Radio Goes to War
Like network television today, late afternoon and early evening radio were devoted to local and network news and commentary. There was a lot going on in the world back in the 1930s and 1940s. We were a country trying to emerge from the crash of 1929, and the “Great Depression” that followed.
Radio stations all over the country carried bulletins throughout the day. Newspapers followed with Extras, but the American public depended on radio for the closest thing to news as it was happening.Certainly the most shocking event in my young life was the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. “War of the Worlds” became a reality that day when the Japanese attacked Hawaii and the Philippines which signaled the entry of the United States into World War II.
President Roosevelt’s message to the nation was carried on all three networks. [click Play below]
Nazi Germany’s rise in Europe and Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s spawned a new breed of reporters and commentators appropriately dubbed “Foreign Correspondents.” Their daily newspaper columns were often supplemented by regular network radio broadcasts.
Dinner didn’t begin at our house until seven or seven-thirty PM. Mom and Dad and often invited guests crowded around our big living room radio to listen for on-the-scene reports emanating from Europe and the Far East from such commentators as Graham McNamee, Edward R. Murrow, HV Kaltenborn, Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood and Richard Hottelet.
There was no television of course, and news in the papers was always a day late, so folks at home relied on their radios. For visual images we had to wait for the morning newspapers, or as much as a week later for the newsreels at our local movie theatres.
Sunday evening radio news and commentary were fodder for heated discussion at the Ike Nathanson family home in North Minneapolis. My grandfather was cool and non-confrontational, but his sons were very opinionated, bordering often on the contentious.
Some of the era’s outstanding radio commentators included:
H.V. Kaltenborn- CBS Foreign correspondent covered the Spanish Civil War and Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia
Edward R. Murrow- CBS’s 1938-1947 overseas correspondent based in London- analyzed news events in Europe and North Africa during World War II.
Gabriel Heater of MBS (Mutual) reported the Lindberg baby kidnapping, and the trial that followed
Elmer Davis- His five-minute CBS news analysis followed the Nazi invasion across Europe. He later left to join the government as ‘Director of War Information.’
William L. Shirer- This CBS commentator’s beat was Berlin during the 1930s. His books “The Berlin Diary” and “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” are classics.
My dad’s brother, Harold, though virtually blind, was an avid radio news listener and our most knowledgeable source in all discussions dealing with current events. A die-hard liberal, he was always delighted to share his interpretation of the news with the rest of the family, as well as neighbors and guests. I loved the man, who I’m sure influenced my own passion for current events of social and political significance.
During the 1930s and 40s, radio was America’s closest thing to so-called ‘on-the-spot’ news. The daily paper might sometimes print a so-called “Extra” edition, but there was always that printer-to-street time lag of as much as 24 hours. The closest thing to television news coverage in those days were the ‘newsreels’ such as the “March of Time,” which were filmed by foreign correspondents for exhibition in movie theatres as short subjects. Most, however, were at least a week old by the time they reached the screen.
The enemy, of course, had their own radio commentators broadcasting to German, Italian and Japanese listeners in their respective languages. They also spewed defeatism in English to our troops and the folks here at home in the U.S.
England’s infamous (U.S. born) ‘Lord Haw Haw,’ and America’s Rita Zucca and ‘Axis Sally’ (Mildred Gillars) spread Nazi propaganda to our troops in Europe and North Africa. ‘Tokyo Rose’ was the name given to a Japanese American born disc jockey whose broadcasts were beamed in short wave to our troops in the South Pacific.
The Nazi Sympathizers
Here at home, U.S. radio had a few of its own home-grown Nazi and anti-Semitic sympathizers. Father Coughlin, the so-called “radio priest and right wing demagogue” had a weekly hour-long program on the CBS radio network, which claimed to have attracted 30 million listeners. CBS didn’t get around to taking that fascist priest off the air until 1939.
Coughlin’s program was sponsored by famous American automaker and Nazi sympathizer, Henry Ford, who received a medal from Adolf Hitler for his anti-Semitic book titled “The International Jew.”
[click Play below]
In the 1930s several large Nazi sympathizer groups sprang up in this country. Their members were primarily Americans of German descent led by Fritz Kuhn of the German-American Bund. They were openly pro-Hitler and anti-Semitic. In 1939, twenty thousand Bund members attended a rally in Madison Square Garden, at which they condemned President Franklin Roosevelt and his “New Deal,” which they called his “Jew Deal.”
We had a large German-American population in Minnesota, my home state, some of whom were alleged to be Nazi sympathizers. Minnesota’s famous American aviator Charles Lindberg was an outspoken supporter of Adolph Hitler.
All of these subversive groups used network radio, as well as local stations, to publicize their activities. Los Angeles had its own pro-Nazi organization called the Silver Legion of America located in Rustic Canyon. The group closed down on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor.
Radio was a powerful home front weapon during World War II, to help counter anti-American propaganda and rally in support of our military and the war effort. President Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats,” were a comfort for Americans during the Depression and continued throughout the war years.
We kids collected something called “War Gum” which, like baseball cards, was bubble gum packed with vivid depictions of Americans in combat.
During World War II radio and most significantly the era’s popular music were America’s greatest morale boosters. Many of the big bands and vocalists along with several well-known comedians traveled to the war zones to entertain the troops under the auspices of the USO, a patriotic charitable organization.
Celebrities such as Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Martha Raye and the Andrews Sisters flew to the South Pacific and Europe to entertain our troops. Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and other Big Bands toured the war zones on USO junkets. Here at home our radio stations played morale-boosting patriotic songs recorded by such artists of the time as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, The Andrews Sisters and Frances Langford.
