, which was a regular feature of his post-Marlowe detectives. (He played the lead in the film of Raymond Chandler’s “Murder My Sweet” in 1945, but other actors were Philip Marlowe on radio while former musical-comedy star Powell was cast as more light-hearted radio detectives, literally ending each Richard Diamond episode crooning to his girlfriend.)

Powell and Conrad’s Front Page portrayals had little in common with the rapid-talking Walter and Hildy we met as newsroom rascals in the Front Page play or its movie adaptations, at least if this one episode is typical. They even show some restraint in their reporting!

There’s even a hint that the editor might be seeing a psychoanalyst to recover from childhood trauma — definitely not something we’d expect from the news-obsessed Adolphe Menjou, Cary Grant or Walter Matthau versions of the character, although it might explain a lot. (Come to think of it, an “alienist” analyst does have a part in the original Front Page, managing to get himself shot by the condemned man he is interviewing, making possible the prison escape at the center of the drama. But he never returns to analyze Walter Burns, and the therapist in this radio play is a much different sort.)

Another difference: In the radio series, the newspaper is called the “Examiner,” not the original play’s “Morning Express.” It competes with a “Tribune,” represented by some tavern banter between Hildy and a Tribune reporter, as well as by Walter’s calling Hildy on the carpet when the Tribune gets a story first.

The radio series was written by Morton Fine and David Friedkin, and directed by Bill Rousseau, “based loosely” on the characters created by Hecht and MacArthur, according to John Dunning’s On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, which reports the summer series “drew scathing reviews for the liberties it took with the original play.”

Anyway, there’s not much here for journalism students to learn from, except that reporters can be compassionate, might even respect their competition, and that being bilingual might be an asset. For the wacky fun and ethical failings of working for a lunatic editor at a scrappy Chicago newspaper in the twenties, consult the original play and the earlier films, or the half-dozen radio adaptations I’ve written about here. Fans of media technology may be interested in the presence of a new high-tech-in-1948 tape recorder as a plot device. In the end Hildy does get to solve that murder, but he’s still more in the role of Dick Powell, detective, than Hildy Johnson, newsman.

Posted in 1920s, 1940s, adaptations, detectives, Drama, editors, Hildy Johnson, newspapers, radio | Leave a comment

News that depended on people

… and people depending on a newspaper

On International Women’s Day in a pandemic year, I’m listening to a radio play about a woman reporter on a medical story, Dorothy Patterson of the Paterson, N.J., Morning Call. While most episodes of NBC’s The Big Story were murder cases featuring tough-guy police reporters, “The Miracle Phone Call” is an Eastertime melodrama about a compassionate reporter trying to touch the hearts — and wallets — of her readers.

Broadcast in April, 1953, the radio play presents the era’s usual gender stereotypes in its opening narration:

“You, Dorothy Patterson, are a newspaper woman, with equal emphasis on ‘newspaper’ and ‘woman.’ It’s rough competition in this man’s business. You’ve got to be good, and you are. But still you’re a woman, and sometimes you take a razzing because of it.”

The razzing turns out to be over whether she is “too much of a softie,” a perfect setup for this “Do you have to be a cynic to be a reporter?” story. A family needs $3,000 in 1950s dollars for a new serum for its dying child. Will newspaper readers help?

“Sob stuff,” says the editor.

“No, not sob stuff, true stuff…” Patterson replies. “I’m going to tell them the facts, just the facts. I’m going to ask them to send money if they can. And if they can’t I’m going to ask them to pray.”

The editor isn’t optimistic, but there’s really not much suspense about the ultimate outcome. Still, the story does manage some good soap-opera quality scenes, with veteran actor Jan Miner in the lead, other players giving the newspaper readers a voice on the way to the expected happy ending, and even a surprise or two. After all, those were the days when the daily newspaper was all the “social media” folks had, when they could trust the “mediation” of reporters and the local organizations they worked for.

While Dorothy works on her article, the Big Story narrator, Bob Sloane, offers some insights into the process, and the variety of stories you could find in a 1950s newspaper… (This is a clipping from the actual broadcast script, one of many preserved and made public in the settlement of claims against tobacco sponsors.)

