by Bob Stepno
Almost 100 episodes of Biographies in Sound are online at the Internet Archive.
The NBC series, running from 1954 through 1958, included journalists and former journalists more famous for other aspects of their careers in literature, criticism or broadcasting. If they were still alive — or if their voices had been recorded — “Biographies in Sound” wove them into its audio documentaries.
Churchill’s statesmanship and Hemingway’s fiction, for instance, were enough to leave journalism out of their radio biographies. Franklin P. Adams’ popular verse and radio quiz show career might have done the job, 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.
The documentary-style program used archival audio of the person being profiled as well as interviewing other prominent sources. 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 added links to biographical sites for comparison with the broadcasts until I get around to writing expanded entries about each of the following:
- Winston Churchill (Compare Churchill as journalist)
- Carl Sandburg (Compare Sandburg as journalist)
- George Bernard Shaw (Wikipedia and the Nobel Prizes)
- Ernest Hemingway (Compare Hemingway as journalist.)
- F.P. Adams (See F.P.A.’s Wikipedia biography.)
- Grantland Rice (New World Encyclopedia entry on the famous sportswriter. )
- Sinclair Lewis (Told the Nobel committee, “I drifted for two years as a journalist.”)
- Robert Benchley (Career summary at NYTimes.com.)
- Alexander Woollcott, November 1956. (Wikipedia bio)
- H.L. Mencken (b. Sept. 12, 1880, d. Jan. 29, 1956), “The Bitter Byline,” broadcast July 1956. For a radio comparison with NBC’s Biographies in Sound, listen to CBS Radio Workshop’s dramatized biography, “Bring on the Angels,” broadcast a month earlier. Described as an affectionate revival of his earlier writing, it captures his love of newspapering, “with a typewriter, a spitoon of my own, and a beat.” For more resources, see The Mencken Society.
- Ernie Pyle (Indiana University Pyle resource page.)
Information about the series:
- Time magazine article about “Biographies in Sound” (subscribers only)
- Digital Deli Too page about Biographies in Sound
Digital Deli also mentions a Heywood Broun episode that, alas, is not in the archive.
While not exactly a biography, “Biographies in Sound” also included a 1956 episode on the history of radio itself, narrated by pioneer newscaster H.V. Kaltenborn, under the titles “A Salute to Radio” and “Recollections at 30.” That’s a reference to 30 years of 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 “Biographies in Sound,” it was titled “I Remember Kaltenborn”: