In a rare crossover between my personal research interests in Old Time fiddle music and Old Time Radio, I stumbled onto the Grand Ole Opry of September 25, 1943, with Cousin Minnie Pearl being introduced as “our girl reporter from Grinder Switch” with a comic description of the attributes of a good reporter…
This is at least something to file away under references to the ubiquitous presence of newspapers in 1940s American culture…
“You know neighbors, someone said to be a newspaper reporter you must have an eye like an eagle (or does he say “needle”?), a nose like a gimlet, and an ear that can catch the faintest sound of news. Well, our girl reporter has all of those and a new Sunday go to meeting dress besides…” — announcer
This is also the first time I’ve seen the reference to gimlet and nose, as opposed to the usual cliche about being gimlet-eyed… “A piercing nose for news” would be an odd mixed metaphor, but a gimlet was a piercing tool… as opposed to the gimlet cocktail which is named for its creator… At least according to this combined source at Grammarist. Could the Grand Ole Opry announcer be making a subtle reference to cliches about reporters and cocktails? I don’t think Minnie Pearl was ever associated with drinking, but I have not listened to a lot of these early episodes yet.
Long before the advent of Amazon AWS or Microsoft Azure, “The Clue in the Clouds” was a technology-rich episode of “Casey, Press Photographer,” more often known as “Crime Photographer,” one of the longest-running old-time radio dramatic series to feature newspaper reporter characters.
That’s “technology rich” if 1944 aviation and darkroom or studio-photography tricks are “technology” enough for you. But I did notice the “clouds” in this episode title and decided to write about it on a day when an AWS outage put “cloud computing” in the headlines.
In this story, Casey and Ann Williams have suspicions about a private helicopter crash — not many private helicopters buzzing around in 1944! — and the guy they are suspicious about turns out to be a photographer himself, complete with snapshots of his adventures on a tropical isle.
I’ve written about the Crime Photographer series several times before, including its movie, comic-book and TV spinoffs, but somehow never got to this episode. It’s easy to see how the show might have appealed to fans of the newspaper racket, or of photography, or of saloons with great piano players — all of which have roles to play in this mystery.
You do get some banter between Casey and his editor Bert (“If that ‘heliocopter’ turns out to be a Halloween witch on a broom, you’ve shot your last picture for me!”), and the stereotype of the reporter spending part of his life on a bar stool at the Blue Note Cafe, and both men and women having a place in the newsroom. Ann sometimes does seem to be more “sidekick” to cameraman Casey, but remember she, or an unnamed rewrite man, is the one who writes the stories in that Morning Express.
“Time and deadline wait for no man — or woman either,” as Ann says, just after noting an important clue, soon to emerge from the clouds of Casey’s darkroom developer tray.
(No name is mentioned, but the editor does tell Casey and Ann to give their early research on the helicopter crash to a rewrite man, and an obit writer, the kind of “behind the scenes” newsroom detail I love to hear in these 1940s radio dramas.)
A 19th century cub reporter faces an extra challenge on a big story in the “Race to the Wire” episode of The Lone Ranger. His competition is the villainous Jay Collins, so mean he is rumored to have killed another reporter’s horse to get the story of Robert E. Lee’s surrender.
This time Collins and young reporter Todd Rawley are both after the first report of a peace settlement with Sitting Bull, who had been in Canada since Little Big Horn.
Collins hires thugs to intercept Rawley and beat him within an inch of his life. Lucky for Rawley, the ambush is also within earshot of the Lone Ranger’s campsite.
The masked man does more than rescue Rawley, whose injuries send him to the hospital. He offers to get the story to the telegraph and — with Tonto’s notes on the surrender of Sitting Bull and his men — tell a true story, not the sensational, “lying and bigoted” version Collins is sure to file.
The Lone Ranger also presents his version of a piece of 19th century newspaper trickery that might even be true — a reporter monopolizing the only telegraph out of town by paying the Western Union operator to transmit a large book, page by page, tying up the line for however long it takes to ensure an exclusive “beat” on the real breaking news.
Meanwhile, the Lone Ranger certainly has his own touch when it comes to news writing:
“Sitting Bull and over 1,000 dispirited, hungry and heartbroken Americans today crossed the border and surrendered after years of exile in Canada…”
Pioneer old-time radio collector J. David Goldin’s online index lists only 17 newspaper-related Lone Ranger plots among more than 2,000 episodes broadcast between 1937 and 1957, often with the adjective “courageous” preceeding “editor” or “publisher,” but sometimes with villains running or taking over newspapers. This story is the only one I’ve heard where a reporter is anti-Indian, and where the Lone Ranger and Tonto wind up doing some reporting themselves!
