Journalists in Old-Time Radio Serials and Romances
(This is a work in progress; please do not quote or cite in high-quality academic documents 🙂 without contacting me for possible edits or change of address.)
“Running a newspaper is our line of duty”
— Betty Drake, soap opera heroine, co-publisher of The Trumpet
by Bob Stepno
For this category, I’m loosely defining “soaps” as daytime serials, usually aimed at homemakers. While evening programs put newspaper reporters and editors in the roles of detectives or superheroes, daytime radio made them heroic, troubled or romantic figures. Even series with no journalist characters echoed the ubiquitous presence of the daily newspaper in American life. A few of them are discussed separately on the “Comedy” page or its subpages, including “Vic and Sade,” “The Couple Next Door” and “Easy Aces.” As “slice of life” portrayals, these shows are often interesting for their presentation of the main characters as newspaper readers, although “Aces” in particular did have a newspaper reporter weave in and out of its story lines.
Early television probably didn’t pay the same respect to radio or print media that these radio series did to newspapers. The local daily, whether for its public-affairs news values or as entertainment journal, was an established part of American life in the 1930s and 1940s, and radio dramatists portrayed it as such. After all, the continuing-story itself began in newspaper serials, first as text and later as comic strips, a few of which — like “Superman” and “Little Orphan Annie” — even became hits on radio.
Whether journalists were part of the plot or not, the daytime drama genre owed much of its style to the former newspaper reporters behind the scenes. Anne Hummert, co-creator of more than 30 soaps, had worked her way through college at The Baltimore Sun and later reported for a precursor of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, where she married her first husband, reporter John Ashenhurst, a match that didn’t last. Later, she worked with — and after seven years married — former St. Louis newspaperman and radio advertising executive Frank Hummert.
A line in Anne Hummert’s obituary reads like something from “His Girl Friday” or another classic newspaper-romance tale, or perhaps one of the Hummerts’ own soap operas: “She, on the other hand, had already been married to one newspaperman, thank you, and was in no hurry to marry another.”
Betty & Bob and The Trumpet
Frank Hummert and Anne Ashenhurst created the saga of Betty and Bob in 1932, three years before their marriage. Several radio histories focus on the series as the Hummerts first daytime serial, which by trial and error established plot elements common to more popular soaps that followed. (See On the Air: The encyclopedia of old-time radio by John Dunning, and similar works.)
While the original focus was on “rich boy & poor girl” melodrama with family-complications, the plot had many twists. Dunning blames the loss of the series’ original star, Don Ameche, and a marriage-and-parenthood plot twist for causing the program to lose popularity with the audience. “Betty and Bob” production ended in 1940.
However, for this study it’s more significant that toward the end of the program’s eight-year run, the series introduced a “crusading newspaper” plot line. Backstory references suggest the transition involved Bob and Betty Drake making a fortune in oil, then using the money buy a newspaper and begin to take on city corruption. As the announcer puts it, they became owners of “that great fighting newspaper, The Trumpet.”
The Internet Archive’s sampler includes 40 MP3 episodes of the five-day-a-week series, mostly dated 1947, presumably the dates of reissued transcription disks. Judging by the plot summaries, J. David Goldin‘s collection index estimates the dates of the same episodes as 1940. The 16-episode “July-August 1947” sequence begins with a reference to the couple’s “year-old twins,” which also positions the story late in the life of the program. The Drakes had lost their first son in a much earlier plotline. Radio-collector histories also mention that Bob Drake’s mental health was unstable at some points in the series. I’ve seen nothing to suggest a cause-and-effect relationship with his winding up in the newspaper business.
References to the world situation in the “1947” story dialogue suggest the episodes were syndicated reruns of programs first broadcast early in World War II:
Betty Drake: “In times like these, especially. when the world has gone raving mad, all of us must seek some line of duty to preserve what little sanity there is left. Well, running a newspaper is our line of duty.”
Similarly, when the Drakes decide to resume publishing their newspaper instead of selling it, the series announcer summarizes:
“Their newspaper will not only fly the flag of freedom and human decency, but will fight for it.”
And, when the Drakes discover an “ambitious and ruthless” city councilman — in league with a politically connected newspaper-chain owner, the announcer recaps:
“So the forces of good and evil join battle in Monroe as they are joining in battle through the whole world. There is only one way to enter the battle — unafraid, as do Betty and Bob..”
At the start of the Internet Archive’s “June 1947” episodes, a recap of the recent past make it clear that the Drakes had been running the paper for some time, and that their crusade had taken its toll — costing the life of a star reporter and almost proving fatal to Bob. In classic Hummert soap opera fashion, an announcer summarized the plotline as follows:
On the train that is rapidly approaching the town of Walton we meet Betty and Bob Drake.
A few hours ago they left the city of Monroe where they ran and still own that great fighting newspaper, The Trumpet. Upon the urgent advice of doctors, but against his will, Bob is going back to his country home to lead a quiet restful life until he has fully recovered from the miraculous operation which made it possible for him to walk again.
Yes, Betty had a difficult time persuading Bob that a return to the country and the simpler way of life was not only the best thing for him, but for their year old twin babies for Bob’s mother, and for Claire Evans, the young widow of the star reporter, and for Betty herself.
The Drakes may have moved to the country for peace and quiet, but before that 15 minute episode is over, they hear gunfire in the distance. They head to the next farm where they find their immigrant neighbor has gone crazy with grief over the death of his wife and has the police in a standoff. Bob and Betty conclude that a mob is going to try to lynch the disturbed man.
The announcer summarizes their attitude:
“If one is enlisted in the army of righteousness as Betty and Bob have been since they took over The Trumpet, it seems that there are battles to be fought everywhere.”
In subsequent episodes the couple convinces the armed farmer to give up peacefully, but it’s clear the Drakes will not be resting in the country for long. In flashback, we find out how their star reporter got his job — and how he lost his life while investigating local rackets. Next, the city’s former police chief comes to town (Ex police chief Henderson visits) to update them on events, and the Drakes wind up hiring him as a new investigative reporter in their attempt to fight corruption back in the city.
The introduction to that episode reveals that the previous months’ stories haven’t exactly been a living-room romance soap opera:
“Betty and Bob, as editors and publishers of Monroe’s crusading newspaper, The Trumpet, worked with and very frequently came into conflict with Henderson when he was chief of police. But Betty and Bob both had the highest regard for Henderson’s integrity and courage. It was he who saved Betty’s life when Alan Bishop, the gangster overlord, tried to kill her…”
Journalists, then can be public-spirited, brave, self-sacrificing and dedicated. The Drakes are definitely wearing the “white hats” in the black-and-white world of soap opera battles between good and evil. And the journalists aren’t the only ones who believe in the power of the press. By the end of his conversation with the Drakes the next day, the former chief of police tells the publishers he believes he will be able to have a greater impact as an investigator for their paper than he did as a policeman.
However, journalism also has a dark side. Two days later, in the episode Bob is Ready to Take Control, ninth in the sixteen-episode sequence, a chain publisher backed by corrupt politicians makes the Drakes a too-generous offer for their paper, but they quickly decide not to sell.
Bob Drake: “I’d be crazy to let Humboldt and his type of journalism take over The Trumpet… turn it into a cheap scandal sheet, bury the important stories, squelch the vital issues, soft-pedal investigations…”
The collection has a gap of several months, but by the end of the year, a sequence numbered in the 120s, the storyline is about the Newspaper’s Financial Problems. In the episode by that name, Bob talks about alternatives, including closing the newspaper, but he rejects the idea.
“You don’t think I’m going to close down this newspaper? I’d rather do anything in the world than that, and you know it. To think of the satisfaction of our enemies. To think of the disillusionment of the people we’ve tried to help… all the people who believe in us as leaders of a good fight, a fight that’s just begun.”
