Night Beat

Good journalism is about honest facts and, honestly, this page is a work in progress. It combines earlier blog posts and is probably still in need of editing. But you can already listen to classic radio shows and read what I have to say about them. Please contact me before quoting or citing in any academic publication, so that I can notify you of updates.

by Bob Stepno

Opening with a mixture of kettledrums and jazz clarinet, “Night Beat” was a Chicago-flavored 1950s drama about a newspaper columnist, narrating his own half-hour tales of writing a late-night column on deadline.

The well-written series appears to have caught the ear of professional journalists: At the end of one episode, star Frank Lovejoy stepped out of character to deliver praise and congratulations to the real-life officers of the National Press Club. Another week, the president of a fraternity for women journalists presented Lovejoy with a scroll for his “honest and convincing portrayal of a newspaperman.”

Each week, the columnist’s first words set the mood for the episode, which ranged from suspenseful “newsroom-noir” detective-mystery  to sentimental melodrama and human interest; an O.Henry twist often took them from one genre to the other. The opener usually began this way:

“Hi, this is Randy Stone. I cover the night beat for the Chicago Star. My stories start in many different ways. This one began…”

Frank Lovejoy played columnist Randy Stone with a cast of Hollywood’s strongest supporting voices, often including the very recognizable William Conrad, Gunsmoke’s Matt Dillon on radio, whose film appearances included the gruff city editor in the newspaper film “- 30 -” with Jack Webb. On Night Beat, Conrad might be a punch-drunk boxer one week, a dying mobster another — or Stone’s boss.

Whatever the setting and cast, Stone told quite a “how I got the story” tale, from his opening summary to his wrap-up remarks, usually accompanied by the clack of a telephone receiver or the ratchet of a typewriter carriage, and a call of, “Copy boy!” Sometimes the idea of a reporter starting work at dusk and delivering his story before dawn provides a frame.

Big John McMasters

William Conrad is a dying one-time bootlegger, “Big John McMasters,” in a March 4, 1951, episode introduced by an announcer as  “a special broadcast honoring the men and women of the working press, who day-in and day-out find and write the newspaper stories that keep us informed and entertained.” Lovejoy steps out of the Stone character at the end of that evening’s program to offer personal congratulations to newly elected officers of the National Press Club.

Ironically, the episode’s story is one that reporter Stone ultimately decides not to tell to his readers in its entirety. (We, the radio audience, are special.) It revolves around the former Prohibition gangster’s deepest personal secrets — a tale Stone treats as personal to protect innocent parties..

“So I’m writing a story. It’s all about laws that made criminals, and laws that made them not criminals. It’s kind of a wandering piece of copy that doesn’t really get anywhere and never really solves anything, but it doesn’t mention any names because I don’t think that’d solve anything either.”

After that episode’s last wail of the Night Beat theme clarinet comes Lovejoy’s love-letter to real-life journalists:

“Someone once said a guy meets so many interesting people in the newspaper business and somehow they all turn out to be newspapermen
“Well in portraying a reporter on Night Beat, I’ve met my share of the press and i’d like to double that quotation in spades. Tonight I want to congratulate the new president of the National Press Club, Carson F. Lyman, and salute Frank Rogers, Washington correspondent of the Los Angeles Daily News, who was elected secretary of that organization.

“They’re a great bunch of folks, these guys and gals of the working press and I’m proud to be permitted to portray one of them.”

(Lyman, managing editor of U.S. News & World Report and previously with the Associated Press, was known as the first “magazine man” to head the National Press Club. Rogers was a former Daily News night city editor who also had worked as a press agent for several California political figures.)

Byline for Frank

Three months later, Conrad shared the narration in the episode “Byline for Frank,” as a former star reporter who calls Stone to his deathbed with a last wish, then tells the story of his soaring-and-crashing newspaper career. Stone is filling in on rewrite at the start of the episode, when the call comes in from an emergency hospital about a “John Smith” who wants to talk to him before he dies.

Frank Lyons, listeners learn, was a career-driven Northwestern grad who had made himself the top newspaperman in town when Stone was “a cub,” but Lyons was set-up, given fake records and tricked into publishing a big story that led to a libel suit and destroyed his reputation.