The Los Angeles Daily News is the real hero in this August 1951 “Dragnet” episode, The Big Screen, part of an Old Time Radio Researchers group collection at the Internet Archive… A reporter on the paper’s TV-radio beat has uncovered cases of fraud in the new business of home TV repair.
“Not everyone has one yet,” says Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday, who has a television set’s “channel selector” explained to him in one scene. Webb would bring the Dragnet series to the TV screen that December. Dragnet had been on radio since 1949 and would continue there until 1957, overlapping with the popular 1951-1959 TV series.
Newsman Jack Kennett explains how he even went undercover as a solder-salesman to learn more about the shady side of TV repair. And he found a whistle-blower who started his own honest repair business and was happy to spill the details on a corrupt bigger company he had worked for.
(I liked the extra touch of the reporter saying he double checked the whistle-blower’s background. This is no irresponsible quick-hit undercover expose, it is presented as careful investigative reporting by a respected local paper.)
And that’s when the newspaper brought the police into the story. Also, like a lot of reporters, this one also doubles as a photographer, discussing his nifty Leica camera and high-speed film that could take pictures in low light without a flash… He puts the camera to work in a police sting operation with Dragnet’s Joe Friday and a police electronics technician.
At the end of the broadcast, there is an extra tip of the hat to the LA Daily News and reporter Kennett for their cooperation.
When I get a chance, I’m going to see if I can find Kennett’s original TV-scam stories in some digital archive. Cast members are not named, so it’s unclear whether he might even have played himself. (I did check the spelling of his name, which wasn’t hard since once of his stories on another topic was entered into the Congressional Record.)
The “only the names have been changed to protect the innocent” aspect of this Dragnet-meets-newspaper tale is reminiscent of “The Big Story” series that dramatized a “how we got the story” newspaper adventure every week and gave the reporter a cash award. Like this one, those scripts often emphasized cooperation between reporters and the police.
Dragnet, brought to you by Fatima cigarettes, Liggett & Myers Tobacco Co.. The Big Story, brought to you by Old Gold cigarettes, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Ah, the 1950s.
A corrupt ward politician, Joe Desmond, runs the scam, tricking naive immigrants into paying $100 for what they think are shortcut-to-citizenship papers, but are actually insurance forms. When the police investigate, Desmond’s gang guns down their latest “fresh from Ellis Island” Italian victim before he can testify about being swindled.
The Hornet gets involved to break Desmond’s fake alibi in the murder, and with it the racket as a whole … which The Daily Sentinel has been fighting with news reports and editorials to the point of angry frustration at the ability of the powerful political boss to avoid prosecution.
While the adventure radio show portrays the newspaper as a force for good, it is murky on how journalism works. Reid seems to be ahead of his reporters in uncovering the racket, even editorializing against it over the radio, and ordering up a story hinting that Desmond’s alibi is fake. He expects to frighten the false witness into confessing to the Green Hornet, but Desmond has the man murdered before that can happen. The Hornet steals the murder weapon, letting himself be suspected of murder rather than let Desmond pass of the crime as a suicide.
When police reporter Jasper Jenks outlines that second murder to Reid’s secretary Lenore Case, she already has a theory about the Green Hornet being framed. But her boss encourages Jenks to write up his own theory that the Hornet is part of the racket. Says Reid,
“Publish it! Credit one of the police with it!”
He also tells Jenks to follow up his hunch by bringing plainclothes police to a party thrown by Desmond, where the reporter thinks they may find the Green Hornet. Reid knows that, if the Hornet’s plan succeeds, Desmond will be caught with the murder weapon. And that’s what happens, with one of his gang implicating him in both murders.
This Hornet episode has a somewhat convoluted plot and perhaps not the most ethical journalism, but the newspaper does get its closing headline about the racket being busted.
Notes and Asides
A reporter getting the police to act on his hunch seems unlikely, but that angle in the party scene of this story fits a theme of police and newspaper reporters working closely together that occurs elsewhere in the Golden Age of Radio. Maybe it also did happen in 1930s police work, although it would be quite a breach of both police and journalistic ethics today.
