Wild Bill Hickok, the fictional version, sold plenty of breakfast cereal (“flaked, popped, shredded, ready-sweetened, every one’s a favorite…”) to 1950s kids on television and radio at the same time, with Guy Madison and Andy Devine as Bill and his sidekick Jingles, but even they had a few run-ins with working journalists.
A while ago I summarized an episode about a woman editor, “Press for Justice.” This time we have a macho Chicago reporter, Pug Donovan, an old hunting pal of Wild Bill’s who thinks nothing of playing a quickdraw game in which they shoot off each other’s hats. This is not taught at journalism schools.
But even the West’s badmen apparently were newspaper fans. In this episode, a desperado called “The Rock” kidnaps Donovan so that he will write about his exploits. (The story begins, “For one night of terror, I rode with a scourge of the West…”)
The villain also threatens the local newspaper editor to get him to print the story, but the editor agrees to cooperate with Marshal Wild Bill Hickok and …
OK, so the story is as light as a bowl of Rice Krispies, without as much snap, crackle and pop. But it does make it clear that even while TV was encroaching on the radio advertising market, a children’s dramatic series in both of those “new media” was reminding young listeners of the importance of newspapers — and making a newspaper career sound as exciting as the Wild West. (Spoiler alert: Donovan does meet his deadline.)
If you want to explore a few more episodes, see the rest of the Old Time Radio Researchers collection of Wild Bill Hickok at the Internet Archive. Wild Bill didn’t limit himself to newspapers, there’s another episode where he fights some outlaws who want to interfere with that new-fangled telegraph.
For a slightly more “adult western” approach to Wild Bill Hickok, see the 1958 radio series “Frontier Gentleman,” tales of a fictional London Times reporter exploring the American West, including close encounters with historical figures.
In any case, the always-suspicious Casey and reporter Ann Williams do a fine job of figuring out the insurance-related mystery, looking for a murder in a suspected suicide. The reporter and photographer even being allowed at the scene of the crime are quite a contrast with 21st century police-media relations. We get some solid 1940s pay-phone culture, when there were live operators on the line. And Casey gives a hint of an alleged old newspaper-photographer technique — bribing someone with the promise, “Look, if you do this little job for us, you’ll get your picture in the paper!” (“See, he’s got a camera and everything,” Annie adds.) This episode also has a good plug for the regular piano player, Herman Chitterson, who played himself at the fictional Blue Note lounge.
We also get a “door knock after a death” classic reporting scene, in which the father-in-law of the deceased mentions that Casey and Ann aren’t the first journalists to visit. But the widow is quite willing to talk. And her father is quite willing to speak ill of the dead. Reporter Ann also seems to take a bigger part in the sleuthing, telling a doorman, “But we’re practically policemen. Show him your press badge, Casey.” And then doing some quick mental arithmetic to figure out the whereabouts of a suspect, and joining Casey in tailing a suspect by car and on foot.
For more about the episode, see Casey chronicler Joe Webb’s “Blue Note Bulletin” blog for “The Twenty-Minute Alibi.”
Local newspapers have been fighting for survival since the horse-and-buggy days when this story takes place.
The 1943 film Johnny Come Lately starred James Cagney as an out-of-work “tramp reporter” who both rescues and is rescued by an elderly newspaper owner. He faces a vagrancy arrest when they meet, but she likes the fact that he is reading The Pickwick Papers and laughing out loud. She had met Dickens, you see.
When Screen Guild Theater brought the story to radio in 1948, Agnes Moorehead made a spirited editor & publisher of the Plattsville Shield and Banner, more than holding her own as Cagney’s co-star. (Vinnie McCloud or “Mrs. Mac” had been played in the movie by Grace George.)
The announcer doesn’t identify the other players, including the villainous competing publisher, a bigshot state political boss, and Gashouse Mary, an important news source in the film. A bottle of ketchup also plays a major role. And the “experience is the best teacher” life of a wandering newspaperman is even used as a metaphor by the show’s sponsor.
