Radio celebrated women journalists in fact and fiction

Happy International Women’s Day
First, here’s a dramatized version of a real woman reporter covering a real crime story — with a young woman criminal for good measure. Farther down the page, you will find links to other radio programs about more historic — and heroic — women journalists.

The reporter, portrayed by actress Janet Fox, is Dorothy Kilgallen, then of the New York Evening Journal, later of Hearst’s Journal-American and national syndication as a Broadway gossip columnist. In this early incarnation as a crime reporter — probably a decade before the 1947 broadcast — she is interviewing “The Bobby Sox Kid from Bayonne.”

The episode is from the long-running radio series, “The Big Story,” as preserved at the Internet Archive. Its portrayal of a woman reporter at work may be true, but certainly fits the stereotypes of the day — sending a woman to get a 17-year-old suspect to talk by loaning her a compact to powder her nose.

“I just might come up with something, you know, ‘just between us girls,'” she tells the police.

As a “procedural,” the reporter’s manipulative interview with the teenager might be worth discussing in a “reporting techniques” or ethics class, but a lot of the dialogue is hard to take with a straight face — even before the line, “I’m just wacky about mayonnaise!” (Or the revelation that “Temptation” is the teenage murderer’s favorite song.)

In the 1930s Kilgallen had repeated Nellie Bly’s round-the-world stunt and wrote a book about it, but “The Big Story” was more interested in crime reports. By the time of this broadcast, Kilgallen had gone on to be a famous columnist and co-host of the married-couple-chat radio show, “Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick.” In the ’50s she would add TV panel-show celebrity to her credentials.

Ironically, while she was once known as “America’s most famous crime reporter,” Kilgallen’s own death resulted in articles, books and an ongoing “Kilgallen Files” blog — after her stories on the death of President Kennedy and related conspiracy theories.

“The Big Story” on radio and TV feature awarded a cash prize to the journalist whose report — usually involving a sensational crime investigation — was chosen for broadcast that week. Real reporters’ names were used, but other names and details were changed to create the radio drama.

Kilgallen’s “Big Story” episode may not be the highest point in radio or journalism history, but it gives me something fresh to head the list below — a recap of the old-time-radio programs I’ve found that profiled or starred historical or fictional women reporters, editors and publishers. There are more to come!

Newspaper and magazine women in radio stories

Historical profiles — dramatized by DuPont Cavalcade of America:

  • Nellie Bly (1864-1922) — “Nellie has journalism by the throat and shakes until it cries for mercy.”
  • Louisa Knapp Curtis (1851-1910) — from a newspaper women’s page to a magazine empire
  • Abigail Scott Duniway — (1834-1915) newspaper-publishing suffragist
  • Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) — author, editor, foreign correspondent
  • Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) — magazine editor, advocate of education for women
  • Anne Newport Royall (1769-1854) — Washington gadfly and “godmother of muckraking”
  • Anna Zenger (1717-1786) — from a book subtitled, “Mother of Freedom”

Women in radio’s newspaper fictions:

  • Hildy Johnson — the only good reporter in “His Girl Friday”
  • Sabra Cravatt— fictional Oklahoma pioneer editor and congresswoman from “Cimarron”
  • Lois Lane — who hardly needs an introduction
  • Lorelei Kilbourne — straightening out her scandal-monger editor at the “Big Town” Illustrated Press
  • Lenore Case — publisher’s secretary and sometime reporter, first to see some good behind the mask of the Green Hornet
  • Ann Williams — pencil-press reporter accomplice of “Casey, Crime Photographer”
  • Betty Drake — co-owner of The Trumpet, radio soap opera’s first lady of crusading journalism
  • C.J. Griffith and the Eager twins — young women who stirred things up at Will Rogers Jr.’s Gazette
  • Liz Lane — feature writer, the “Christmas in Connecticut” answer to Martha Stewart.
  • Susan Armstrong — editor and publisher of the Morning Star in “the gay new exciting comedy adventure, Bright Star”
  • Kit Gaynor — a “Woman of the Year” style international journalist who steals the hero’s heart in a “Night Beat” episode, “The Old Itch” or “Stone’s Love Affair”

For more background on some of the real women journalists mentioned above — and many more, see the National Women’s History Museum site, Women with a deadline: Female printers, publishers and journalists from the colonial period to World War I.

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who found computers & the Web in grad school in the 1980s (Wesleyan) and '90s (UNC); taught journalism, media studies, Web production; retired to write, make music, photograph sunsets & walks in the woods.
This entry was posted in 1930s, 1940s, 19th century, cavalcade, Hearst, Hildy Johnson, historical figures, Lois Lane, women. Bookmark the permalink.

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