“I was bounced and black-balled and washed up overnight,” he tells Stone. In classic film-noir fashion, a femme fatale is involved. And so is a hood, involved in the original frame-up years earlier, who slugs Stone when he isn’t looking and adds insult to injury with the line, “They’ve got the dumbest reporters in the world in this town.”

After Stone comes to, he digs up the old details with the help of a researcher back in the Star’s file room, and winds his way to a moral about the dramas and ironies of life and death, and a promise to put Frank’s byline on one last story.

Details like Lyons’ Chicago area journalism school, his reflections on the excitement of a newspaper career, Stone’s willingness to help out another newspaperman in trouble, and his reporting techniques are all examples of the series’ attention to journalistic details.

It’s enough to make you think the program originated in Chicago. Many did, but not “Night Beat.” In fact, Chicago newspapers were early operators of radio stations and producers of important series from the 1920s on, before networks rose to power and developed today’s division of studios between Hollywood and New York. The Chicago Daily News began station WMAQ, and the Tribune modestly dubbed its outlet WGN for “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” Between them rose a “lively, newspaper-influenced approach to broadcasting,” says radio historian Michrle Hilmes (Radio Voices, pp 70-76)
The Tribune, building on its experience with comic strip serials and film serials, launched into the broadcast serial as a daily continuing “radio comic strip,” hiring the team that created “Amos ‘n’ Andy” — and was stolen away by WMAQ with a promise of syndication deals. (Hilmes 82-86) The Chicago newspapers’ stations also contributed evening and daytime soap operas, including the first series for which the term was literally true — Super Suds’ “Clara, Lu and Em” on WGN and NBC in 1931.

“Night Beat” was a more sophisticated drama, arriving in radio’s last decade, but just the mention of Chicago may have carried “newspaper city” associations, even if the show came from Hollywood.

Five Days off for Christmas

Conrad also appears briefly in the melodramatic episode “Five Days Off for Christmas,” as “Sam Bullock, the big boss.”

The story opens on Christmas Eve with Randy Stone telling how Bullock’s surprise gift of a Christmas vacation took a dark turn that sent him looking for an injured boy and examining his own reportorial cynicism. While not quite “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Miracle on 34th St.,” there’s a hint of Dickens in this Christmas drama with a closing message about “happiness… a thing of the spirit, not the pocket.”

As an example of Night Beat’s realistic portrayal of journalists at work, this episode has the sounds of a newsroom office party, followed by lonely late-night teletypes with just a couple of people left on the job, as well as its description of the columnist’s  daily-newspaper career, which apparently has sacrificed family connections for a workplace where “As far back as I can remember, Christmas has been another workday for Stone…”

Flowers on the Water

Stone reflects on the realities of the newspaper business as well as the details of life in Chicago, from the sound of an elevated train to the jazz clubs and street sounds. Like Chicago columnists from Finley Peter Dunne to Mike Royko, he paints vivid pictures of the city and its people, even if the prose does get a bit purple at times. Lovejoy’s narration sometimes wraps a story around the story.

“Tonight is just about washed up. The sky is getting that tattle-tale grey around the edges. Another hour or so, three million alarm clocks will start yakking against the eardrums of Chicago’s dear hearts and gentle people. A goodly number of said dear hearts and gentle people will stumble to the front door for their copy of the Morning Star.

“I’m wondering what they’ll say when they read the opening sentence of the Night Beat story for today, the line that goes, ‘This is a love story with the happiest ending that I’ve ever heard.’

“I guess they’ll figure spring has got me in its perfumed clutches and more than likely I’ll wind up wrapped around the baloney sandwich and that will be that. Only if they just keep reading, maybe they’ll be in for a strange kind of surprise…”

The Old Itch (Kit Gaynor)

“Sometimes the best stories a reporter gets are the ones he can’t print” is the opening line of a harder-to-find Night Beat episode from 1952, one sometimes listed as “The Old Itch” and sometimes as “Stone’s Love Affair.” (And in the current archive.org collection, the file is misnamed “Reformer,” which is a different episode.)

Somewhat reminiscent of the Spencer Tracy — Katherine Hepburn battle-of-the-sexes newspaper film “Woman of the Year,” Stone’s romance is with a star woman journalist — one who wears mink, sports “the kind of tan you get at spots like Waikiki,” drinks him under the table, and beats him to a story. (The one he couldn’t print anyway, because the source was a personal friend.)

