By Bob Stepno
(A work in progress, please check back for updates)
Radio may have been “the new media” to the newspaper’s “old media” during the 1930s and ’40s, but radio dramatic series still captured the reality of newspapers in American life — not just the lives of reporters, but the ubiquitous presence of the newspaper in the average person’s life — from a curly-headed orphan finding her birthday in the local daily to a college president facing an editorial controversy in the school paper (see the last item on this page). As Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley had put it a few decades before, the newspaper for many years was “ivrything” to its readers.
The same Internet Archive that holds the shared treasures of hundreds of old-time radio collectors also presents this gem, a New York Daily News documentary about a 1945 newspaper delivery strike. It’s a great reminder of how big a part of daily life the newspaper was at the time.
Available from the Prelinger collection of “ephemeral film” at archive.org, “Seventeen Days” is a New York Daily News color documentary about a New York City newspaper delivery drivers’ strike in 1945, especially interesting to media historians because the strike showed how strongly readers’ valued their favorite newspapers.
The clip above gives the film credits and strike background, and starts to show striking images of endless lines of would-be readers flocking to newspaper offices for over-the-counter sales. And people today think the Internet is addictive! Not only was it the final summer of World War II, it was an era when, as the narrator says:
“Part of this normal life was newspapers, taken as a matter of course by everyone, so regular and complete a part of normal everyday living that finding newspapers on the newsstands, buying them morning and night, was taken pretty much for granted.”
In 1945, the narrator points out, New York City still had eight major daily newspapers, and there were 14,000 newsstands on the city’s streets to sell them. He notes that the 17-day strike was “the time of all times for radio,” but adds that even with expanded newscasts, radio wasn’t enough for the news-hungry audience. The first clip finishes with statistics about direct sales to readers who came to the Herald Tribune printing plant to get the paper.
In the second clip, switchboard operators at The Herald Tribune take calls from information-starved readers, while customers line up at The Journal American and the Mirror, in the marble foyer of The Sun and for blocks along shadowy side-streets by the World-Telegram. The New York Times and Daily News even drew big crowds after dark for the morning papers’ early editions, which wasn’t as great for the color film documentarians.
The final segment includes one of the best-known anecdotes about the strike: New York’s Mayor LaGuardia tried to ease newspaper readers’ suffering — by reading the Sunday funnies to them on the radio.
You can download the full film in various resolutions at archive.org, but I’m unable to “embed” the site’s player here because of my site host’s software limitations. Fortunately, “UnknownWW2InColor,” by Romano-Archives, a historical archive based in Milan, Italy, has divided the “Seventeen Days” film into three five-and-a-half-minute parts and uploaded them to YouTube, which WordPress does allow me to put on this page.
Back to radio, not only were reporters, editors, columnists, Broadway critics and sob sisters among the casts of radio dramas, the newspaper itself was there as part of the story.
On the “Soaps” page, I’ve mentioned how the classic sitcom “Vic & Sade” relied on the newspaper to do for the radio script what it did for the living room — get a conversation started.
On the “Detectives” page (in the works), I talk about not-quite-news detectives like “Box 13,” with a former newspaper reporter running personal ads — in the newspaper, of course — to solicit invitations to adventures so that he can turn them into works of fiction.
On radio, The Shadow’s main newspaper connection was more subtle than his pulp-magazine incarnation, in which a reporter named Clyde Burke was among his regular team of agents. On radio, the same reporter’s name was used a few times, but just as a voice reading headlines or calling someone about a story — never a full-fledged character, and never an accomplice of the cloaked hero.
Radio characters from Sherlock Holmes to Orphan Annie relied on newspaper headlines and classified ads for information. (Annie even got to see her picture in the paper after a surprise birthday party, then visited the editor for some fatherly advice in the second part of a four-episode sequence from 1935.)
In the real world, during that newspaper strike, the mayor of New York would take to the airwaves to read Annie’s adventures out of the Sunday comics for newspaper-starved children.
Even when a reporter or editor didn’t enter into the plot of a story, radio’s detectives, Western heroes, drama and situation comedy stars had close-encounters of a newspaper kind. A star like Gracie Allen might become a newspaper gossip columnist and enlist Harpo Marx to help, as part of a radio skit.
In other programs, a character might enter a newspaper contest of some kind, a series’ child star might write for a school newspaper, or the college president on “Halls of Ivy” could quake in his boots about a student newspaper editorial that might offend an alumnus.
… which happened more than once.
Note: Sections of this page about the 1945 strike appear elsewhere on my teaching pages created for a journalism history class.