By Bob Stepno
This is a work-in-progress and may include notes-in-progress and links that need updating.
In pulp novels and movies inspired by them, “the reporter” was often a stand-in or sidekick to the other standard character, “the detective.” But journalists also made appearances in many of the series that had a reporter in the leading role. Sometimes the desired effect was comic, sometimes serious. Some reporters or editors were murder victims in plots that gave another view of public perceptions of the press and media ethics — by doing things that got them killed.
Of course, whole series were based on reporter-detective characters, “Casey, Crime Photographer,” “Big Town” editor Steve Wilson, “Front Page Farrell,” and more. Farrell and a few others may be found here in the Soaps & Romance department. A lot of real-life detective work by reporters showed up in a dramatized series called The Big Story. And a series like Night Beat could and did mix detective-style plots with suspense and human interest dramas. For that matter, adventure heroes like Superman and the Green Hornet often acted like detectives in their newsroom secret identities.
The rest of this page is a collection of tales where reporters showed up in popular detective series, like Sam Spade, Box 13, Let George Do It, Richard Diamond and more. When there is a separate JHeroes blog post about a single episode, I’ll try to remember to link it like this: Mr. & Mrs. North. In longer sections about a series, I’ll link the series name to an Internet collection or page about the program. (Episode titles link to downloadable MP3 files, in case the on-screen MP3 player doesn’t work in your browser. Unfortunately, online radio collections sometimes change file names or addresses, but I’ll check back and update links now and then.)
Box 13 and Let George Do It
Box 13 featured a former newspaper reporter, Dan Holiday, trying to be a novelist. He had become a detective/adventurer, advertising for tips sent to his classified-ad box, as a way to dig up plots for his works of fiction. The newspaper’s main role in the series is carrying his classified ad, but he stays in touch when he goes to pick up the mail.
In a November 1948 episode titled “Suicide or Murder” in the Old Time Radio Researchers Internet Archive collection (although there is no hint of suicide in the actual story), writer Holiday finds a note in Box 13 from the mother of a recently deceased Evening Record reporter. He was a war veteran and Nuremburg Trials observer with a Distinguished Service Cross whose death was attributed to a drunken bar fight. The mother doesn’t believe it and neither does Holiday, played by Alan Ladd.
He finds out from the dead reporter’s editor that he was working on a “big story,” but had been secretive about it. Holiday and the editor, an old friend, search through the dead guy’s desk and begin to unravel the story. The young reporter, less than six months on the job, had been sent off to a Caribbean island on a “Latin American neighbors” feature assignment. (Some budget that Evening Record had in 1948! But Holiday and the editor treat that much as routine. A waterfront bartender also is impressed by Holiday’s expensive suit and tie, so maybe journalist and novelists we’re making good money back then. Or at least radio script writers led the audience to believe such a thing.)
Eventually, after another murder, Holiday finds a war-criminals-escape-to-Caribbean clue in the reporter’s notebook and sets off on a search for missing film and the murderers… and the film turns up, quickly followed by a mysterious character with an accent and $10,000 to spend for negatives. The police and a happy ending can’t be far behind.
Let_George_Do_It was similar to Box 13. Detective George Valentine (Bob Bailey) advertised for clients in the personals, although that was usually the extent of his contact with the newspaper. In one episode, however, he was hired by a public relations professional whose business of deceiving newspaper reporters provided the major theme of the story, “Sweet are the Uses of Publicity.”
The reporters stay mostly in the background, as the press agent hires Valentine to help him make a client disappear — a client the reporters don’t know is fictional. Before you can say “farewell party on a yacht,” a corpse turns up.
In another episode, Off the Record, a “brash and fearless” radio commentator of the “crusader type” named Dan Dana gets a death threat while preparing a political expose. (Despite the announcer’s alliterative initials, the actor playing Dana does not try to imitate Walter Winchell style staccato patter.) Valentine interviews him and the station manager. “Crusaders are always trouble,” says the manager, who was ordered to hire him. “Someone is afraid I’ll ruin him with stuff I’ve dug up,” Dana says. He hires George “Danger’s my stock in trade” Valentine to investigate a stack of threatening notes. “As you’ll see, they all suggest I know too much, talk too much, maybe even live to much,” he says, adding that living dangerously pays off. Spoiler: Dana is shot while on the air. A high-tech-in-1951 tape recorder plays a role.