There’s just enough story here for the half-hour radio format. Bosley Crowther at The New York Times didn’t think Cagney was well-served by the movie script writer and director, although Variety liked the original film:
James Cagney’s first independent production via brother Bill Cagney’s unit, comes through with a topnotch performance in the story of the crack tramp newspaperman, afflicted with a wanderlust complex, who temporarily halts in his tracks to help an old lady continue publication of her newspaper and battle the crooked politico-financial forces in her town.
In the end, the tramp reporter is headed back to the road, but he gets in a good last line, when the editor says she won’t try to keep him around because she knows he likes his freedom, and knows he has more Dickens reading to catch up on.
“Yea, I like my freedom, but I also like your freedom and the freedom of all those decent honest citizens out there. That’s what all this fuss has been about. I won’t forget that, Mrs. Mac.”
Mrs. Mac wasn’t Ms. Moorehead’s first entry in the newspaper game on radio. She had already played star reporter Nellie Bly on Cavalcade of America and, coincidentally, would later be the reporter in a Dickens story, “The Signal Man” on an episode of “Suspense.” Pioneer oldtime radio collector J. David Goldin’s logs also list Moorehead as co-star in an optimistic CBS program about atomic power, but I haven’t been able to find an online recording. His summary says it’s “The Sunny Side Of The Atom. June 30, 1947… A dramatization of a woman reporter’s investigation into the peaceful atom. How doctors use a radioactive tracer, a radioactive medical lab, using isotopes to find oil, and a radioactive farm.” The only other cast member Goldin mentions is Al Hodge, better known to radio listeners as newspaper publisher Britt Reid, whose secret identity was The Green Hornet, and known to early television viewers as Captain Video.
The 1940 film Arise My Love was set at the start of World War II, with a woman reporter rescuing an American flier from a firing squad as the Spanish Civil War ended, just before the larger war began. The title is from a Song of Solomon prayer the fighter pilot recites on take-off.
Radio adapted the romantic-adventure film story twice, but apparently could not enlist star Claudette Colbert to play her enterprising reporter role again, just her co-star Ray Milland as the pilot who has been fighting Spanish fascists and wants to get a shot at Germany next. Lux Radio Theater paired Loretta Young with Milland in its June 1942 version above. It was one of the first movie-adaptations actually broadcast to American forces overseas, as noted by producer Cecil B. DeMille at the start of the program.
In the opening scene, Young’s reporter Augusta Nash, nicknamed “Gusto,” has an ulterior motive for her daring exploit, posing as the wife of the American flier to secure his pardon from the Spanish authorities. In addition to his escape, she plans to make an escape of her own — to prove herself as a reporter, escape her fashion column in Paris, and do serious journalism covering what looks like an approaching European war.
That approach turns out to be remarkably fast. Her first assignment will be Berlin, and she’s quickly reading Mein Kampf on the train! Meanwhile, the pilot has volunteered for the Polish Air Force and is on the same train. Will they get to their destinations before Hitler invades Poland?
What a time to start an “Arise my love and come away with me” romance! Falling in love almost convinces them to abandon their professional and patriotic adventures and head for home. But they’re back in Paris when the Germans march into the city, and there are a couple of plot twists before the rousing “It’s not over!” patriotic message from the flier and the correspondent at the end… and another from the cast and producer in their curtain-call interview with DeMille.
Young: “Playing a war correspondent was certainly a novelty.”
Milland: “War reporting is one of the last male strongholds, C.B.; what would Richard Harding Davis and Floyd Gibbons have thought of it?”
DeMille: “Well I knew both of them, and they’d probably ask whether the lady in question was a good reporter.”
“Well, there’s some very good reporting being done by women in this war,” Young replies, and offers a list starting with Claire Booth writing from China, Burma and India in Life magazine, while Milland comments that while reporters are telling the stories of American war heroes, their own heroism may not be recognized until later. And DeMille mentions that radio as well as the press already had its reporter-heroes in this war.
In fact, the “Arise My Love” mixture of romantic-comedy and patriotic war movie got mixed reviews as a film, but won an Academy Award for its original story, and judging by the laughter and applause, the live Lux Radio audience apparently enjoyed it.