The artists and their producers contributed their time and talent. All travel and production expenses were provided by the USO.
Be our guests; enjoy “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” one of the Andrews Sisters’ big patriotic wartime hits: [Click Play below]
Music and Radio
Music, live and recorded, has always been, and continues to be, radio’s mainstay. I remember Milton Cross hosting live Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoons on NBC. In 1945 CBS began broadcasting the New York Philharmonic concerts emanating from Carnegie Hall.
I’ve always been a classical music fan. Today, thanks to FM radio, cable and the internet, music is streamed in my home from 9:00 AM-6:00 PM seven days a week.
The Big Bands of the 1930s and forties were our parents’ favorites. Gilbert and Myndal Nathanson were wonderful dancers and “swung” to the music of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington, to name a few. Many of the orchestras of the time had weekly radio shows broadcasting live from the famous night clubs of the era. Though phonograph records were being played on radio as early as the 1920s, the term ‘disc jockey’ was actually coined in 1935 by news commentator Walter Winchell, in reference to Milton Cross, who sometimes substituted recorded music between Metropolitan seasons. It wasn’t until the mid 1940s that the term was applied to the hosts of radio shows devoted primarily to “spinning” popular records.
Radio’s Big Band vocalists in the nineteen forties and fifties included such top recording stars as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Jo Stafford, Peggy Lee and Doris Day. Several of these artists were featured soloists on the era’s weekly half-hour network broadcasts. Crosby and Sinatra had programs of their own.
Coincidentally I was the Toni Company’s so-called ‘agency producer’ on Frank’s weekly radio show, which was broadcast from the NBC studios in Hollywood in the 1950s. Despite all of the controversial stories about Sinatra, I always found Frank to be a very nice guy, who usually came into the studio bringing pizza for everyone.
When I was a boy in Minneapolis, Scandinavian dance music (Polkas and Schottisches) were popular with our large Norwegian and Swedish populations. Our housekeeper’s favorite radio show featured the band of ‘Whoopee John and the Six Fat Dutchmen.’ I lost a girlfriend because I couldn’t polka.
Folks in our part of the ‘States’ were big country music fans. The Grand Ole Opry, broadcasting from Nashville, was and still is one of radio’s favorites. Cowboy singers Gene Autry and Roy Rogers had their own weekly programs.
The Transition from Radio to Television
Radio’s popularity continued throughout the 1950s. Today there are over 15,000 stations on the air in this country. Broadcasting’s expansion into television in the late 1940s and 50s was a challenge for the industry. Networks and their affiliates were forced to build new production and transmission facilities. Also, it wasn’t easy to convince the American family to invest in a television set to view the very limited supply of programming available in those early years.
As the number of TV homes increased, many of radio’s fifteen-minute serials simply went off the air. Some however, made the transition to television with major casting changes and half hour episodes.
By the mid-1950s most of radio’s popular game and audience participation shows were also being televised in what were referred to as “simulcasts.” The producers simply made some costume, makeup and staging adjustments.
Radio’s dramatized programs faced a more serious casting problem when converting to TV. Thirty-ish Janet Waldo was replaced on “Meet Corliss Archer” by a young ingénue type, whereas Eve Arden had no problem making the transition to the TV version of “Our Miss Brooks.” Portly Bill Conrad played the part of Matt Dillon on “Gunsmoke,” the radio western. James Arnes assumed the role when the program switched to TV. The most expedient change was in the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” show. The program’s originators and stars, Freeman Gosden and Charles Corell, both white, were replaced after 30 years by Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams in the TV version.
Of interest is the fact that after 27 years on radio and 3 more on television the show was dropped by the CBS network due to protests from the NAACP on the grounds of what the press dubbed “Blaxploitation.”
Most of the radio announcers of the thirties and forties easily made the transition from radio to TV. Their voices had often been associated with the programs as well as the products they pitched. For example: Writers of the Jack Benny TV Show wrote announcer Don Wilson into the script. Harry Von Zell was written into “Burns and Allen” and Harlow Wilcox into “Fibber McGee and Molly.”
Bob and Ray
As I matured into my late teens I was lured by the sophisticated humor of “Bob and Ray” (Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding). Their 15-30 minute radio show provided a continuous stream of satire, while lampooning everything sacred, including other network radio programs. They interviewed each other in roles ranging from sportscasters to housewives to cowboys and radio detectives. They parodied current events and mocked the people in the headlines. Nothing was sacred.
Their shows were usually aired during afternoon drive time. When they switched to television they did a 15-minute late evening program on NBC. Between the two mediums, the “Bob and Ray Show,” in one form or another, ran for nearly 40 years. Here’s a brief sample lifted from one of their early TV satires. [click Play below]
Those were the days when radio and early black and white television delivered the closest thing to news and live entertainment as they were happening. Today this country’s radio audience remains huge, however, thanks to satellite technology Americans can watch movies, news, TV shows, sporting events and entertainment of all kinds (even porn) in beautiful color streamed to their television sets, iPads, computers, cell phones and, who would have thought… virtual reality?
To have witnessed this remarkable evolution of entertainment and information technologies these past 60 years has been an amazing experience. If Geoff Nate had his druthers, he would like to hang around for another 60 just to see what’s comin’ down the pike.
Who knows what’s next… Subscription ESP?
1.) FYI: Some of the programs and anthologies mentioned in this blog were recorded off the air and can be enjoyed online in their original forms, thanks to radio’s many fans and collectors. Amazing, huh?
2.) In the late 1950s Burt Harris and I with a couple of partners ventured into the radio business here in Southern California when we opened KKAR in Pomona and KLFM in Long Beach. (See Geoff Nate’s Blog 9, “Radio Days.”)