Media trivia: Valentine refers to Dana as a “Fearless Fosdick,” the square-jawed detective in the “L’il Abner” comic strip, a parody of the comics’ “Dick Tracy.”
In another episode, Sucker Stunt, Valentine is hired by a guy who says he’s a photographer for weekly newspapers, but the convoluted plot doesn’t have anything to do with journalism. It does include some camera-related conversation in a pawn shop, when the photographer asks Valentine to sell a camera for him.
The Adventures of Sam Spade, Detective
Dashiell Hammett’s detective didn’t encounter any reporters in The Maltese Falcon, but he did in the long-running radio series that picked up the Sam Spade franchise. Some episodes are available in a Radio Spirits CD collection and in an Old Time Radio Researchers collection at the Internet Archive.
Radio Spirits also sells radio historian Martin Grams’ book about Sam Spade on Radio.
Other online sources of MP3 versions of the program are available, including:
While journalism wasn’t a major theme in the Sam Spade series, reporters contacted Spade’s secretary in one episode, to tell him he was the first detective to get rich honestly. In another, a newspaper hired him to solve a murder. In a third, he investigated the disappearance — and murder — of a reporter.
The Biddle Riddle Caper opens with Spade showing the marks of having been clobbered with a network radio microphone while investigating an “America’s Most Wanted” type radio series called “Killer At Large.”
“We keep a sensitive finger on the pulse of the people,” a producer tells him.
Pioneer oldtime radio collector J. David Goldin summarizes the relevant plots in his RadioGoldIndex:
87899. The Adventures Of Sam Spade. January 5, 1951. NBC net. “The Biddle Riddle Caper”. Sustaining. Sam is hired by a radio producer to help solve a three-year-old-murder. He finds a reel of recording tape disguised as a typewriter ribbon and exposes the murder with the recording. Steve Dunne, Lurene Tuttle, William Spier (producer, director, editor), William Conrad, Lud Gluskin (scoring), Robert Armbruster (conductor), Harold Swanton (writer). 29:23. Audio condition: Excellent. Complete.
51101. The Adventures Of Sam Spade. February 23, 1951. NBC net. “The Shot In The Dark Caper”. Sustaining. Sam is hired by a newspaper to solved a murder that was captured in a news photo, but was never reported to the cops! Steve Dunne, Lurene Tuttle, William Spier (producer, editor, director), Lud Gluskin (composer), Robert Armbruster (conductor), John Michael Hayes (writer), Dashiell Hammett (creator). 29:39. Audio condition: Very good to excellent. Complete.
51229. The Adventures Of Sam Spade. July 18, 1948. CBS net. “The Missing Newshawk Caper”. Sponsored by: Wildroot Cream-Oil. Spade is hired to find a reporter named Ray McCully. Spade finds him all right, stabbed to death! Howard Duff, Lurene Tuttle, Dashiell Hammett (creator), William Conrad, Sara Berner, Bea Benaderet (possibly), Alan Reed, Gil Doud (writer, director), Robert Tallman (writer), Lud Gluskin (music), Dick Joy (announcer). 29:40. Audio condition: Very good to excellent. Complete.
In “The Missing Newshawk Caper,” Spade is hired by a cranky editor-publisher, a reformed alcoholic. His reporter is missing, and alcohol isn’t the only newspaper cliche in the episode.
We hear the usual newsroom clattering as Spade goes to meet the publisher, as he describes in his case report:
“I mushed through the litter of your city room toward a door marked ‘A.M. Youngblood, publisher, managing editor and city editor.’ I wondered if you were ambitious, frugal or three men.”
Spade finds the publisher pasting up his own weather report for the morning editions.
“I remind myself that I was once a copy boy and I find that a splendid way to at least once each day lower myself to the level of the working man.”
The pompous, bombastic and cliche-prone editor explains that his star reporter was working on an anti-crime crusade.
“My newspaper at my order and under my guidance has launched a campaign against crime, not aimed at the petty criminal, but at the easy living leaches at the controls of the rackets, the hoods in banker’s clothing, the mansion house parasites who direct the pickpockets, the second story men, the house-breakers… who gamble away a half a million dollars a year and don’t pay income taxes…”
At least he’s willing to stand by his reporter, even if he’s wordy about it, as he tells Spade:
“I hereby turn over to you all the resources and power of this fine newspaper. When one of my reporters is in trouble or danger, sir, I will spend every penny of my fortune if necessary to deliver aid and succor to his side.”