In Hornet stories such collusion is common because the reporter is often former policeman Michael Axford, who also provides comic relief while doubling as Reid’s bodyguard, keeping an eye on the young publisher for his father. However, Jim Irwin, the actor who created the Axford role suffered a stroke in January 1938, and two other reporter characters (including Jenks) were added to the cast, according to Martin Grams and Terry Salomonson in their encyclopedic book The Green Hornet (2010, pp. 66-72). Irwin died that June. A variety of plot twists were used to account for Axford’s absence — and his eventual return in summer 1939, played by a different actor using a similar Irish brogue.
Stored at the Old Time Radio Researchers Library website, this Mutual-syndicated transcription recording of the WXYZ Hornet series is one of the early recordings that identify Britt Reid’s right-hand man, Kato, as Japanese, an identification that was dropped as World War II approached. (Kato became Filipino or Korean in later broadcasts and movies.) It is also interesting that the citizenship plot victim who starts the story rolling is an immigrant from Italy, another nation America would soon be fighting in the war.
The episode title “The Citizenship-Insurance Racket” was provided by veteran radio researcher and transcription collector Jerry Haendiges of OTRSite, who dates the original broadcast as May 5, 1938. The same date is cited by Grams and Salomonson, noting that early scripts received by the Copyright Registration Office from January 1936 through July 1938 did not give each story a title, just an ID number. They list an additional citizenship-racket story on Oct. 17, 1939, “Citizens for Sale,” also involving an Italian immigrant, but this time the Hornet rescues the man before the racketeers can murder him.
“Inside Story” by Richard Wilson, was a 1957 episode of the science fiction series “X-Minus-One.” It featured a reporter for “Galactic News Service” (GNS) investigating a mysterious epidemic on a colonized planet. (Curiously “X-Minus-One” was for part of its run embedded in NBC’s “Nightline” series, a radio magazine that also included news and feature interviews. Walter O’Keefe’s Nightline introduction is included on this recording.)
The sounds of old-fashioned teletype machines persisted into this program’s future, along with editors’ continuing belief in a “silly season” between legislative sessions, when slack news prompts reporters to run dull Zoological Society stories on the longevity of Martian sand lizards, or risk stretching things despite something called the “Publications Responsibility Act of 1997.” That law apparently carried a 20-year prison sentence for some cases of “fan the flames” irresponsible journalism! (Note that 1997 was exactly 40 years in the future at the time of the broadcast. Meanwhile, that teletype machine in the photo is the actual one my Hartford Courant Mansfield bureau colleagues and I used to bang out stories in the 1970s. It was replaced with a computer and modem around 1979, which is why I’m amused to hear teletype noises continuing into the days of interplanetary travel on this X Minus One episode.)
Like many newspaper dramas since the days of Nellie Bly, the 1957 broadcast “Inside Story” has a reporter going undercover to get a scoop. In this high-tech future his “cover” is literal — an invisible suit designed to protect him from whatever mutated virus has caused an epidemic on the planet called Null-E (or “nullie”) fever. Symptoms of the disease include madness and violence, and it’s pretty brave of the reporter to go out with only a plastic film protecting himself from people who are irrational, belligerent, and infectious.
On the plus side, the drama shows that even space-age reporters would be willing to risk life and limb for a story.
“I may be a little reckless following a story but believe me there isn’t a bonus big enough to make a hero out of me. I had no intention to contracting Null-E fever just to provide a byline story for old GNS…”
His heatproof, air-tight invisible suit also may be a case of journalists being too ready to dive into new technology. Its “miniature dental mic hanging on a front tooth” does sound impressive, though. And so does the reporter’s dedication to getting the story, interviewing a paranoid “nullie” victim who is an admitted murderer, and an armed guard threatening to kill him for crossing into a mysterious gang’s private territory.
Under intimidation from the rival gang, he even joins a screaming mob crossing that border.
In the end, he gets quite a story, although the 20-minute drama does seem to rush to the ending, with a lot of medical reporting, a quarantine, come communication hacks, and still the sound of those old-fashioned teletypes clacking in the background — apparently 1957’s view of the future didn’t include CRT monitors, digital news files and laser printers.
Meanwhile, I haven’t read much about the “NBC Nightline” radio program, which apparently combined introductions to series like “X Minus One” and “Biography in Sound” with feature interviews and news reporting. For example, the blog linked below has more than an hour of another Walter O’Keefe era broadcast, juxtaposing a contemporary 1957 Cold War report about the first U.S. Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launch with an interview with an eyewitness to the Wright Brothers first airplane flight more than a half-century earlier! Richard Burton and Susan Strasberg are also interviewed about their current Broadway play, and there is some Hanukkah-Chritmas news.