“So The Trumpet is in difficult financial straits. The newspaper that has devoted itself so completely to the public good is not able to support itself. As soon as the dwindling resources of Betty and Bob Drake have vanished, the one public-spirited newspaper in Monroe may be swept into oblivion…
During the few months of episodes at the Internet Archive, the couple faces ethical questions of whether to suppress stories about the city manager’s wild daughter’s drunken driving, while also investigating the politicians that hired the city manager. They see their fortune dwindle to about six months’ funding for the paper, but their community spirit is undaunted. They reject the offer from a chain publisher based in the state capitol, with Bob protesting that the publisher has always been in with the bad politicians.
The Drakes are ready to carry on, despite a bomb attack on their presses, with the help of a new investor — but is he also an agent of the evil politicians? Their nemesis on the city council burglarizes their office to find out the company’s financial condition. Unfortunately, the archive does not tell us the ultimate conclusion.
Another former newspaperman was a writer for “Betty and Bob,” among other series — the prolific Robert Hardy Andrews, formerly of The Minneapolis Journal and The Chicago Daily News. (Reinehr & Swartz, pp.21-22, 36) (“Born as Charles Robert Douglas Hardy Andrews on October 19, 1908 in Effingham, Kansas; attended University of Minnesota, Northwestern, University of Chicago; reporter, then city editor for Minneapolis journal and later of “Midweek” for the Chicago daily news; writer-producer for radio, motion pictures, and television; author of books, screenplays, television scripts, and short stories; film production executive in India and Egypt; consultant to U.S. firms in the Far East.” — Online Archive of California)
Sources: Robert C. Reinehr and Jon D. Swartz, Historical Dictionary of Old-Time Radio, Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2008; Radio: Hummerts’ Mill, Time, Jan. 23, 1939; Jim Cox, Frank and Anne Hummert’s Radio Factory: The Programs and Personalities of Broadcasting’s Most Prolific Producers, McFarland Publishing, 2003; John Dunning, On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio; Anne Hummert profile at The Paley Center’s “She Made It” project, and Anne Hummert’s New York Times obituary; Murial G. Cantor and Suzanne Pingree, The Soap Opera, Beverly Hills, Cal.: Sage, 1983; Erik Barnouw, Media marathon: a twentieth-century memoir, Duke University Press, 1996.
Front Page Farrell
Another Hummert production, a late-afternoon soap opera that may have had more men in the audience, combined elements of detective-mystery with newspaper-romance. Starting in 1941, not long after the original run of Betty and Bob ended, perhaps it was inspired by “The Trumpet” era of Betty and Bob.
Front Page Farrell was billed as “the unforgettable story of marriage and the newspaper office,” about Sally and David Farrell.
While the Farrells weren’t publishers like the Drakes, the series still presented images of newsroom culture. In this 1942 wartime episode, former reporter Sally makes plans to go back to work as a reporter herself, so that David can go off to war.
A surviving August, 1945, episode includes a newsroom conversation between Dave, working late, and co-worker Kate Ward, fellow reporter, full of typical gripes about editors and deadlines. Farrell summarizes an opinion piece he is working on about “reaction to the British elections,” the role of democracy and “the people’s responsibility”; the text sounds like it was dictated by the War Department:
Dave: “You can blame any outside cause you want, but the fact remains, the German people accepted Hitler, and therefore they are responsible for him, and for this whole bloody war. You can’t be passive about Democracy.”
Kate: “You’ve got something there, Dave.”
(Japan wasn’t mentioned in the conversation, but if the archive.org date on the episode is accurate, it was broadcast the week the U.S. dropped its atomic bombs on Japanese civilians.)
By 1949, the show sounded more like many other “reporter as detective” series, including the episode “The Man Who Knew All the Angles” (June 15, 1949) with Sally providing a suggestion or two for David’s investigation of a construction-site racket.
At that point, in a late-afternoon time slot aimed at after-work male listeners, the series was less about the marriage and more about the mysteries. Even the series intro had changed, now billed as “the exciting, unforgettable radio drama Front Page Farrell, the story of a crack newspaperman and his wife, David and Sally Farrell…” In “The Case of the Mysterious Killer” (Aug. 31, 1949), Sally and a copy boy wait while David interviews a source behind a closed door, when shots ring out…
Several actors played David Farrell during the run of the series, including Staats Cotsworth, who also played a reporter-detective for many years as Casey, Crime Photographer.
Wendy Warren & the News was unique. Wendy was a soap opera character, but gave real-life “women’s news” headlines as part of the noon CBS Network newscast, as if she and anchor Douglas Edwards were sitting at the same newsdesk, followed by the fictional Wendy’s adventures.
I’ve first heard this 1949 episode of “Wendy Warren and the News,” but it captures the series’ style.
While Wendy Warren was a fictional noontime newscaster, she shared the opening moments of the broadcast with the network’s real news staff. (That particular day’s news was a slice of history: Alger Hiss espionage case, House Un-American Activities Committee and all.)
Actress Florence Freeman, in character as Wendy, introduced Douglas Edwards for those real-world news headlines, then delivered her own real-world “News reports from the women’s world” column, then did a reverse twist on what actors call “breaking the fourth wall.” She pretended to end the broadcast, step away from the microphone, and go on with her life — for all the radio audience to hear. From there on it was all “soap opera,” even if the sponsor was Maxwell House, not Lux.
(Douglas Edwards, meanwhile, disappeared from the day’s broadcast after that first batch of headlines, presumably to grab lunch, then prepare for his no-fiction-allowed role as CBS evening news anchor.)
That online example of the program didn’t jump out at me — it was buried in the huge “Singles and Doubles” collection the Old Time Radio Researchers Group has uploaded to Archive.org. Even as compressed MP3 files, the collection would fill several DVDs, as noted on this Singles and Doubles Collection summary page, but there are separate Web pages, broken up alphabetically.
Later, I discovered another three episodes in the Community Audio section if the Archive, in a folder with the same name as the first if the three. The filenames relate to the real-world news of the day (e.g. “Fight for Jaffa”), not to any soap opera plot element. These three are dated April 26 & 27, 1948, and June 17, 1949. The player above is for the episide dated July 1, 1949.
Back to reality… The presence of Douglas Edwards on this show was the real surprise, but then radio reporters did shift roles at times, including covering historical events in dramatizations for CBS’s own “You Are There” series. In one of Edwards’ “You Are There” appearances, he interviewed actor Edwin Booth, asking him, among other things, “Do you have any idea why your brother killed President Lincoln?”
Although Walter Cronkite replaced him as CBS’s evening anchor, Edwards was among the leaders in the field, winning a Peabody award and making his way into the Radio Hall of Fame.
Edwards’ headlines were part of the Wendy Warren program for 11 years, 1947-58. I learned that at his biography at his archive site at St. Bonaventure University. Coincidence department: Thanks to Google, I later discovered that the reference to the program was added to that bio a few years ago at the suggestion of the Metro Washington Old Time Radio Club, which I joined earlier this summer!
Radio historian Jim Cox’s Web page about Wendy at the Original Old-Time Radio BBS doesn’t address her journalistic skills, but mentions that the series “pursued issues not just of the heart but of intrigue and suspense. Wendy and her cohorts found themselves in a crusading mode, literally fighting against subversive forces that threatened to curtail our freedoms and bring down our government.”
Here’s how Time magazine described the program back in 1947:
Sudsy daytime serials are easy targets for radio’s detractors. But soap operas go on & on because sponsors find them profitable. Last week, an outlandish new jumble of fact & fancy called Wendy Warren and the News (CBS, Mon.-Fri., 12 noon, E.D.T.) tried desperately to vary the formula.
The new twist: CBS Reporter Douglas Edwards leads off with a three-minute summary of the day’s headlines. A girl reporter named “Wendy Warren” (Actress Florence Freeman) follows him, shrills out 45 seconds of “women’s news,” promptly plunges into her tortured fictional love life. By the end of the first broadcast, the new heroine was in an old, all-too-familiar lather. “She turns deathly pale,” the announcer confided, “and, but for Gil Kendal’s ready arm, would fall.”
As you can see from Goldin’s eight-episode summary, Wendy’s listeners heard about more than her love life — spies and international intrigue were part of the plot. So was a newspaper reporter named Don, and (in the commercials) “a talking dog who actually barks, ‘America’s largest selling dog food!'”