Four years later, with the war over, Academy Award Theater gave Milland star billing when it presented “Arise My Love” again, but did not even name his co-star in its compressed half-hour adaptation. In addition to the film story winning its 1941 Oscar, Milland had more recently won the 1945 Oscar for best actor in “The Lost Weekend.” Reprising his role in “Arise My Love” one more time with its truncated script might have felt a bit like a war hangover. But, here it is, thanks to the Old Time Radio Researchers collection of “Academy Award” recordings.
The “Illyria Box Lunch” episode of “Rogers of the Gazette” is quite a package… Small-town journalism, small-town romance, mysterious thefts, a writing lecture, and a pickled peach… and all in a half hour!
Newspaper editor Will Rogers Jr has a run-in with the older gentleman who sleeps in the corner of the pressroom and prints his weekly newspaper. This time he doesn’t like Will’s editorial.
“Every so often I think you’re going to make the grade and then you turn around and write a watered down pussyfooting thing like that…”
The old printer’s name is John Reed or Reid (I’ll look that up), and he has some of the fire of another newspaperman by that name, the one who went off and wrote about the Russian Revolution.
I think I’m going to go back through episodes of “Rogers of The Gazette” and see if I can piece together more of the story of Mr. Rogers’ cantankerous friend and, it seems, mentor.
Less than a year after the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on Japan, young listeners to “The Adventures of Superman” radio serial heard of another dictatorship’s threat to destroy American cities with 100 planes loaded with atom bombs.
But most of the summer 1946 14-day story had little to do with the Man of Steel zooming to the rescue in his blue suit and red cape. As was often the case in the radio series, the comic-strip-like daily serial featured reporters Clark Kent and Lois Lane tracking down a story, in this case with the assistance of a Daily Planet country correspondent (and correspondence-school detective) named Horatio Horn, as well as Planet editor Perry White.
Not only is there a lot of shoe-leather reporting in the story, The Daily Planet newspaper itself plays a central role in solving a mystery, reminding us that the Golden Age of Radio was also a golden age for newspapers, when a subscription to the local daily even seemed part of being an American.
— At this point, if you want to avoid “spoilers,” go listen to all 14 episodes of the radio story, in the Internet Archive collection of Superman episodes. (The fast-forward button on your MP3 player may come in handy with the two minutes of Kellogg’s Pep commercials and announcements at the beginning of each 15-minute program, and another minute at the end. That way the whole story takes a little under three hours.) See the link here or at the bottom of this page.
A Newspaper Quiz
An immigrant family’s reliance on newspaper for news and entertainment was a key in the solution to this July 1946 Adventures of Superman mystery. With a nuclear attack on America hanging in the balance, Clark Kent, reporter, had gone through a series of “expert sources” at university foreign language departments, trying to decipher the only clue in the kidnapping of the nation’s leading atomic scientist.
Between their Kellogg’s Pep commercials, young listeners to the daily radio series — itself modeled on a newspaper comic strip — would have followed the dogged Daily Planet reporters and learned together about linguistic research specialties like philology and etymology, as Kent and his friends interviewed experts from university to university and pored through reference books… while the physics professor held out against torturers in a distant land.
In episodes 11 through 14, the reporters’ word-mystery alternates with the scientist’s ordeal at the hands of his captors’ in that mysterious foreign land. (For the first 10 episodes, the mystery had been his disappearance and abduction.)
In the 11th of 14 episodes, Horatio F. Horn, Daily Planet correspondent, corroborated by reporter Lois Lane, remembers overhearing the kidnapper Carlos berating his driver as “a fool, an idiot, and a zaluto” for letting them escape. It is their first clue to his home country.
Have you forgotten you’re a newspaperwoman, Lois?
First step: Research!
Lois: “It must be a word of his language, so if we can trace that, Clark…”
Kent: “Let’s get going. We’ll get ahold of all the foreign language dictionaries and hunt through them…”
Lois: “Wait a minute, where are we going to find foreign language dictionaries at this hour. It’s a quarter to six in the morning.”
Kent: “So what! Have you forgotten you’re a newspaperwoman, Lois? We’ll go see Charlie Sims at the New Orleans Times; he’ll let us in their library.”