Thanks to audio collector Gordon Skene for sharing this as part of his Past Daily blog, December 17, 1957.
An editor and “ace reporter” debated the news value and audience interest in a sensational murder case — versus coverage of the Korean War — in this December 1950 episode of “The Guiding Light” soap opera.
Joe Roberts of the City Times walks a soap-slippery ethical tightrope here, brought to you by Duz Detergent. And doesn’t that commercial announcer’s voice sound a bit newsroom-familiar?
I hadn’t listened to enough of this series to know how long the City Times newsroom characters were regulars, but the episode title “Newspaper has story about murder” caught my attention… and ethical details about interviews with the accused woman may be a plot point. Here’s a second 15-minute episode from the following day.
And the next day, the accused woman — suffering from amnesia, the soap opera curse — tells her lawyer that she talked to Roberts because she thought the former war correspondent was someone from her past, and she didn’t know he was a reporter.
“When a newspaperman is out to get a story, fairness doesn’t enter into his assignment. Get a story, by hook or crook,” the lawyer tells her, but Roberts isn’t that cynical.
The Guiding Light was created by Irna Phillips in 1937 and in the 1950s made the transition from radio to TV, where it continued until 2009.
From J.David Goldin’s radiogoldindex.com episode summaries and Wikipedia, it looks like the 1950 murder case courtroom drama continued for months — more than 100 episodes, with reporter Roberts’ stories weaving in and out of the plot and leading to (in a triumph of soap opera plotting over journalism ethics?) love and marriage.
Roberts was played by several actors through most of the years that the program was on both radio and television. The radio series ended in 1956.
Goldin mentions that announcer Clayton Bud Collyer, who identifies himself after the last commercial, also played a radio news reporter in a later episode of the courtroom drama.
But that man of many radio voices was also a much more famous reporter — playing both radio’s (tenor voice) Clark Kent and (baritone voice) Superman! However, for most of his years on The Adventures of Superman, Collyer’s name was not given on the air to maintain the Superman mystique… And saving him from typecasting.
One last journalism connection, presumably just a coincidence… But the murdered man behind that murder trial was an advertising executive named Theodore (Ted) White — not to be confused with newsman Theodore H. White , who became even better known for his The Making of the President books in the coming decades.
In 1948, ABC radio tried out an updated version of the Ben Hecht & Charles MacArthur newsroom classic The Front Page as a 13-week summer-replacement series. Newsroom-background sounds set the opening scene, not unlike the start of the gender-shifted Front Page remake, “His Girl Friday,” but the similarity ended quickly, at least in the one episode I’ve heard — and which you can play here. With familiar radio voices Dick Powell, starring as reporter Hildy Johnson, and William Conrad, as a rather diminished version of editor Walter Burns, this was neither the original “stop-the-hanging and keep Hildy from quitting” plot nor the anything-goes Roaring Twenties setting of the original play. But what should we expect from a Truman-era Front Page?
One June 3, 1948, episode of the series survives in online archives, including RadioEchoes and the Old Time Radio Researchers group online library. It’s “The Frightened Swede,” with Hildy learning that his Swedish roots could get him a story from an eccentric old man who is giving away $10 bills on a street corner. Powell even gets to speak a couple of lines in Swedish! The story is more reminiscent of some “Night Beat” human interest plots and — with a murder added — which reminds me of Powell’s movie and radio detective roles (Rogue’s Gallery, summers 1945 & ’46 and Richard Diamond, 1949-53). At least Powell’s Hildy doesn’t get knocked unconscious, which was a regular feature of his post-Marlowe detectives. (He played the lead in the film of Raymond Chandler’s “Murder My Sweet” in 1945, but other actors were Philip Marlowe on radio while former musical-comedy star Powell was cast as more light-hearted radio detectives, literally ending each Richard Diamond episode crooning to his girlfriend.)
Powell and Conrad’s Front Page portrayals had little in common with the rapid-talking Walter and Hildy we met as newsroom rascals in the Front Page play or its movie adaptations, at least if this one episode is typical. They even show some restraint in their reporting!
There’s even a hint that the editor might be seeing a psychoanalyst to recover from childhood trauma — definitely not something we’d expect from the news-obsessed Adolphe Menjou, Cary Grant or Walter Matthau versions of the character, although it might explain a lot. (Come to think of it, an “alienist” analyst does have a part in the original Front Page, managing to get himself shot by the condemned man he is interviewing, making possible the prison escape at the center of the drama. But he never returns to analyze Walter Burns, and the therapist in this radio play is a much different sort.)