As its title hinted, the 16-year run of the series Big Sister told the story of a self-sacrificing woman, during which both the sister and brother she sacrificed her happiness for grew to adulthood — and got involved with a newspaper. Unfortunately, few newspaper-related episodes are easily available online. The series’ main presence in the Internet Archive is a few dozen newspaper-free episodes from 1944.
Earlier in the story line, which began in 1936, Ruth’s kid sister Sue married a newspaperman named Jerry, and her once-crippled brother Neddie was cured by Ruth’s eventual husband, Dr. John Wayne. At one point, however, the promise of living “happy for ever and ever” hinged on the success of Jerry’s newspaper.
That scene is in a 1939 “Big SIster” episode sandwiched among more than a dozen soaps in the archived copy of a full day of programming recorded Sept. 21, 1939, by Washington, D.C., station WJSV, hints at how the plots were woven together. Jerry the newsman doesn’t appear, but his newspaper does, right at the end of the 10:30 a.m. episode (about 42 minutes into the fifth hour-long archive recording).
Ruth and her beau Dr. Wayne run into brother Neddie delivering a bundle of Jerry’s new newspaper, The Mail. Neddie tells them the new publication is pulling ahead of its competition, with more circulation and an impressive 14-page edition that the doctor notes is “crammed full of ads.”
“Jerry’s taking all the business from the Chronicle ever since McGregor ran away,” Ned announces, suggesting that the newspaper thread in the plot has been running for some time. Ruth explains what the advertising and circulation success of The Mail means in the economics of newspapers (and soap operas):
“It really means that Jerry’s paper is going to be all right… Jerry and Sue and the baby are safe from want.”
That, in turn, meant Ruth was finally free to marry John, which she did the next year. But something else always goes wrong in soap opera lives, and theirs eventually saw the couple separated by the war, a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, and his case of shell-shock, among other things.
J. David Goldin’s RadioGoldIndex entry for the 1944 programs mentions characters Frank and Hope (Neddie’s wife, Ruth’s sister-in-law) working for a newspaper editor named Waldo Briggs, so the newspaper business apparently continued as a sub-plot.
Figuring out who the characters are might take some listening. Here’s the first of the episodes from the archive.org selection from 1944: “Meeting with Holly Soon.”
Just as newspaper reporters often moved from paper to paper, “Big Sister” also gives us evidence that cast members on radio series rarely stayed under one “masthead” for their careers.
Actress Fran Carlon, who played sister Sue for part of the “Big Sister” 16-year run, was also news reporter Lorelei Kilbourne on Big Town from 1942-1952.
Actor Staats Cosworth, who played Dr. John Wayne, also had the lead in “Front Page Farrel” for a while, as well as his long run as the title character in “Casey, Crime Photographer.”
John Dunning’s “Big Sister” entry in On the Air:The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio does a thorough job of documenting the series characters and plot twists, without ever mentioning the newspaper characters.
“Mary Foster, the Editor’s Daughter” put journalism in a new perspective. More episodes are sold by Radio Spirits and OTRCat. In this second of four archived episodes, Mary, a young widow with children, considers moving out and taking an office job when her father loses a golf bet that gives a competitor control of his paper for a day.
The episode title is “Mary Foster is Upset,” an improvement over the previous episode, “Mary Foster is Deeply Disturbed”; editor Henry Foster’s role is more as dispenser of fatherly advice than editorial wisdom.
In the next episode, “the threat to editor Foster’s publication is ended in an unlikely way. A wealthy friend of the Fosters leans on the competing publisher, threatening to withdraw advertising from several local businesses. (Advertisers pressure on newspapers is a theme that pops up now and then in radio dramas, but usually as the villain — not the savior.)
Jane Endicott, Reporter
Girl Bites Dog:
“Jane Endicott, Reporter,” was billed as “the life of a bright and charming American girl in the world of today.” In the first episode, sometimes titled “No Job for a Lady,” she gets lands her job by catching the new co-owner of a local paper in enough lies to convince him that she’d be a good reporter.
She also develops a crush on him, ethically challenged though he might be. They meet when he tricks the guards at her father’s chemical plant into letting him into the building without permission.