Script page describes story types

The Big Story, a radio standard for eight years, sometimes dug back decades for its stories, obscuring the original newspaper report’s date as part of the dramatization, as well as changing the names of all involved but the reporter and the newspaper. But this one wasn’t pulled out of the past — the boy featured in the story appears in person at the end, where the weekly show usually gave the real reporter a moment to accept the Big Story award.

Extra: This audio file is an Armed Forces Radio Service rebroadcast of the show, and AFRS routinely stripped all commercial advertising, including The Big Story’s “Pall Mall award” tobacco promotions, which may be why we don’t get to hear from Dorothy Patterson at the end.

This will do for a first draft. I may do some more digging to see if I can find out more about Patterson’s career and the happy ending of the story. The Morning Call was one of many New Jersey dailies gradually merged and absorbed under other nameplates in the past 50 years. We can hope its good works aren’t forgotten.

The MP3 file linked above is part of the Internet Archive’s Joe Hehn Memorial Collection, named for a pioneer 1960s collector of early radio series transcription discs and recordings. As the archive page says:

Digitizing his collection of reel tapes and discs is the effort of a wide range of North American volunteers, and with the assistance of some international collectors. The groups supporting this effort with their funds, time, technology and skills are the Old Time Radio Researchers and a small group of transcription disc preservationists who refer to themselves as the “The Knights of the Turning Table.”

Posted in 1950s, children, Drama, local news, newspaper crusades, newspaper readers, The Big Story, true stories, women | Leave a comment

Liz Lane, not Lois….

“I haven’t got a farm; I haven’t even got a windowbox,” the magazine columnist admits, when she realizes her habit of spinning fables about country living may destroy her career — just in time for the holidays.

I wrote this essay about the 1946 Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan version of “Christmas in Connecticut” nine years ago, but just updated it today with links to much better recordings of the program than the distorted version I settled for way back then. Three versions, in fact!

So, Happy Holidays! … And special thanks to radio-history hero Jerry Haendiges for offering two top-quality versions of the program, his original from a 1946 Screen Guild transcription, and another I’d only read about in the Wikipedia page about the movie, a half hour version of Christmas in Connecticut from the 1952 CBS series, “Stars In the Air,” starring Gordon MacRae and Phyllis Thaxter. MacRae even gets to sing a Christmas song.

The original stars of the 1945 movie, Dennis Morgan and Barbara Stanwyck, either never got to recreate their roles in front of a radio studio audience, or the transcription recordings haven’t made their way to collector-supplied online archives.

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Posted in 1940s, 1950s, adaptations, ethics, magazines, movies, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Columnist, ethics & blackmail

“Mr. & Mrs. North” was a long-running husband and wife detective series in books and radio, reminiscent of the “Thin Man” movie series.

The Internet Archive holds about 80 episodes from the 12-year run of the series, but collector J.David Goldin’s plot summaries only mention one with a journalist character, “The Heavenly Body.”

A Winchell-like newspaper columnist is featured in the tale, possibly offering to suppress one story in exchange for a better tip. He’s arrogant — and risking his life, since his last column involves an old murder and a bunch of folks who still carry guns.

Would journalism students learn anything from this story? Probably not, beyond “don’t get in deep with murderers.”

“Sorry, I can’t use the story,” is one of columnist Sam Zacary’s lines of dialogue here, but maybe not at the right time.

Soon, there’s a love story about a talented singer, and then a murder or two. Can the Norths sort it out? Will there be anyone left to write a headline?

More of Mr. & Mrs. North at the Internet Archive. The series ran in various forms between 1941 and 1955. “The Heavenly Body” episode was broadcast in March 1952.

If you decide to binge watch a few dozen episodes, and stumble onto another newspaper reporter plot, please let me know!

Posted in 1940s, columnists, detectives | Leave a comment

Wild Bill still makes headlines

58-10-12_Episode36_Aces And Eights –5.7 MB

Frontier Gentleman was a high-class radio Western about a London Times reporter sending home dispatches from the American Frontier… frequently about people being dispatched.

