by Bob Stepno
Begun in 2010, this is still a work in progress, with some repeated information and links in need of updates in 2022 due to the coming and going of web sites and a major research project about the series.
For eight years on radio and nine on television, “The Big Story” series dramatized hundreds of reporters’ “how I got the story” tales, primarily murder cases and other major crimes. Its tobacco company sponsor presented each real-life reporter with a $500 “Pall Mall Award for The Big Story.” The series challenged singer Bing Crosby’s hit variety show in popularity.
Stories often credited the journalist with uncovering a clue to a crime or going undercover to get the story, but they also emphasized police-press cooperation. For example, in the seventh episode, Detroit Times reporter Ruth Montgomery is asked by the police to pass herself off as a member of a secret society to investigate “The Black Legion Murder.” While the names were changed in the radio dramas, the actual 1936-1937 criminal cases were well known — and had already inspired a feature film with Humphrey Bogart before Montgomery’s 1947 Big Story episode.
Thanks to the national tobacco lawsuit settlement, archived copies of the program’s scripts are more readily available than her original newspaper stories. Her Detroit Evening Times disappeared in a 1960 merger.
Accounts of the murder Montgomery covered are among hundreds of Black Legion stories available in The New York Times, The Detroit News, and in wire service accounts, such as those preserved in Google’s news archive of scanned papers from as far afield as Nashua, N.H., Spartansburg, S.C., the Milwaukee, Hopkinsville, Ky. and Bend, Ore.
According to “The Black Legion Murder” script, not only was the killer found guilty after Montgomery’s original story, but 22 leaders of the secret group were indicted for subversive activities. The implication is that Montgomery’s clues to the identity of the murdered man contributed to the convictions, although it’s unclear what value her undercover work added. (See episode 7 in the “Big Story program archive 001-013” PDF file at the Oldtime Radio Researchers.)
An audio recording of the broadcast is not available, but the script is colorful and dramatic, and does parallel the facts of the murder case: Black Legion members were convicted of shooting a W.P.A. worker, claiming that the man was being punished for abusing his wife — an accusation both he and she denied. (Ruth Montgomery’s Detroit Times is gone, but another paper, The Detroit News, once had an online history page on the Black Legion cases, with photos of members with black robes, hoods, pirate-looking hats, whips and other weapons. Here is an Internet Archive copy of the newspaper blog article.)
The script begins with an announcer describing Ruth’s arrival at a city morgue with a list of missing persons, facing the usual “They shouldn’t send a girl on a man’s job” banter with a police lieutenant…
Lieutenant: “Mike — roll the tarp away from his face — what’s left of it. (Pause.) Okay, Ruth. Had enough?”
Ruth: (She certainly has.) Uh-huh. I — that’s enough…”
Announcer: That riddled, grotesque corpse is the beginning of tonight’s Big Story, presented by Pall Mall famous cigarettes…
You are Ruth Montgomery, just rounding out your first six months on your first big city paper — The Detroit Times. The City editor’s had you take a gander at an unknown corpse found in a Dearborn gully — with five bullet holes in it. You’ve had your look — and two cups of black coffee — and now, armed with a list of missing persons, plus some dope the cops gave you at the scene, you’re following an interne down the corridor of a ward in Kiefer Hospital… — Episode #7 script, May 14, 1947
(The story wasn’t Montgomery’s last contact with the dead. After 40 years in journalism, including becoming the first woman in the New York Daily News Washington bureau and writing a nationally syndicated column, she became a “new age” psychic, writing books about spiritualism, past lives and more.)
From its start in April 1947, The Big Story called itself “a thrilling new series of exciting and authentic accounts of newspaper reporters working on real life-and-death stories.” The first Pall Mall Award went, the script said, “to Joseph Garretson of the Cincinnati Enquirer, for his heroism, daring, and intelligence in helping solve the thrilling case of ‘The Kid and the Box.'” (The “as broadcast” script has the words “helping solve” written over the word “solving.”)
All names were changed except those of the reporters, and liberties are taken with the adaptations — including dialogue between murderers and their victims — in the interest of radio drama. If the series is to believed, it was a simpler time for police reporters, who were given priority access to crime scenes, joined in on raids, beat the police to clues, and were even asked for help getting a confession out a particularly hard nut to crack.
That’s the role Dorothy Kilgallen plays in “The Bobby Sox Kid from Bayonne,” although the grilling takes a feminine touch — and the loan of a powder puff — to get the teenage killer to tell all.
In the episode, “Murder and a Frustrated Father,” when United Press reporter Sam Melnick and a police officer approach a murder suspect, the policeman asks Melnick if he is carrying a gun, hands him a flashlight instead, and later credits Melnick with saving his life by flashing the light in the gunman’s eyes. Melnick’s comment at the end indicates that the man shot himself, which is not part of the dramatization.
Nolan Bullock of the Tulsa Tribune is introduced in the 1949 episode “Three Coins Spell Death” as working as “an undercover agent for the state crime bureau,” negotiating for shipment of bootleg liquor, when the murder case pops up. He’s also described as “a reporter with a flattened nose, and you got it by sticking it consistently into other people’s business.” The dead man and the bootleggers, of course, wind up being the same story.
Sometimes the reporter’s tricks of the trade are part of the focus — such as the Denver Post‘s Bernard Beckwith holding a small-town telephone line occupied so that it would be available when he had the lead for his story.
Each night’s featured reporter accepted a cash prize from the program’s tobacco sponsors, Pall Mall or Lucky Strike, usually making an acceptance statement by telegram at the end of the show, complete with “telegraphese” lack of superfluous words like “the” and “an,” recounting later developments in the case.
Because of the program’s American Tobacco Company affiliation and the federal settlement of tobacco lawsuits, the University of California at San Francisco tobacco advertising archives and other archives have full program scripts, sometimes with information about cast and crew, such as The Old Time Radio Researchers’ Big Story scripts collection.
Few of the reporters were well-known then, and less so today, with possible exceptions like Dorothy Kilgallen, a nationally syndicated columnist and radio and TV celebrity in the 1950s and ’60s — although her “Big Story” was a hatchet-murder jailhouse interview from her early days as a New York Evening Journal reporter.
Famed newspaper and radio columnist Walter Winchell also was featured on a Big Story episode, played by actor Ward Wilson in “The Case of the Cornered Cat,” Sept. 17, 1947.
Far from “breaking news,” these anthology dramas sometimes dipped deep into the pasts of the reporters in question, and just how far back is not mentioned in the presentation. One 1950s televised episode about tabloid publisher Emile Gauvreau of the New York Evening Graphic reached back to his first newspaper job in New Haven, Conn., about 30 years earlier.
John Dunning’s 1976 book Tune in yesterday: The ultimate encyclopedia of old-time radio, 1925-1976 (p.88) says producer Bernard J. Prockter was inspired by a Newsweek article about a newspaper investigation that led to the pardoning of a man who had been convicted of murder 14 years earlier. When I first read it, that sounded to me like the plot of “Call Northside 777.” In fact, it was the same 1945 Chicago Times investigation. It became a radio series audition production under the name “Feature Assignment,” a script eventually adapted as the fifth episode of The Big Story, according to Joe Webb’s terrific “The Stories Behind ‘The Big Story'” project. That fifth Big Story, April 30, 1947, was titled “The Man Without a Name.” The “as broadcast” script is part of the tobacco settlement script collection, and the audition broadcast has been added to the Internet Archive as part of Webb’s project. The “Feature Assignment” recording is fascinating to compare with the “Big Story” script. Both framed the presentation as an “award” to the reporter, but “Feature Assignment” still used the real names of people involved with the story. It included a closing scene of a re-enacted award presentation to reporter James McGuire at the end, while “Big Story” settled for the reading of a “telegram” from McGuire with essentially the same message — modestly sharing the credit with another reporter and their city editor.
“Many reporters who won the Big Story award looked back at the show with a mixture of affection and amusement,” Dunning wrote. “Their stories were highly dramatized, often to the extent that the subjects had trouble recognizing themselves on the air.”
The folks at DigitalDeliFTP did their usual excellent job checking newspaper listings, Billboard Magazine and more to create “The Definitive The Big Story Radio Log” webpage identifying cast members, announcers, directors and plot points for 381 episodes. (The link goes to an Internet Archive “Wayback Machine” copy of the page, because the original may be offline.)
