Biography in Sound

by Bob Stepno

Almost 100 hours of NBC’s Biography in Sound series, 1954-1958, are online in various collections at the Internet Archive. Radio collector and historian Jerry Haendiges’ log lists 95 available broadcasts and several that are known but unavailable, including profiles of newsman Heywood Broun and columnist-entertainer Will Rogers.

The show told the life stories of famous men and women, from movie stars to presidents, including a few journalists and several former newspaper reporters better known for other aspects of their careers in entertainment, literature, politics, criticism or broadcasting.

Churchill’s statesmanship and Hemingway’s fiction, for instance, were enough to squeeze any mention of journalism out of their radio biographies. Newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams’ popular verse and radio quiz show career might have done the same, but his poem about being a journalist makes the connection inescapable:

Journalism’s a shrew and a scold. I like her.
She makes you sick, she makes you old. I like her.
She’s daily trouble, storm and strife.
She’s love and hate, and death and life.
She ain’t no lady. She is my wife.
I like her. — F.P.A.

While “Biography in Sound” occasionally took on a broader documentary theme (“The Atom: Menace and Progress”), most of the broadcasts were personal profiles that interviewed friends, colleagues and critics as well as incorporating archival audio of the person being profiled or dramatic readings from their works. For example, you can hear newspaperman and magazine editor H.L. Mencken being caustic in his own voice, but you also hear novelists (James T. Farrell), journalists (Alistair Cooke) and historians (William Manchester) praising his respect for truth, his championing of young writers, his use of language, his hand-washing habits, and his feelings about Germany and Hitler.

I’ve let many of these broadcasts stand on their own here, with links to biographical sites for comparison with the audio, until I get around to listening to more episodes. The MP3 files are from one of several collections at the Internet Archive:

Information about the series:

  • A 1955 Time magazine article on the strengths of “Biography in Sound”, while reviewing a profile of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “a poignant re-creation of the tragic life and happy times of one of the most gifted American writers of the 20th century. It also showed off radio at its nonvisual, imaginative best. In the same field, television, with all its gaudy resources, might have distorted a story that simple words and music truly evoked. Biographies, a sustaining show with a tiny budget of $500 per program, started as a one-shot with a biography of Winston Churchill. It was so good that the show went on a regular basis last December and has been going strong ever since.”
  • Digital Deli Too log and review of Biography in Sound, available via the Internet Archive.
    “NBC News had the extraordinary advantage of access to tens of thousands of recordings, interview clips, historic soundbites, and resources from which to draw to assemble these hour-long portraits. It goes without saying that the subjects of Biography In Sound were amazingly accomplished people. The genius of Biography In Sound is how viscerally the series brings these personalities alive. Seen through the prisms of both their closest friends and most severe critics, the series humanizes each of these personalities in ways not even the most prosaic eulogy or obituary ever could. Indeed, even Serge Rubinstein, in spite of his life of personal and business scandals, was accorded the Biography In Sound treatment.”
  • Spartacus profile of Broun, via the Internet Archive

In its broader documentary-entertainment mode, “Biography in Sound” included a 1956 episode on the history of radio itself, narrated by pioneer newscaster H.V. Kaltenborn, archived under the titles “A Salute to Radio” and “Recollections at 30.” That’s a reference to 30 years of network broadcasting, not the “–30–” endmark on newspaper copy, although Kaltenborn first stepped up to the microphone for the Brooklyn Eagle. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether soundbites within the program are actual transcriptions of historic recordings or studio re-creations. In 1952, NBC had already broadcast a 30-year retrospective on the 74-year-old announcer and commentator’s own career, a program full of historical clips and including the earliest use of the term “anchor man” that I’ve noticed. Not officially part of “Biography in Sound,” it was titled “I Remember Kaltenborn”:

Biography in Sound online collections

Created Apr 8, 2012; last update Nov. 22, 2021

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