“I planted myself at the Press Club bar and thought dark thoughts about Kit Gaynor. Sure I’d heard of her. She was one of those ‘first’ women, first to fly in a bomber, first in a jet, first to slip unnoticed onto a troop ship at the canal locks and go to the South Pacific. And most of all she was the first dame reporter to make a real chump out of me. I had a drink to each of her blue ribbons.”

Later, she joins him at the bar:

Stone: “How did you get in here? We got a rule about women.”
Gaynor: “I’m a newspaperman. I hold press club cards all over the world, even in Chicago.”
Stone: “I wish you were a newspaper man. I’d flatten you.”

Not only does she have stories about interviewing Tito and Churchill, she even scoops Stone and the rest of the Chicago press corps on another story while she’s out buying a steak for his dinner. That’s just before she runs into an old friend who’s a jet pilot and hops his flight to New York. Then she’s off to Europe, leaving Stone with a lighted — but not entirely unrequited — torch. As the episode comes to an end, Stone is contemplating the changes marriage might make in his career, and she’s on another plane — off to Korea, her career reminiscent of Pulitzer winner Marguerite Higgins or Margaret Bourke-White.

Somebody Stop Ann

A darker side of women’s careers in journalism appears in “Somebody Stop Anne,” about a womanfeature writer with an unhappy homelife and a great fear of violence. Separated from her husband, she reads a story about a man killing his wife and child and becomes terrified about her own two children’s safety.

Her newspaper career isn’t painted as the villain, or the source of her emotional instability.

Wanna Buy a Story

“Sure I’ve been known to complain about working the night beat, but just between you and me I wouldn’t trade with anyone. You see, I’ve got a theory about people at night… In the dark of night people are more vulnerable to romance, hate and temptation.”

The angry woman in this 1950 episode isn’t a journalist, but “a girl with a full load of hate” who wants to sell him a story for $500. Even before she mentions the amount, he tells her he doesn’t buy stories. After she says “$500”, he replies:

“Look Mary, you’re a cute kid, but you’re a dreamer. I don’t make that much in a month. If you knew who killed Cock Robin, I couldn’t pay you that much for a story.”

The story has a twist at the end, but Stone is philosophical:

“Well, I’ll make my deadline. We’ll scoop the town… I don’t like the story. I wish it never happened, but it’s written and a lot of people are going to read it and in a couple of weeks it’ll be forgotten. Only I’ll remember and I’ll always wish I’d known first what was really going on behind those scared blue eyes.”

That episode ends with a special guest after the final overture. Lovejoy introduces her as “Miss Agnes Underwood, the only woman city editor of a metropolitan newspaper in the entire United States, the Los Angeles Herald Express.” By the end of her visit, she tells Lovejoy, “That’s ‘Aggie’ to a co-worker.”

Underwood had just written an autobiography, Newspaperwoman, but the book plug wasn’t the occasion for her visit to the radio set. Instead, she presented Lovejoy with a scroll from Theta Sigma Phi, a national fraternity for women in journalism. Its inscription read, “for your honest and convincing portrayal of a newspaperman on this show, Night Beat,” and Underwood added that she was also delivering “honors from the profession” to both Lovejoy and Patricia Neal for their portrayals of newspaperman and newspaperwoman in the Warner Brothers film, “Three Secrets.”

The Slasher

While Night Beat wasn’t always a crime series, unlike “Big Town” or “Casey, Crime Photographer,” Stone did wind up in suspenseful cops-and-killers plots between his O. Henry type human-interest stories. The transitions, like the one in “The Slasher” showcased Lovejoy’s acting and Stone’s reporting skills:

“I was out making my rounds, covering my beat for a story. I talked with a bootblack here, a hatcheck girl there, a head waiter or two, assorted  cabbies, and came up with nothing but a few shreds of scandal that were better left unreported.