Early radio collector J. David Goldin’s archive describes 29 episodes in his collection of notes on The Big Story, now part of a database project at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, including cast lists and production information. Reading the Big Story notes may require searching from the “Browse by Program” search on the front page of the database, whose interface is sometimes updated.
The Old Time Radio Researchers Group’s OTRRpedia page on The Big Story in summer 2012 listed 37 episodes as being generally available, while its Old Time Radio Researchers Group log listed 383 episodes as having been broadcast between 1947 and 1955.
The source of the Internet Archive’s The Big Story MP3 files is listed as the Times Past Old Time Radio blog. Some include podcast-style introductions, along with the typographical errors to be expected with collectors traded tapes with hand-written labels. (For example, Sam Melnick of United Press is identified as “Sam Metnick.”)
Some, such as the Melnick episode, are recordings of rebroadcasts by Armed Forces Radio, minus the tobacco advertising.
The James Fusco episode, broadcast June 4, 1947, includes a spoken introduction by the reporter himself, apparently added while he tape recorded the broadcast over the air from a Cleveland station. He identifies the 1929 “Snook-Hicks” murder case that the story was based on. How his tape recording made its way into the archives of old-time-radio collectors is not mentioned.
The Internet Archive hosts a collection of 22 MP3 recordings of episodes of The Big Story from the Times Past Old Time Radio blog and podcast. At this writing (August 2012), the collection can be difficult to find because the series title is concatenated as “BigStoryThe,” hiding it from search engines. I’ve added newspaper names to the list and may add biographical and historical information as I track down details. The MP3 players link to the Internet Archive collection (the “MB” numbers are the original MP3 file sizes). I’ve added episode numbers after cross-checking the file names with the OTRRPedia list.
- 10 The Thirteenth Key (James Fusco, Columbus Citizen) 5.7 MB
- 27 The Case of the Counterfeit Coins (Jack Adams, Los Angeles Examiner) 6.6 MB
- 29 The Bobby-Sox Kid from Bayonne (Dorothy Kilgallen, New York Journal) 6.7 MB
- 35 The Case of the Unfinished Love Song (Howard Beaufait, Cleveland News) 6.6 MB
- 37 The Case of the Final Curtain (Aubrey Maddock, The Hartford Courant) 13.2 MB
- 38 The Case of the Ambitious Hobo (Russell Wilson, DesMoines Tribune) 15.0 MB
- 41 Manhunt in Manhattan (Ted Prager, New York Daily News) 6.0 MB
- 58 Pillars of Society (William Miller, Cleveland Press) 13.3 MB
- 60 The Deadline Murder (Rolf K Mills, Minneapolis Morning Tribune) 13.2 MB
- 69 The Lottery Racket (Keeler McCartney, Atlanta Constitution) 13.5 MB
- 93 Murderous Kid (Al Aaronson, Louisville Courier Journal) 6.7 MB; after hearing the testimony of a dying victim, the reporter leads police to a cold-blooded killer who shipped himself to Knoxville in a packing crate to escape.
- 96 Jig Saw (Joseph Wirges, Little Rock Gazette) 6.4 MB
- 102 Respected Chemist Dead (Ike McAnally, Cleveland News) 13.9 MB
- 115 The Bitterest Man On the Earth (Julian C Houseman, Richmond News Leader) 6.7 MB
- 142 Three Coins Spell Death (Nolan Bullock, Tulsa Tribune) 11.5 MB
- 145 Murder and a Frustrated Father (Sam Melnick, United Press, Kansas City) 11.6 MB
- 146 Gambling, Divorce and Murder (Frank McCulloch, Reno Gazette) 5.6 MB
- 172 Hunch That Paid Off (Bill Griffith, Youngstown Vindicator) 6.6 MB
- 192 Triple Murder (T R Johnson, Salt Lake Tribune) 5.2 MB
- 193 Paul Gray’s Missing Wife (Bernard Beckwith, Denver Post) 12.2 MB
- 260 To Avenge a Murder (Alan Cowperthwaite, Helena, Mont., Independent Record) 6.6 MB
- 337 Too Terrible To Be Believed (Arthur Mielke, Washington Times Herald) 6.1 MB
Research materials: More archived episodes and documents
The Big Story was sponsored by Pall Mall cigarettes, whose archives became public record when the tobacco-cancer connection literally made a federal case of tobacco advertising. Tobacco industry court settlement documents once had their own website at “tobaccodocuments.org” (a site whose name was resurrected by an unrelated French company), and as mentioned above were later relocated to the University of California San Francisco, where they can be searched as part of an “Industry Documents” site. The documents include thousands of pages of scripts and correspondence about The Big Story on radio and television. Copies of the scripts also have been made downloadable by the Old Time Radio Researchers group.