Sponsored by a West Coast regional soup company, this might be classified as “soup-opera” instead of soap opera, but it did have newsworthy issues within its “of course a woman can do the job” plots. The first episode concerns industrial safety; the next is about a possible case of arson. Neither is the standard reporter-detective story with cops-and-robbers action, but more of a journalism-procedural with discussions between the editor and reporters.
The second archived episode, titled “Girl Bites Dog,” opened with a newsroom abuzz about a dramatic oil field fire, a paper six hours past deadline, and Jane arriving to become woman’s page editor.
“This girl’s no amateur,” the new co-owner tells his partner, the editor. “She was editor of her college daily paper, she’s good.” The editor sends her off on an assignment that turns into another journalism ethics lesson when he tries to trap her with a fake story.
The episodes do have some continuity, although the series is not the cliffhanger-serial type. Identified in the archives as a three-times-a-week 15-minute CBS series was apparently regional and short-lived.
(File names in the Internet Archive seem to have gotten their digital wires crossed between Jane Endicott and both a Walter Winchell Navy Relief broadcast and an episode of “Barron Elliot and His Stardust Melodies.” As of April 2014, the “Bites Dog” episode is properly named, but a duplicate elsewhere still puts Jane’s name on a Winchell Navy Relief program file, and her debut is still filed as the “Stardust Melodies” show. At least one site distributing oldtime radio files compounds the error by identifying the MP3 file as a Jane Endicott episode, but claiming that Winchell was part of the program — apparently because the distributor only listened to the first few minutes of the recording, not enough to discover that it was completely mislabeled.)
J.David Goldin’s RadioGoldindex.com listing for the Jane Endicott program includes both episodes, but no information about the cast. The announcer is identified as Thomas Hanlon.
Jim Cox’s The A to Z of American Radio Soap Operas has a brief entry (pp.218-219) for this series, also known as “Lady of the Press,” from 1944-45. J. David Goldin lists one episode in his collection, with an episode title “The Picture of Death” suggesting that this is another soap-detective crossover, like “Front Page Farrell.” Cox confirms that Martin was an investigative crime reporter. Radio researcher Stewart Wright, in the Radio Historical Association of Colorado magazine Return With Us Now, March 2002, notes that the series’ star, Janet Waldo, continued her career on television, both as a on-screen actress and as a voice actor in cartoon series. She was married to playwright Robert E. Lee, co-author of the journalism-related play and film “Inherit the Wind.”
Stars Over HollywoodWhile not a continuing “soap” drama, “Stars Over Hollywood,” sponsored by Carnation on Saturday mornings, was another sometimes-romantic series with a feminine slant. David Goldin’s Radio GoldIndex calls the March 22, 1952, episode The Love Tree an “Inane comedy about a poor newspaperman in love with the paper’s owner’s daughter….and a romance up a tree!”
Lee Bowman played reporter George McGill, with Ariel Harvey as Lurene Tuttle, in a reporter and photographer romance — that gets complicated when he finds out she has been hiding her identity as the boss’s daughter.Another episode flirting with the newspaper business featured a successful woman writer (of fiction) who marries a younger man and has her publisher put him in charge of her public relations. Title: Short Story.
Theater of Romance
And then, of course, there’s the series whose very name was “Romance” for more than a decade.
CBS Theater of Romance was one of the “anthology” series that sometimes broadcast original plays and sometimes adapted Hollywood movie scripts. Among the journalism-related movie plots are the two comedies and two more-serious romantic dramas below, all of which were produced for radio more than once.
- Love is News (1945), with Dane Clark and Faye Emerson
- It Happened Tomorrow (1945), with Ralph Bellamy as the reporter who magically gets tomorrow’s newspaper. (He was memorable as Hildy’s non-newspaperman fiancé in “His Girl Friday.”)
- Penny Serenade (1945), with Robert Walker.
- Next Time We Love (1946), with Joan Blondell.
A later Romance episode, San Francisco Incident from 1956, used a newspaperman character primarily as narrator.
But he did get a pretty good closing line, “I didn’t want to be killed, so I didn’t print it…”