“When I turned onto Harding Street there was a story for me ready-made, but it was a story I was sorry I had to report. A woman was lying on the sidewalk with a frightened look in her eyes. The shoulder of her dress was ripped open and there was a red stain growing on her side. I walked up to the crowd that seemed to pour out of nowhere, and I pushed my way through…”

He and the policeman on the scene already know each other, and both know all about the “Slasher” attacks of which this is the 14th in three weeks. Stone sums up the scene:

“Like a good newspaperman should, I got the names, the places, the what, why and how and then I phoned them in… And another woman — they were always women — lay on the ground wounded. The whole thing disgusted me, and after the police had cleared things up I went into Mike Creshaw’s place for something cold to take the hot, dry taste out of my mouth…”

The bartender knows about the slashing crimes too, but has his own reaction: “Why don’t you newspapermen do something? You’ve got the power in this town.”

Stone isn’t as impressed with Mike’s version of the power of the press as he is with a new mural on the barroom wall — a beautiful woman with a scar on her face. That bit of reportorial observation sets him off interviewing a chain of a half-dozen sources — and strong-arming a weaselly stage manager — in a search for the artist, his dancer-model, and a story that Stone worries might run under headlines like, “Slasher Found” and “Art Student Revenges Himself on Prodigal Sweetheart.”

“I suppose I wanted the story. I don’t know how I felt… It wasn’t a story for the papers, it was a case-history for a psychologist, something that’d come under ‘traumatic shock and the byproduct of sadism.’ It was 4:30 in the morning and I didn’t like the story or the night or the people…”

In the end, the tale of “The Slasher” has more suspense and surprises, and plenty of room for Stone’s column to wax philosophically about love, hate and grey areas in between.


Juke Box Melodrama

Newspapers as an “old media” technology survived the 1950s and struggled into the next century, but this May 1951 episode of Night Beat features a rarer form of communication — a coin-op juke box with a live d.j., a cross between a telephone switchboard operator and a radio announcer taking phone-in requests.

This story literally puts Randy Stone on the street, describing in colorful detail the noir sights and sounds of Chicago as he tries to find a story for the column.

(“The brittle laugh of a painted tootsie” is about as graphic as family-friendly fifties radio got about certain aspects of the Chicago night.)

Instead, this time he finds a melodramatic little human drama to share with us, possibly not with his readers in a way that would give away they story’s O. Henry ending to the parties involved — one of whom runs a sidewalk news stand, another disappearing media institution.

He also finds plenty of neon colors, sounds of jazz in the night, and — after a comment about keeping up with the competition — a copy of the Chicago Sun Times, smeared in blood.

It’s worth a listen.

(In addition to Night Beat regular William Conrad — radio’s “Matt Dillon” and TV’s “Cannon” — the cast includes Betty Lou Gerson, a film, TV and voiceover actress perhaps best known as Cruella De Vil in Disney’s “101 Dalmatians.”)


Sources

Audio samples accompanying the summaries above are thanks to the Night Beat collection at archive.org and to the devoted collectors who preserved transcription discs and tapes that were eventually digitized.

For professionally-produced CD collections of Night Beat episodes.

Radio Spirits:

RadioArchives.com:

Nightbeat Volume 1: 20 1950 episodes; includes audition and first show

Nightbeat Volume 2: 20 1950 episodes; includes “Wanna Buy a Story”

Nightbeat Volume 3: 20 episodes, 1950-52; includes “A Byline for Frank” and “The Old Itch”

Writer/editor Larry Marcus and producer/director/writer Warren Lewis were among the mainstays of Night Beat, but it drew on a wide range of talented writers.  For more about them, the cast, and the strange indecision about the lead character’s name, see The Definitive Nightbeat Program Log at DigitalDeliToo by Dee Neyhart.

Radio collector and historian Randy Riddle has shared some fascinating Night Beat discoveries, including a transcription disc of an audition episode with a different actor and a different name for the lead character and his newspaper, and a 45 RPM record set he found at a North Carolina thrift store. The cover, a sketch of a reporter talking into a payphone, turned out to be a rare work by Andy Warhol!

Collector Jerry Haendiges lists 81 known recorded Night Beat episodes of more than 120 broadcasts, some of them repeats.

Archive.org program lists:

Other sources:

One Response to Night Beat

  1. Unstrung says:

    This is one of my favorite OTR programs. Thank you for the history and insight – makes it even more enjoyable to listen to those particular episodes.

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