Book cover, Imagining Wild Bill

In this episode, a colorful lady named Calamity Jane introduces the legendary Wild Bill Hickok to the intrepid reporter J.B. Kendall, played by John Dehner. For anyone familiar with Western lore, the story does not have a surprise ending. But the telling is well done… And the opening draws you in, like a good newspaper “lede.”

“In a card game, aces and eights are known throughout the West as a ‘dead man’s hand.’ There’s a good reason for it, and this is the story of how the hand got its name…”

I may have to update this post and one about the radio version of the more juvenile “Wild Bill Hickok” TV series if I find time to browse through an intriguing new book about Hickok’s career in Western legends, pulp fiction, and Hollywood iconography: Imagining Wild Bill, by my former University of Tennessee colleagues, Paul Ashdown and Ed Caudill.

As their publisher’s website summarizes:

“When it came to the Wild West, the nineteenth-century press rarely let truth get in the way of a good story. James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok’s story was no exception. Mythologized and sensationalized, Hickok was turned into the deadliest gunfighter of all, a so-called moral killer, a national phenomenon even while he was alive.

Rather than attempt to tease truth from fiction, coauthors Paul Ashdown and Edward Caudill investigate the ways in which Hickok embodied the culture of glamorized violence Americans embraced after the Civil War and examine the process of how his story emerged, evolved, and turned into a viral multimedia sensation full of the excitement, danger, and romance of the West.”

Posted in 1950s, 19th century, adventure, folklore, historical figures, reporters, westerns | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Abolitionist editor Jane Grey Swisshelm


The sound of a whip on a silent slave’s back opens Troublesome Jane, an original 1949 Cavalcade of America episode about editor Jane Grey Swisshelm launching an abolitionist newspaper in Minnesota before the Civil War. (“Aren’t there any hacksaws in Minnesota,” is her first question on seeing a slave in her new state.)

She was also the first woman to cover a story from the Senate press gallery, but that was before this episode in her life.

“Big sister, literary amazon, female abolitionist, why you can’t be up to the five-foot mark… I was good and scared after all we heard about you, Jane…”

That’s her brother-in-law talking, before she learns about a Missouri slave owner who has been bringing his slaves north to work his property. The brother-in-law just happens to own a printing press, which is the beginning of some dramatic confrontations and an emotional conclusion.

The story is based on an episode in Swisshelm’s life reported in the 1950 book Female Persuasion: Six strong-minded women by Margaret Farrand Thorp.

For a more recent biography, see the 2014 volume Jane Grey Swisshelm: An Unconventional Life, 1815-1884 by Sylvia D. Hoffert.

In the Cavalcade episode, Swisshelm is played by Ruth Hussey, whom newspaper-movie fans may know as the independent-minded photojournalist in the The Philadelphia Story, which was also adapted for radio several times, at least once with Hussey recreating her Academy-Award-nominated role.

Note: Thanks to Radford University Professor Bill Kovarik and his students for inviting me to talk about “JHeroes: Newspaper Heroes on the Air” in class today, which set me off editing pages and reviving broken links, and discovering I had never given this episode a Cavalcade a space of its own, but made it a long section of a page about women profiled in the series, most of whom I had already written about elsewhere.

Posted in 1940s, 19th century, cavalcade, civil rights, historical figures, women | Leave a comment

A Cowtown Newspaper War

Five-Gun Final,” an episode of “Frontier Town,” finds a wild west lawyer hero and his W.C. Fields sound-alike sidekick investigating a new newspaper that is trying to put the responsible competition out of business through the 19th century equivalent of insider stock-market information.

It’s a pretty good mystery at the start … with gun-toting Atty. Chad Remington looking for an apparent leak in the news flow. Telegraphed out-of-town livestock prices are showing up in the “Dobe City Democrat” before they are printed by its competition, “The Independent” — whose correspondents gathered the cattle sale info in the first place. His solution: A couple of attempts at fake news to trap the opportunistic publisher.