And quite the pre-Internet research library the newspaper has! The three reporters scour books from the Balkans, middle European countries, the Far East, Central and South American, before something dawns on them.
“‘Zaluto’ may be idiomatic,” Kent tells the group, “… in pretty general use in the country, but not accepted as a standard part of the language…
“Like ‘groovy’ or ‘dreamboat,’a lot of our youngsters use those words all the time, but you won’t find them in our dictionaries.”
That sends them off to a philologist, who eventually recommends an etymologist. But even he can’t figure out the origins of the word “zaluto.”
That’s when a virtual lightbulb goes on over Kent’s head, and he races to editor Perry White with an idea for a newspaper “Define-the-Word” contest. In the nation’s largest city of immigrants, maybe someone will recognize the word from their small foreign country! And he’s right, although there are a few complications before the contest winner arrives at the editor’s office, and Superman zooms off to battle a fleet of nuclear bombers.
The contest does reach a man who knows the local slang word from his country. He and his wife are dedicated Daily Planet readers. He is chuckling over the “Mutt & Jeff” cartoon in his first scene in the story. (I wonder if “Mutt & Jeff” and “Superman” comic strips had the same distributor!) But the newspaper’s generous — for 1946 — $100 prize for anyone identifying the word distracts him from both the news and the comics.
Episode 14 has a colorful description of Superman’s attack on the nuclear bombers, ending with — as was always the case — the start of new adventure.
And here’s a Super Bonus … that Page 9 of the Internet Archive collection also has the full sets of a some other 1946 Adventures of Superman, including two of his biggest Post-World-War-II battles against hatred and intolerance at home, “The Hate Mongers Association” and “The Klan of the Fiery Cross,” both of which I’ve written about in the past.
As a journalism “procedural” to discuss in a media studies class, it is not bad at all. We hear them being sent on assignment, driving to the location of the news story, arguing a bit, and dealing with a corrupt businessman who has special reasons for not wanting them to investigate his industrial accident, which took 13 lives.
Unlike the Superman movies of later decades, the 1940s radio adventures — during a golden age for comic books, radio and newspapers — showed more of Clark and Lois as reporters pursuing news stories, and running into mysteries along the way. Only a few of the radio serial adventures approached the digital-special-effects-movie “Superman saves the world from super-villains (and destroys cities in the process)” proportions of the more recent decades.
The attempted journalism-realism in this story includes the two colleagues being competitive reporters, with “Miss Lane” particularly convinced that “Mr. Kent” is up to steal the biggest part of the assignment for his own byline. (The way they sometimes do and sometimes don’t, call each other “Miss” and “Mister” could be someone’s master’s thesis on “Code-switching with honorifics, or inconsistent script-writing?”)
At their destination, Lois and Clark split up to use two distinct reporting styles… Lane goes off to interview a principal source, the factory owner, while Kent goes to inspect the scene the explosion, a ine-man CSI team.
Kent, of course, is Superman, so when a thug lies to him and tries to send him on a fake detour, he has his own way of finding the truth… defending himself from what would have been a deadly attack had he not been “super,” then threatening the gunsel with bodily harm.
Later, he appears to have super powers of persuasion when, encountering the same thug working as factory watchman, he insists he is not a reporter, but a traveling tie salesman.
Lois Lane has no superpowers and falls victim to the main villain of the story, the factory owner, who takes direct action against her and Kent when they get too close to his secret. (He binds and gags Lois, while he sends his gunman off to intercept Clark at the ruins of the doll factory… creating cliffhanger situations as transitions between the daily episodes that were then the format for The Adventures of Superman.)
As investigative reporters in a 1940 drama, Kent and Lane also cooperate with the police and are treated as fellow investigators by the police chief. Was such close cooperation actually common between 1940s police and newspaper reporters? It certainly does pop up as a theme in the Adventures of Superman, the Green Hornet, and even some more adult crime-drama series on the radio.