In the radio series, the newspaper is called the “Examiner,” the same as the original play and film. (The “His Girl Friday” adaptation made it the “Morning Post.”) The Examiner competes with a Tribune, represented by some tavern banter between Hildy and a Tribune reporter, as well as by Walter’s calling Hildy on the carpet when the Tribune gets a story first.
The radio series was written by Morton Fine and David Friedkin, and directed by Bill Rousseau, “based loosely” on the characters created by Hecht and MacArthur, according to John Dunning’s On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, which reports the summer series “drew scathing reviews for the liberties it took with the original play.”
Anyway, there’s not much here for journalism students to learn from, except that reporters can be compassionate, might even respect their competition, and that being bilingual might be an asset. For the wacky fun and ethical failings of working for a lunatic editor at a scrappy Chicago newspaper in the twenties, consult the original play and the earlier films, or the half-dozen radio adaptations I’ve written about here. Fans of media technology may be interested in the presence of a new high-tech-in-1948 tape recorder as a plot device. In the end Hildy does get to solve that murder, but he’s still more in the role of Dick Powell, detective, than Hildy Johnson, newsman.
Update: Dec. 24, 2022, restoring mp3 player link at new address, and correcting a reference to the name of the fictional newspaper.
On International Women’s Day in a pandemic year, I’m listening to a radio play about a woman reporter on a medical story, Dorothy Patterson of the Paterson, N.J., Morning Call. While most episodes of NBC’s The Big Story were murder cases featuring tough-guy police reporters, “The Miracle Phone Call” is an Eastertime melodrama about a compassionate reporter trying to touch the hearts — and wallets — of her readers.
Broadcast in April, 1953, the radio play presents the era’s usual gender stereotypes in its opening narration:
“You, Dorothy Patterson, are a newspaper woman, with equal emphasis on ‘newspaper’ and ‘woman.’ It’s rough competition in this man’s business. You’ve got to be good, and you are. But still you’re a woman, and sometimes you take a razzing because of it.”
The razzing turns out to be over whether she is “too much of a softie,” a perfect setup for this “Do you have to be a cynic to be a reporter?” story. A family needs $3,000 in 1950s dollars for a new serum for its dying child. Will newspaper readers help?
“Sob stuff,” says the editor.
“No, not sob stuff, true stuff…” Patterson replies. “I’m going to tell them the facts, just the facts. I’m going to ask them to send money if they can. And if they can’t I’m going to ask them to pray.”
The editor isn’t optimistic, but there’s really not much suspense about the ultimate outcome. Still, the story does manage some good soap-opera quality scenes, with veteran actor Jan Miner in the lead, other players giving the newspaper readers a voice on the way to the expected happy ending, and even a surprise or two. After all, those were the days when the daily newspaper was all the “social media” folks had, when they could trust the “mediation” of reporters and the local organizations they worked for.
While Dorothy works on her article, the Big Story narrator, Bob Sloane, offers some insights into the process, and the variety of stories you could find in a 1950s newspaper… (This is a clipping from the actual broadcast script, one of many preserved and made public in the settlement of claims against tobacco sponsors.)
The Big Story, a radio standard for eight years, sometimes dug back decades for its stories, obscuring the original newspaper report’s date as part of the dramatization, as well as changing the names of all involved but the reporter and the newspaper. But this one wasn’t pulled out of the past — the boy featured in the story appears in person at the end, where the weekly show usually gave the real reporter a moment to accept the Big Story award.
Extra: This audio file is an Armed Forces Radio Service rebroadcast of the show, and AFRS routinely stripped all commercial advertising, including The Big Story’s “Pall Mall award” tobacco promotions, which may be why we don’t get to hear from Dorothy Patterson at the end.
This will do for a first draft. I may do some more digging to see if I can find out more about Patterson’s career and the happy ending of the story. The Morning Call was one of many New Jersey dailies gradually merged and absorbed under other nameplates in the past 50 years. We can hope its good works aren’t forgotten.
The MP3 file linked above is part of the Internet Archive’s Joe Hehn Memorial Collection, named for a pioneer 1960s collector of early radio series transcription discs and recordings. As the archive page says:
Digitizing his collection of reel tapes and discs is the effort of a wide range of North American volunteers, and with the assistance of some international collectors. The groups supporting this effort with their funds, time, technology and skills are the Old Time Radio Researchers and a small group of transcription disc preservationists who refer to themselves as the “The Knights of the Turning Table.”