With only a half hour to tell the tale, there is not a lot of character development beyond the cliches of the dedicated editor, his pretty daughter, and a printer who — surprise — drinks. These won’t surprise anyone who has listened to other programs where the Western genre crosses trails with the newspaper drama. The story even has a couple of red herrings and a bar room scene, but not much surprise at the end. Still, it does argue for the importance of newspapers as a source of information even on the cattle trail.

Radio historian J.David Goldin dates the episode as July 09, 1949 and identifies the star aa Jeff Chandler — sounds like “Tex Chandler” on the recording. Paul Franklin was the writer-director, and Wade Crosby played the alcohol-oriented right-hand man. Goldin also credits Franklin with the radio adaptation of a more famous Wild West newspaper yarn, Edna Ferber’s “Cimarron” eight years earlier. Further coincidence, the DigitalDeli radio history blog found a 1949 ad promoting “Frontier Town,” comparing it to “Cimarron” (a hit novel and movie) as a serious-minded Western in a medium full of children’s cowboy action shows: ”Radio’s first authentic class-A half-hour Western dramatic series. The Cimarron and Red River of radio.”

The “Five Gun Final” episode title is a tip of the hat to a classic newspaper play and movie, “Five-Star Final,” which I have written about in relation to the radio series “Big Town.”

The announcer’s scene-setting opening speech for “Frontier Town,” given over rising chords from a studio organ, is also reminiscent of the intro to early episodes of “Big Town” a decade earlier… Paul Franklin also had a hand in that series.

In “Big Town” every episode had a newspaper focus, while in “Frontier Town” this is the only newspaper story mentioned in Goldin’s plot summaries at Radiogoldindex.com

The audio recording above is from the old time radio collection of Frontier Town episodes at the internet archive. If you are a fan of this series and run into other episodes mentioning newspaper editors or reporters, please let me know!

Posted in 1940s, competition, editors, publishers, westerns | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A brief journalism career preceded his Nobel Peace Prize

It’s not every dabbler in journalism who uncovers a murder, reports the crime despite a threat to his life, then goes on to get a doctorate from Harvard and years later win the Nobel Peace Prize, like Ralph Bunche.

In this “Destination Freedom” radio episode, an editor gives a pretty typical speech:

“See here kid you’re valedictorian of your high school, but that don’t mean a thing on a newspaper… I know, I know you’ve got some fool notion about studying government and political science… Concentrate on being a good cub reporter… go around the suburbs and pick up anything your valedictorian soul regards as news… In a few years you’ll understand more about how the government really runs than all the books in the world can teach you.”

But then on a quiet road he discovers a corpse. And recognizes the vigilantes who killed the man. He tells his editor, who is afraid to handle the story. The dead man was Jewish, and the editor tells Bunche, “If I printed that they’d bust up my newspaper in no time… There’s sort of a gentleman’s agreement about things like this… Just keep your mouth shut. You’re colored; they’ll get you next.”

(Clever bit of media name-dropping. This 1949 broadcast wasn’t too long after the Academy Award winning film and radio adaptations of the book “Gentleman’s Agreement.”)

In the radio story, Bunche goes to the police, the criminals are caught and convicted. He even gets to meet the mayor, who gives him a $1,000 award from the citizens of Los Angeles to further his studies, with a heavy hint that he should become a precinct captain instead.

In the end, what did he get out of journalism?
“The newspaper job had made him more certain that he had to learn why there was one rule for the majority and another for the minority.” And on to Harvard. Or so says the radio drama.

In fact, the newspaper-reporter murder-story anecdote about Ralph Bunche in this broadcast doesn’t even appear on his Wikipedia Page, unless it was a reference to his UCLA school paper. Or maybe there’s just too much to say about his later accomplishments. Wikipedia does mention his later almost-journalistic work as an investigative researcher on Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal’s landmark study of racial dynamics in the U.S., An American Dilemma. And of course his distinguished career at the U.N., which led to that Nobel Prize in 1950.

The next time I’m at a library, I’ll do a little more looking into that murder story in more authoritative biographies. But even if some dramatic liberties were taken, it sure makes for good radio-drama!

(If the radio-episode player does not appear above, you can download the MP3 from the Internet Archive Destination Freedom collection.)

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, civil rights, historical figures | Leave a comment