by Bob Stepno
“JHeroes.com” or “Newspaper Heroes on the Air” is a nostalgic media-history blog and podcast about old-time radio’s portrayals of journalists, from fictional role models like Clark Kent and Lois Lane to dramatized biographies of Greeley, Pulitzer and other pioneer printers, publishers, editors and reporters. Since 2011, the site also has been a Web-first draft of what was once planned be a printed book, but with the availability of easily embedded audio seems to be more at home here on the Web.
The phenomenon of mid-20th century radio dramatists glorifying newspaper journalists strikes me as ironic and interesting, considering that radio was the “new medium” of the day — competing with newspapers for audience attention and advertising. But, through the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, radio’s dramatic writers couldn’t help reflecting just how big a part of daily life newspapers were. Radio borrowed characters from newspaper comics, including Little Orphan Annie, Superman and Dick Tracy, but also the daily and weekly comic strip serial format, which went from newspapers to radio and on to television. Along the way radio offered its listening audience lessons in newspaper history, reporting-practice, newspaper ethics, newspaper business, and newspaper romance.
The site is based on research I began in 2006 after discovering several journalist-hero characters in podcasts and digital archives of old-time radio programs. Unlike a lot of blogs, nothing here is ever “finished.” That is, I do return to dated and undated posts to correct errors, polish phrases, or add material. Date-stamped blog posts with individual radio-episode players are featured on the main page, starting with the most recent addition to the site. The blog posts have been less frequent since 2013, as I moved to development of the top-menu “pages,” which discuss entire series, themes or topics and consolidate the earlier blog posts. For example, see the “Cavalcade of America” or “Superman” pages.
I have been especially gratified by online feedback from the families of radio actors and real-life journalists mentioned in these pages, as well as members of the Old Time Radio Researchers Group and other radio bloggers who have made audio archives available online, including the MP3 files I link to throughout this site.
I started the project thinking I was knocking out a short academic conference paper over a Christmas break. But I quickly saw that I had a handful of snow from the top of an iceberg, and felt I could not write seriously without much more listening and reading. I kept finding more and more examples — some 30 radio series, from mysteries and superheroes to soap operas, where newsroom scenes and newspaper characters were central. I found that dozens of Hollywood’s “newspaper” movies had been adapted for radio versions, and I unearthed dozens of episodes of hit series, from “Little Orphan Annie” to “The Lone Ranger,” that wove a reporter or editor into the plot now and then. School children in the 1940s didn’t just learn that newspapers offered careers for smart young women like Lois Lane, they picked up some real-life media history along the way.
I’m interested in how the public formed its opinions of 20th century newspaper journalists: Their ethics, professional practices, personal lifestyles, and importance to society. Obviously some impressions came from what journalists said in the newspapers themselves, but images of reporters, editors and publishers were present throughout American popular culture, from Broadway to Hollywood to best-selling fiction. Numerous books have focused on movie portrayals of journalists, but radio had its own messages, delivered them right into the home, and has been mostly neglected by “image of the journalist” researchers.
Some of Hollywood movies’ newspaper characters were romanticized or heroic; others were presented as sad stereotypes — immature, sexist, drunken and unreliable. I don’t have “quantitative” conclusions, but I think radio’s portrayals of newspaper journalists were more positive, benefitting from broadcasters’ sensitivity to the living-room audience, to advertisers, and to critics who might pounce on antisocial messages.
While some of the programs discussed here are comic-book shallow or soap-opera silly, others explore serious “newspaper drama” themes — media ethics, reporters’ loyalty to a newspaper (sometimes devastating to personal relationships), journalism as a career for women, editors’ civic spirit, citizens’ respect for their local paper, the value of a free press, abuse of media power, and more. You’ll also hear about the value of newspapers’ investigative work, political crusades, muckraking, crime-fighting, and sometimes a bit of cynical frustration about “the system.” (The sort of thing that drove Britt Reid to become The Green Hornet.)
The related areas of portrayal of journalists in films, fiction, comic books, songs, or other manifestations of popular culture “pop” up from time to time in these pages, along with links to media-history research resources. (See the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project at USC Annenberg for related materials, especially concerning Hollywood film portrayals of journalists.)
Testing of this site idea began over at my main blog, before regular postings started here in January 2011. In fall 2012, the site also provided a discussion form and book list for a broader course I taught on portrayals of journalists in fiction, film and pop culture.
(Some older articles may refer to a recent-bookmarks list that once appeared on the right of the blog pages as a “Journalists in PopCulture” heading, a subset of my del.icio.us/bstepno bookmarks until the service was discontinued and archived.)
This project was inspired by podcasts like Jim Widner’s Radio Detective Story Hour and Radio Nostalgia Network that first gave me a hint of what 21st century “golden age radio” or “old time radio” collecting has become, and set me searching the Web for more. (I got interested in podcasts in 2003-04 by literally having a seat at the table across from podcasting’s originators, which is how I think of Dave Winer and Christopher Lydon’s work at Harvard’s blogging group in 2003-04.)
Since first listening to OTR podcasts, I’ve browsed dozens of sites selling old radio programs, joined e-mail lists and an Old Time Radio Researchers Group working at collective non-profit efforts, and learned about untold numbers of individuals collecting, digitizing, cataloging and commenting. Some, like Dave Goldin, have been at it for half a century or more. A few old-time radio bloggers, notably Randy Riddle, meticulously document the discs they digitize and share. (See his 2013 detective work on an original “War of the Worlds” recording. http://randsesotericotr.podbean.com/e/war-of-the-worlds-an-update-on-the-paul-stewart-lacquer-set/#more-4946432 )
Many collectors have already published books on the general and specific topics in old time radio. My bookshelves are sagging under thick volumes by Jim Cox, John Dunning, Jack French, Martin Grams Jr. and others.
I even found a former Emerson College colleague, Donna Halper, turning up online with year-by-year radio history articles. And I found archives of a Connecticut radio-nostalgia show I remember listening to “live” on a Hartford radio station in the 1970s.
I also discovered that NPR’s All Things Considered — the best of present-day radio — had posted online 10 minutes of Walter Cronkite reminiscing about another old series I’d been listening to, one that had dramatized his own adventures during World War II.
This blog (and podcast) is my attempt to add to the collective knowledge of the “new media” of old-time radio and how it presented the “old media” myths, legends and reality of newspaper journalism to its listeners. The semiotics experts have a word — “ostension” — for myths or legends that people make real; sometimes it’s hard to tell which came first.
Note: Some of the pages and sub-pages listed at the top of the screen are password-protected for classroom use, or because they aren’t finished. Eventually all of their topics will be addressed in the blog and podcast. You could think of the menus as a coming-events list, or a changing list of tentative chapter headings for an eventual book. You also will find duplication between pages and blog posts, which often functioned as first drafts.