Radio Drama Explored Press & Politics Issues
by Bob Stepno

Note: This is a draft drawing on items from previous blog posts; this note will be removed when it’s more complete.

From adventure series like The Green Hornet to soap operas like Betty & Bob, comedies like Bright Star, and serious dramatic anthologies like NBC University Theater, radio’s fictional newspaper men and women covered elections, took on political corruption, or went to work for the candidates of their choice.

The DuPont Cavalcade of America‘s inspiring — or propaganda — stories of American values often featured editors who advised presidents of the United States. It showed Anne Royall helping Andrew Jackson take on the bankers, Horace Greeley counseling Lincoln on what to do with Jefferson Davis, William Allen White lunching at the White House. Other stories showed the political power of the press to mold public opinion: Nast’s editorial cartoons bringing down Boss Tweed, Pulitzer raising pennies to build a base for the Statue of Liberty, Sarah Josepha Hale mounting campaigns to establish Bunker Hill monument and Thanksgiving Day, and many more.

As in real life, journalists portrayed in radio dramas walked the line between covering civic life and becoming a partisan — or actually running for office.

Actress Irene Dunne seems to have been a likely candidate for such parts. As newspaper publisher Sabra Cravatt in the film and radio adaptations of Cimarron, she was elected to Congress. As newspaper editor in the series Bright Star, she ran for mayor. So did Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, after Clark Kent assured him the paper did not need his daily attention.

Will Rogers Jr., in real life newspaper publisher who was elected to Congress, settled for covering an election or two in his series “Rogers of the Gazette,” except for the episode where he gets to play golf with the president.

The Reporter’s Voice in All the King’s Men

The strongest political novel of the era was adapted for radio a few months before it made it to the silver screen.

In the movies of All the King’s Men, starring Broderick Crawford (1949) or Sean Penn (2006), charismatic Southern politician Willie Stark is obviously the main character.

But for the only radio adaptation I’ve found of Robert Penn Warren’s novel — as in the novel itself — the burden is literally on the teller of the tale, former journalist Jack Burden.

NBC University Theater adapted the story for broadcast January 16, 1949, before the first film version premiere that November and a year before its general release. Following the program’s university-of-the-air format, it added scholarly discussion of Warren and his book at the half-way point, presented by critic Granville Hicks. 

Wayne Morris played Burden, with Paul Frees as Stark. Clarence A. Ross wrote the script. While the one-hour broadcast includes major “spoilers” for readers or movie-viewers, both the Pulitzer-winning book and Academy Award winning film will survive the loss of suspense.

For the broadcast edition, Burden isn’t a journalist at first. He opens the story in flashback, already working for Governor Stark’s staff as in-house researcher and right-hand man.

Eight minutes into the story, Burden  explains how they met when he was covering Stark’s first campaign, trimming his fingernails during the speeches — until the key “a hick like you” speech that showed Stark’s promise as a populist leader, not unlike Louisiana’s real-life Huey Long, who met a similar end.

Burden doesn’t reflect on his shift in role from journalist to partisan hack putting his research skills to work on tasks that come close to blackmail. But students of politics, ethics and the media can read a lot between the lines of the hour-long broadcast.

In the end, Burden is almost a reporter again, lining up facts, asking the key question, “How do you know? How do you know? How do you know?” Historian or journalism student, it’s a good question to keep asking.

Robert Penn Warren commemorative stampAs students of writing, listeners would do well to crack open the book itself — Warren was poet laureate of the United States as well as novelist, and focusing on the printed page can be more instructive than letting compressed dialogue flow by over the radio or MP3 player.

As New York Times reviewer Orville Prescott put it when the book was new, “Jack may be morally as blind as Willie Stark, the Boss, but Mr. Warren has endowed him with his own exuberant skill with words.”

As a political novel and exploration of power, responsibility, idealism, cynicism, moral character and the meaning of life, Warren’s book won the Pulitzer Prize for best novel of 1946.  The 1949 movie won a Best Picture Oscar, among others. (The 2006 re-make didn’t do so well.)

Here’s one more clip from the Broderick Crawford film, as long as someone has posted it to YouTube. John Ireland plays Jack Burden, mostly as a face in the crowd, while Stark cranks up his “Nobody ever helped a hick but a hick” speech.

(When you see the reporter listening to a speech blurt out “He’s wonderful, wonderful,” that’s Jack — and you can tell he’s about to go over to the dark side.)


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