… but bored by atomic energy
Episode 7 of the Superman radio series introduced Lois Lane to the listening audience in February 1940, in a storyline titled, “The Atomic Beam Machine.” (Click to download mp3 audio from the Internet Archive, if you don’t see an audio-player icon.)
While Superman movies have focused on threats to the universe-as-we-know-it, the 1940s radio adventures gave a better picture of Clark and Lois at work as reporters — both highly skilled and very confident ones: The 12-minute episode 6 opens with Kent calling Perry White asking him to “stop the presses” for his first story — and White does it!
The next plot, previewed at the close of episode 6 and running through the next three days, literally makes The Daily Planet the center of the plot: A villain (“The Yellow Mask”) steals a top-secret atomic weapon and threatens to fly by and blow up the newspaper building.
Half-way through episode 7 (the one enclosed above), the new guy at the Planet meets experienced reporter Lois Lane for the first time. He’s just back from his first assignment — which brought him that page one scoop, assisted by some skills we still don’t teach in journalism school. You know — flying, X-ray vision, super-hearing, that sort of thing. But Clark Kent managed to keep his reporting techniques a secret, even the transcontinental-flying-without-a-plane part.
Regardless, Lois is not impressed. She calls him “the boy wonder,” “mister star reporter” and “the white-haired boy.” (At first I wondered whether that was a joke crossing “fair-haired boy” with the name of editor Perry White, but a couple of dictionaries convinced me the “white-haired” phrase was in general use as a synonym for “a favorite.” I’ve also heard it used in other radio shows of the 1940s.)
Lois: “They tell me you talked yourself into a job went out west and came back with the biggest story of the month, all in less than a week. You’ve got the old man hypnotized. He thinks you’re Horace Greeley.”
That made me wonder: Did the average school-age listener to Superman in 1940 know about Greeley — the 19th century New York Tribune editor? Apparently so. I’ve heard other references to him in unrelated radio series.
I suspect that a Tribune centennial, hyped by the still-publishing Herald-Tribune had Greeley in the news and the public consciousness, as mentioned in the Cavalcade of America Margaret Fuller episode I posted here last time. (Too bad my library doesn’t have digital archives of the Herald-Tribune from that era; I’d be off looking for more evidence of Greeley-promotion.)
Meanwhile back in the Superman episode… Lois even suggests that Kent made up the threat to blow up The Daily Planet — the story he is investigating.
Journalism students and historians may find it ironic that Lois is not very impressed by her own new assignment, in 1940, to interview the “leading American investigator in the field of atomic energy.” Even editor Perry White suggests that it’s just “human interest stuff,” a softer news story than her usual beat. Here’s most of the conversation:
White: “Oh, I’ve got a job for you Lois.”
Lois: “A good job?”
White: “No. Go out and interview a scientist. Human interest stuff… Leading American investigator in the field of atomic energy.”
Lois: “Must we, chief?”
White: “Yeah come on, get going, Lois… This paper has always been tied in with science… He said somebody stole a new machine he invented… He seemed pretty worried… Sounds cracked, but it may make a yarn. Now on your way, girlie.”
I’m not going to podcast all of the Superman episodes here, but the seriously interested can get all of the story in the Superman collection at Archive.org. Interestingly, in episode number nine, the thrilling conclusion of this tale, Clark Kent reveals a skill no one expected: He knows how to fly — not as Superman, but by taking the controls of an airplane in an emergency attempt to rescue Lois.
A year later, as shown in the snapshot above, one of the early Superman cartoons had Lois as the one donning a high-tech 1941 pilot’s helmet and taking the controls of an open-cockpit plane to get to a story in a hurry. Reporters used to have some pretty impressive skills! Perhaps the audience expected them, having been brought up on the “stunt-girl” adventures of real-life reporters like Nellie Bly, radio reminders and all.
At the climax of the radio episode, however, Lois is falling through mid-air and Superman is the one doing the flying. Later, as that episode ends, reports of a fire and a woman trapped on a 20th floor comes into the newsroom, and Kent is begging White for the assignment, “maybe I can do something.” This newspaper job certainly seems to be everything the professor predicted, when he told him to find work on a great metropolitan daily.
This is all by way of suggesting that even at its most “cartoonish,” old-time radio serial portrayals of journalists had them covering the news — sometimes realistically, sometimes fantastically, but generally getting the story in somewhat heroic fashion.