Audio files of the series are presented here via the Old Time Radio Researchers Group library, otrrlibrary.org
In 1956, NBC radio’s “Biographies in Sound” featured veteran radio news commentator H.V. Kaltenborn and radio satirists Bob & Ray in the episode above, paying tribute to the first 30 years of commercial radio — news, music, drama and more. The Internet Archive has a copy stored on its own page: Recollections at Thirty. Broadcast news is only a small part of the history capsule, but I like the coincidence that “-30-” is the old newspaper symbol for the end of a story, a fine time for “Recollections,” and coincidentally that I stumbled on this during a day spent exploring the past of this website of mine.
I found this program today while double-checking my link to another “Biographies in Sound” episode — one that didn’t play correctly on my page — having discovered the error while I was making a guest presentation to a journalism class. Some old code needed updating, causing me to notice in the process that I have an anniversary of my own approaching: In December this site will be nine years old!
Anyhow, I’m grateful for the chance to talk about this project and the excuse to put in an afternoon of editing. I’m afraid I rambled around as much as this page does. And my editing is a bit random, too. But everything I’ve added or refreshed probably could use proofreading — maybe the students who are reading this, trying to make sense of my class presentation, will hit the “comment” button below let me know if they see any bad links, bad metaphors, or incomplete thoughts. I’ll check the comments tomorrow, hoping they don’t wait until they are on deadline. One of the refreshing things about writing this site as a retirement hobby is the lack of deadlines, or of a regular publication schedule. I forgot to mention that.
There were so many things I didn’t mention in that class presentation, beyond playing a few snippets of Superman, Frontier Gentleman, Rogers of the Gazette, and Night Beat, stumping the professor with a question about Anna Zenger, and explaining the menu structure at the top of the page and the location of the “About the Author” page that explains how and why I started what began as academic research and has since become a retirement hobby.
I figure that list of links should give the journalism students more than enough to supplement their notes on my show-and-tell presentation… at least the ones who stop back at this page before they write a story for the professor’s eyes only. I’m especially glad that I’m not the one who will have to grade them.
The professor asked how many radio shows I’ve written about, and I mumbled a bit about not keeping count. But he said numbers might help his students describe the extent of the project, so I’ve counted a few things for them: There are 198 date-stamped “blog posts” here, like this one, each usually discussing just one or two episodes of a radio series; and there are about 70 longer “pages” listed on the drop-down menus at the top of the screen, most of them compiled from earlier blog posts, including one that lists almost 60 “newspaper movies” that were redone in radio versions (some more than once), and other pages that go into details about radio serials like “The Green Hornet” and “Superman,” which each broadcast hundreds of episodes where newspaper reporters were described doing their jobs, getting in and out of trouble, and — at least sometimes — being heroes… which is how this website got its two names, “Newspaper Heroes on the Air” and “jheroes.com” for short.
(If you are reading this on a full-screen Web browser, not a smartphone, the right margin carries a chronological index going back to the first episode, from December 2010. I don’t suggest that the students start there and read all 198 blog posts and 70 “pages” of essays, listening to hundreds of hours of radio. And I guess I can hold off for a year on doing my own nostalgic read-through, then have a big tenth-year celebration — after I do a lot more editing.)
In addition to providing an oldtime radio dramatization of the life of newspaperman turned reteller of folktales Joel Chandler Harris, the Internet Archive has his works and biography, including the volume shown above.
His red hair is mentioned several times in his radio portrait on DuPont Cavalcade of America in 1941, which introduces Harris as a shy, stuttering and insecure young man, far from the brash, confident stereotype of a journalist.
Perhaps listeners also were reminded that 19th and 20th century newspapers provided a steady paycheck for writers whose literary interests were broader than page one news.
Radio writing served that function too: The script was by playwright Arthur Miller, who contributed more than a dozen profiles to Cavalcade. He also spent some time in the South making recordings for the Library of Congress (see this BBC interview) around the same time that he was writing this radio play about the 19th-century story collector. Were the two connected? My research into this continues and this essay will be updated if I find out more. (Thanks to radio historian Randy Riddle for pointing out the BBC story.)