Spade describes the hard-working reporter’s research, following a car theft racket, a fur smuggling racket and more, tracking everything from stolen car serial numbers to names and details as the vehicles changed hands, and on to a numbers racket. Eventually he discovers that not only is the reporter dead, he had researched his way into uncovering that his own publisher played a role in the racket — controlling the numbers game with those edited newspaper weather reports.
The hard-working reporter uncovering that his own editor is a criminal had been handled even more thoroughly in Samuel Fuller’s novel “The Dark Page” and the movie “Scandal Sheet” that was based on it.
In “The Shot in the Dark Caper” an eagle-eyed editor named Woodrow Wilson spots a gun being fired in an apartment house window in the background of an unrelated news photo. He decides to put Spade on the payroll to get the story, a new twist on “investigative reporter.” (Spade does not get a byline, and seems disappointed at being credited as “staff.”)
The singing private detective Richard Diamond is well preserved in radio-collectors’ archives, but didn’t have much to do with journalism. Diamond was one of several radio detectives played by crooner Dick Powell, who also played Philip Marlowe and other gumshoes in the movies.
So far I haven’t heard any Diamond episodes with newspaper reporters getting a big part, but in the January 1950 “Mr. Victor’s Daughter,” wise-cracking detective Diamond’s client is a newspaper owner who wants to expose a numbers racket, but a gangster plans to use the publisher’s daughter for leverage.
Before playing Diamond, Powell had been a rather similar radio detective named Richard Rogue in the 1945-47 series Rogue’s Gallery.
Powell didn’t get to sing regularly as Rogue (unlike Diamond, who closed his stories with a song), but midway through the series he found an excuse to try a line of “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie” while at a dude ranch in the February 1946 “The Triangle Murder Case,” for which the victim is a newspaper managing editor and the suspect a writer. Not much to learn about journalism here, since the apparent murder motive is extra-curricular. If you happen to be a writer or editor, the Fitch Shampoo commercials may inspire you to look up the spelling of “saponified.”
The long-running “Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar” series put the Hartford-based insurance investigator on the case of an old newspaper reporter friend in November, 1956. Called “The Big Scoop Matter,” it has a couple of common newspaper-drama themes: a reporter with a failed marriage, and a risky news assignment that puts his life in danger.
Unlike most reporters, this one has a $100,000 insurance policy payable to his estranged wife.
Dollar, “the man with the action-packed expense account,” goes to New York to offer his services as a bodyguard after hearing from the insurance company that his old friend has been beaten up once and that someone tried to run him down. He finds his friend in a bar, another frequent newspaper-drama scene, but the friend refuses to take on a bodyguard because he might scare away informants.
“It’s hot and big, real big,” reporter Art Wesley says of his story, “a national gambling syndicate and run by a guy here in New York.”
Wesley says his “real insurance” is a safe deposit box holding the syndicate boss’s name while he gets his last facts in order.
“Tonight could be the jackpot… I can take care of myself,” are his last words.
The Adventures of Leonidas Witherall
“The Corpse Meets A Deadline” is from an Internet Archive collection of the Adventures of Leonidas Witherall, which I first read about at David Goldin’s RadioGoldIndex. Goldin described the episode briefly as “Murder in a newspaper printing plant,” the only reference to journalism in his plot summaries of the program.
Wikipedia has a history of the Witherall series, and I tracked down an MP3 of the Corpse Meets a Deadline episode at a now-defunct dotcom called RadioLovers before finding a sample at The Old Time Radio Researchers Library, just a few dramatic opening minutes of it, and then a 2016 Witherall collection uploaded by “ccmrministries.”
The episode features numerous newspaper-journalism stereotypes and memes — several of them providing possible motives for the murder. Here they are in roughly chronological order:
- Readers’ expectations and “local news” standards for publicizing small-town events;
- Sensationalism and the ethics of publicizing private citizens in embarrassing situations;
- Editor’s attitudes toward reader complaints.
- Readers’ threats to boycott a paper because of unflattering reports;
- The allure of “fire” stories
- The mechanics of a printing plant, from multiple editions to Linotype, the “hot type” process, conveyors delivering printed papers, etc.
