by Bob Stepno
About this project: As the “overview” page explains, “J-Heroes” or “Newspaper Heroes on the Air,” is a multimedia book-in-progress (or it could be described as a blog and podcast) about old-time radio’s portrayals of journalists. This page tells a bit more about my sources and how I do what I do here.
This project is really about what theorists with Ph.D.s might call the “social construction” of news. (See Schudson.) For the first two or three quarters of the 20th century, newspapers were a substantial piece of reality, landing with a “plop” or a “thud” on millions of doorsteps daily. Americans could answer the question “What do journalists do?” with a quick nod toward the daily pile of pages.
But novelists and the “new media” of film and radio also helped define the role, personality and practice of newspaper reporters in the public’s mind. This blog or book-in-progress is an exploration of radio’s role in explaining what newspaper reporters did.
The related areas of portrayal of journalists in films, fiction, comic books, songs, or other manifestations of popular culture will “pop” up from time to time in these pages, especially in connection with my course “JPop: Portrayals of Journalists in Film, Fiction and Popular Culture.” (See the USC Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture project for related materials.)
Radio collectors who originally sold and traded transcription discs and tapes moved into the digital era sharing MP3 files via Usenet bulletin boards, and then over the Web. Now thousands of MP3 files of series episodes are “circulating” online — usually with their provenance lost in time. That is, it is often impossible to tell who made the MP3, from what transcription disk or audio tape, and whether file names, episode titles and cast lists were based on scripts, disk labels, or a collector’s best guesses. Copyright status of series is sometimes debated.
For the past decade, collectors have uploaded complete or near-complete series and fragmented collections to “archive.org,” the Internet Archive, adding commentary with varying degrees of accuracy. The Old Time Radio Researchers Group, first organized around a Yahoo email list, has become a major contributor to archive.org as well as its own sites (http://www.otrr.org, http://otrrpedia.net, http://otrrlibrary.org etc.). Among other things, the group posts “certified” collections of radio series episodes, asserting that they are complete or accurate sets of the program’s “in circulation” broadcast recordings. It also hosts more than fifteen “singles and doubles” collections of series for which few episodes are available.
Other researchers, hosts of nostalgia radio programs, regional radio clubs, and media history authors have created their own extensive “Old Time Radio” or “Golden Age of Radio” websites, blogs and podcasts, sometimes focused on a dramatic genre or specific series.
My project involves listening to series about journalists and searching other series for reporter and editor characters — so that I can analyze and discuss the “journalist” characters who appeared in serial or one-shot dramatizations. I also look for whatever facts I can find about the programs and any real events and persons mentioned.
My technique is to post individual episodes as audio-player links in this blog — usually using the MP3 files at Archive.org, not copying them to my own site — and posting some discussion notes, making each blog item a “podcast.” I eventually compile these into more general or analytical “pages,” which I like to think I’ll further expand into a book.
Meanwhile, Google’s (discontinued) newspaper and magazine archiving project has left behind scanned copies of small and medium size newspapers, which often include listings or reviews of radio programs, or news stories related to some of the radio dramatizations — such as the United Press series “Soldiers of the Press” or the sometimes-biographical series “Cavalcade of America.” In those cases I take screen snapshots of the newspaper headlines, add them to my blog posts and pages, and link them to the full copy at Google. Radio collectors also have taken to digitizing club news letters, vintage radio “fan” magazines and more, which I sometimes cite and use for illustrations.
I also use IMDB.com, Archive.org and other film and radio sites as references for further information about programs, especially the radio adaptations of Hollywood films. In some cases, I embed movie players with trailers, clipa, or full-length films.
For example, if you have trouble imagining what life was like in the days before television, when young radio listeners had to use their imaginations to “see” the action in radio dramas, watch the 9-minute 1938 film “Back of the Mike.”
Each of this blog’s “posts” — rarely more than one a week, even during the most active development of the site — include one or more MP3 file links to old radio programs that you can download or stream, usually from the Internet Archive. Depending on your Web-viewing device and software, you may see a “player” icon, or you can play the program by clicking a program-name text link indicated on the page.
I’ll keep a recent-bookmarks list on the right of the home page (as long as the delicious.com service stays in business), with links that I’ve tagged with relevant topics. You also can click on the “Journalists in PopCulture” heading and search the bookmarks for key words.
This project was inspired by the podcasts like Jim Widner’s Radio Detective Story Hour, Radio Nostalgia Network and Bob Camardella’s Boxcars711 that first gave me a hint of what 21st century “golden age radio” or “otr” collecting had become, and set me searching the Web for more.
Since first listening to OTR podcasts, I have browsed dozens of sites selling old radio programs, joined e-mail lists and the Old Time Radio Researchers Group, and have learned about the untold numbers of individuals collecting, digitizing, cataloging and commenting. Some, like Dave Goldin, have been at it for half a century or more.
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.
No sooner would I “discover” online archives of a program I’d never heard than I would discover someone else’s labor of love about it, like DigitalDeli’s pages for Night Beat or Frontier Gentleman, or Randy Riddle’s collection of American Family Robinson or Front Page Drama episodes.
Somehow I was at this for a year before a flurry of Twitter posts led me to a big batch of blogs and resource sites by a prolific blogger known by the pseudonym “Jimbo Mason” at OTRR.org, starting with his OTRBuffet. His many other sites include series-specific blogs and research tools, including indexed “clippings” of newspaper reviews and Billboard magazine articles. Before his death in 2017, he also became quite active in podcasting, even organizing a collaborative drama series about a fictional town in Alaska. I had already started to incorporate some of those print archive materials, using Google’s digital magazine and newspaper archives, but “Jimbo” showed how much could be done with them online.
Radio-research resources seem to be a growth industry on the Internet, as well as in hard-copy archives. The fact that tobacco companies sponsored many radio (and early television) programs means that the UCSF Legacy Tobacco Documents Library has a vast collection of radio scripts available in its online PDF archives. I didn’t realize how vast until I went there to inspect a particular script from the summer of 1951 and found myself downloading a 386-page document: All the photocopied scripts for three months of the program!
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.
How big a job is this project? Doing the numbers on my “print journalists in old-time radio dramas” collection, here’s what I have on my computer so far:
- About 30 series that were primarily about fictional journalists for at least part of their run, including long-time series like Big Town, Crime Photographer, Superman, and The Green Hornet with hundreds of episodes broadcast.
- Selections from 48 dramatic series that had one or more episodes in which journalists played an important role, from comedies like Easy Aces to suspense dramas like CBS Radio Mystery Theater — even The Lone Ranger and Orphan Annie.
- Radio adaptations of more than 50 Hollywood “newspaper” films, many of them adapted two or three times by different drama-anthology series.
- More than 100 episodes from series that dramatized historical events, biographies, or recent stories about real-life journalists at work, including more than 30 episodes of Cavalcade of America, as well as the entire series The Big Story and Soldiers of the Press.
I also listen for scenes in situation comedies and family dramas that underscore the presence of the newspaper — if not its journalist creators — in the lives of average Americans. All-in-all, it’s a fascinating picture of mid-twentieth century media culture.