The Cavalcade radioplay doesn’t preach about “cultural appropriation” or race relations in its portrayal of Harris’s “Uncle Remus” African-American folktales, but it does have a message of brotherhood and wartime internationalism, mentioning how widely accepted those Bre’r Rabbit stories were, translated into more than 20 languages.
When Harris meets a crowd of children at the White House, they are disappointed not to meet an old black storyteller. Harris, reflecting, says he is happy to have written himself out of the story, and that “America has got to remember her roots, the plain people.”
That those plain people come in all colors goes without saying. The closest the broadcast comes to discussing race relations is Harris’s plea for “good-neighborliness” and the “kindliness and comradeship” that allowed the friendship of “an old colored man and a little boy.”
Produced less than two years after “Gone with the Wind,” the radioplay makes no statements about the evils of slavery or the Civil War, and hints at a romantic “plantation” image of the South in its opening scene. Five years later, Walt Disney would produce his still-controversial “Song of the South,” based on Harris’s “Uncle Remus” stories, and criticized from the start for stereotyped black characters and dialect, and romanticized Reconstruction Era plantation life. (I haven’t seen the film in years, but its Wikipedia entry mentions that the father whose absence leads his young son to Uncle Remus is an “absent father” because of his newspaper job!)
In the radioplay, Karl Swenson plays Harris, and Juano Hernandez plays Uncle Terrell, his source for the Brer Rabbit tales, which Terrell tells him may have “come over on the slaver ships from Africa.”
When not preserving folk tales, Harris (1848-1908) rose to be an associate editor of The Atlanta Constitution, but his “Uncle Remus” stories were what made him an international celebrity — and guest of Teddy Roosevelt at the White House. Another former newspaperman, Mark Twain, makes an appearance in that scene, helping the shy Harris accept some of the honor due him.
While referring to “dialect stories” hints at stereotypes and the racist minstrel stage (the original Zip Coon and Jim Crow), Harris’s representation of dialect has been called “extraordinarily accurate” in a linguistics journal, and the African-American Registry online encyclopedia calls Harris “one of the first American authors to use dialect to provide an important record of Black oral folktales in the Southeastern United States.”
In 2019, the launch of Disney’s streaming video network prompted numerous articles about the racism of “Song of the South,” which was not included in the online service, including an in-depth “You Must Remember This” podcast that revisited Harris’s legacy as a recorder of folk stories who did not credit his sources by name.
“I had a letter of introduction to him after I went to Atlanta,” he said. “One day I decided to present it. Walking to his office, I passed by a grocery store that had on display out front the drying fingers of a recently lynched Negro…”
“I saw those fingers…I didn’t go to see Joel Harris and present my letter. I never went!”
In that The Atlantic interview by Ralph McGill, DuBois said Harris and his turn-of-the-century Atlanta associates “had no question in their minds about the status of the Negro as a separated, lesser citizen. They perhaps were kind men… (But) They unhesitatingly lived up to a paternalistic role, a sort of noblesse oblige. But that was all. The status slowly had become immutable insofar as the South’s leaders of that time were concerned.”
For more on the Cavalcade series, see Martin Grams Jr.’s The History of the Cavalcade of America presented by DuPont.
J. B. Kendall, 19th century American wild west correspondent for the London Times, had his fictional career cut short when the CBS Radio series Frontier Gentleman wrapped up at the end of its 1958 season.
But star John Dehner’s last episode was a marvelous example of the traditional newspaperman’s ability to “get out of the way of a story”… with Kendall concisely narrating a column of short scenes, what we would call “news briefs” or ” people in the news” items.
Kendall’s introduction: “It occurs to me that in this, my last report to the London Times, there are many incidents which I have omitted — things seen and heard during these several months on my journeys through the American West. Here then, some random notes.”
Some might have been worth a full story, if there had been time, and others may have been best suited to the brief splash of color format given here. For example, the Texas Othello item in the middle of the broadcast might have turned unbearable if given the full half-hour. But I may be wrong.
The “briefs” format was not uncommon for 20th century newspaper columns, including those of Walter Winchell, or even my first contribution to a college newspaper, and a daily “People in the News” feature I compiled for The Hartford Courant while segueing off to grad school about a century after the scene of “Frontier Gentleman.”