- Career frustrations: The lure of being a foreign correspondent, versus the frustrations of being trapped covering local news for an aggressive young reporter;
- Unethical practices and violence in “circulation war” business competition between papers.
Born in 1879, the WOR radio series star, Walter Hampden, had been famous as a Shakespearean actor and later manager of a Broadway theater. He was introduced as “the distinguished American actor,” and his character, Leonidas Witherall, was described as a “New England schoolmaster who looks like Shakespeare.” He also managed to work in a Shakespearean speech toward the end of the story. Hampden’s face may be familiar as another famous actor — the distinguished thespian delivering the award-dinner speech in the opening scene of “All About Eve,” which has its own journalist stereotype in the form of ruthless theater critic Addison DeWitt.
Characters in “The Corpse Meets a Deadline”:
Mr. Forrest the editor of the Dalton Herald
Jackie Bigelow, star reporter — stifled by Forrest in attempt to leave to become foreign correspondent with Cosmopolitan Syndicate (“You’re naturally a louse… You didn’t want to lose a good man yourself… I couldn’t get into this man’s war the regular way, the army turned me down… That was my one big chance and you fixed it so I’d miss the boat… Maybe I can do something for you sometime, like cutting your throat.”)
Mr. Bennett — who attacks Forrest in an opening scene; he objects to picture of his daughter at a gambling house raid, threatens Forrest for ruining his daughter’s reputation
“Forrest, you’re a stupid irresponsible cheap yellow journalist.”
“I ought to thrash you, Forrest. I ought to treat you the way my grandfather handled a smartaleck newspaperman out west. He got a horsewhip and he whipped that editor within an inch of his life.”
The two grapple in the newsroom, but Forrest says Bennett will cool off. “I’m used to that… Sure, he’ll rave and rant for a while, write letters — and then he’ll calm down.”
Later Bennett tries to enlist Witherall to help organize a boycott of the newspaper.
Pat Welsh, linotype operator, once a publisher himself; Forrest put him out of business. He’s also the one who explains the printing plant’s lead-melting cauldrons.
“You sort of went out of your way to take a few potshots at me…”
As competing newspaper owners 10 years before, now just an employee:
“You weren’t making enough money; you had to squeeze the life out of any paper that tried to get started in the same town…. by having my delivery boys beaten up in dark alleys, by sideswiping my trucks so that two of my drivers spent a year in the hospital, by knocking over any stand that carried my papers, and by breaking that poor Italian peddler’s neck… I know you’ve got blood on your hands, Forrest, and you wrecked me. I lost every penny I had trying to buck you… All I remember is that you’re a crooked chiseler who ruined my business. You’re a gangster and a killer…
We hear the clatter of Linotype machines during a tour of the newspaper plant, urgent phone call to the editor from the fire scene, arguments between reporter and editor and other newsroom scenes.
In “The Four Killers” Witherall faces another journalism-related murder — this time involving a magazine and newspaper publisher stabbed to death at an alumni event. The victim had been a campus newspaper co-editor and football hero — one of the “four killers” of the title. The other three all, it turns out, had motives to kill their old backfield partner.
One of the suspects is his former co-editor and publishing partner. He was swindled out of his share of the company, as he explains in a flashback while Witherall is waxing nostalgic:
“I built every magazine you own. I stayed up ’til two in the morning every night for months editing, developing ideas and making up dummies. Why, it was through me that you got control of every newspaper you have…
“You can’t take 20 years work from a man and then brush him off with a little check for a couple of shares of stock.”
The other alumni have non-journalistic reasons for wanting the man dead, and we don’t hear anything more about the journalism business — expect a brief discussion among suspects and witnesses of what to say to the press after the murder story gets out.
Broadway Is My Beat
Despite the title, “Broadway Is My Beat” was a series about a detective, Danny Glover, and his “beat” not a news beat. However, the film-noir-toned August 1949 broadcast, The Jane Darwell (Murder Case, has a reporter in the plot, even if he’s not a great role model. When we meet, he’s withholding a murderer’s threats, until it’s too late.
Nick Carter, Master Detective
There are journalists aplenty in 1943’s The Echo of Death. Radio detective Nick Carter is accompanied by a reporter friend while searching for a missing journalist James Thurlow, described as New York’s top financial columnist.
Other Detective Episodes (blog posts)
March 22, 2021, edit — mostly fixing old links