The Generic Radio Workshop has added several episodes of The Big Story to its collection of radio scripts and transcripts in a more readable format than the large PDF files from the tobacco-documents scanners.
In 2014, the Old Time Radio Researchers Group updated its collection of The Big Story episodes at the Internet Archive, with a Singles-player page of 38 individual episodes and a “Certified Collection” page with two ZIP-compressed files of those 38 programs, plus notes and scripts that were originally part of the “Tobacco Documents” collection. (The 383 optically scanned scripts are collected in 30 PDF “volumes,” each more than 300 pages. They are also available at the OldTime Radio Researchers website script archive.)
In 2021, another working group within the Oldtime Radio Researchers created a series of memorial pages at the Internet Archive for pioneer collector Joe Hehn, digitizing and uploading discs and tapes from his collection — including seven episodes of The Big Story, one of which became the topic of my first JHeroes blog post of 2021.
Episode discussions (previously posted as blog entries):
Arsenic and Old Headlines is my favorite episode of The Big Story because it featured the newspaper where my journalism career began, and a real-life story that led to one of my favorite old movies, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” which adds a newspaper theater critic to the very “loosely based-on” story. The Big Story episode also illustrates how the series dipped into the past for newspaper tales that made good radio.
Here’s a repeat from the blog format, originally posted as part of an International Women’s Day entry…
The real-life reporter is Dorothy Kilgallen, then of the New York Evening Journal, later of Hearst’s Journal-American and national syndication as a Broadway gossip columnist. In this early incarnation as a crime reporter — probably a decade before the 1947 broadcast, she is interviewing a teenager suspected of taking an axe to her mother. Kilgallen is played by actress Janet Fox.
This portrayal of a woman reporter at work may be true, but certainly fits the stereotypes of the day — sending another woman to get a 17-year-old female suspect to talk by loaning her a compact to powder her nose.
“I just might come up with something, you know, ‘just between us girls,'” she tells the police.
As a “procedural,” the reporter’s manipulative interview with the teenager might be worth discussing in a “reporting techniques” or ethics class, but a lot of the dialogue is hard to take with a straight face — even before the line, “I’m just wacky about mayonnaise!” (Or the revelation that “Temptation” is her favorite song.)
In the 1930s Kilgallen had repeated Nellie Bly’s round-the-world stunt and wrote a book about it, but “The Big Story” was more interested in crime reports. By the time of this broadcast, Kilgallen had gone on to be a famous columnist and co-host of the married-couple-chat radio show, “Breakfast with Dorothy and Dick” with her husband, actor and producer Richard Kollmar. In the ’50s she would add TV panel-show celebrity to her credentials.
Ironically, while she was once known as “America’s most famous crime reporter,” Kilgallen’s own death resulted in articles, books and — for a time — an ongoing “Kilgallen Files” blog — after her stories on the death of President Kennedy and related conspiracy theories.
Another woman reporter — not as well-known as Kilgallen, was featured in a “sob sister” episode of The Big Story, raising funds to help the family of a dying child in the story I’ve written about as News that depends on people. It’s a departure from the usual crime-busters format of the program, and maybe I’ll get around to checking the research files and scripts to see just how common that was, and how many women reporters were featured over the history of the series.
2020 update: During the decade that this page has been sitting here waiting for me to consolidate my previous blog posts and pay more attention to The Big Story, radio historian Joe Webb has been researching “The Stories Behind The Big Story,” and publishing his findings at a website by that name.
JHeroes page first published 12/23/2010