Radio prototype: Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly's Hear It Now.

Author:Ehrlich, Matthew C.
 
FREE EXCERPT

Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly's See It Now has long been saluted as a pioneering television news program (e.g., Leab, 1983). Particularly renowned is the program's 1954 expose of Senator Joseph McCarthy (e.g., Doherty, 2003, pp. 161-188; Murray, 1975; Rosteck, 1994; Thornton, 2003), which drew renewed interest via the 2005 movie Good Night, and Good Luck. The film's portrayal of the Murrow-McCarthy confrontation was praised as a reminder "that government needs a vigorous, even oppositional press to find its best nature" (Carr, 2005, p. 12).

In comparison, the radio series that was the prototype for See It Now has received little attention. Hear It Now aired on CBS Radio only between December 1950 and June 1951. Nevertheless, the series is a unique record of a tumultuous moment in American history, ranging from the darkest days of the Korean War and Douglas MacArthur's firing to the Kefauver crime hearings and the debate over sending U.S. troops to Europe.

Furthermore, Hear It Now illuminates an important but heretofore obscure chapter in what has been called the "most productive, most influential partnership" ever in broadcast journalism (Bliss, 1991, p. 233). The series combined Friendly's innovative production techniques with Murrow's take on the major events and figures of the day. That take, rather than being "oppositional," stressed collective responsibility and reason, much as See It Now later would. Indeed, the radio series helped establish many of the themes that its television successor would employ, including pointed commentary from Murrow toward Joseph McCarthy. In brief, Hear It Now provided a capstone to Murrow's career in his preferred medium of radio while building the foundation for his and Friendly's work in television news.

Previous Research

Just as See It Now has received considerable attention, so too has Murrow's radio journalism. However, the focus has been almost entirely on his work immediately before and during World War II. Historians have examined Murrow's role in establishing CBS's news programming and team in Europe as the continent descended into war (e.g., Cloud & Olson, 1996; Godfrey, 1990; Rudner, 1981), as well as in mobilizing American support for Britain after the war began (e.g., Culbert, 1976; Seib, 2006). Murrow's celebrated broadcasts spanning the Blitz to Buchenwald have been anthologized (Bernstein & Lubertozzi, 2003; Murrow, 1967), analyzed by scholars (e.g., Barnouw, 1968; Douglas, 1999, pp. 161-198; Godfrey, 1993; Smith, 1978), and discussed at length by biographers (Edwards, 2004; Kendrick, 1969; Persico, 1988; Sperber, 1986).

Murrow's postwar radio work, in particular Hear It Now, has received much less scrutiny. One anthology (Murrow, 1967) includes several of his news commentaries from 1946-1961, whereas Murray (1994, pp. 25-39) examines a 1958 documentary on juvenile delinquency called "Who Killed Michael Farmer?" in the context of Murrow's other radio journalism. Neither Murray nor the anthology discusses Hear It Now, however. Fred Friendly (1967) himself gave the series only passing mention in his memoir, as also was the case with a 1965 history of broadcast documentary (Bluem, 1965). Murrow's biographers (e.g., Kendrick, 1969, pp. 314-319, 329-330; Persico, 1988, pp. 284-298; Sperber, 1986, pp. 320-322, 351-354) provide accounts of how the Murrow-Friendly partnership and Hear It Now came to be, but offer little on the actual content of the series itself. One (Persico, 1988, p. 467) refers to it as a "now-forgotten" program.

In his broadcast journalism history, Bliss (1991, p. 234) does credit Hear It Now for "setting the pattern for radio news specials forever after," echoing the approbation of Murrow biographer Alexander Kendrick (1969, p. 330). Similarly, a radio encyclopedia declares that Hear It Now "was more important tha[n] its mere six-month run" might suggest in that it was the model for See It Now (Sterling, 2004, p. 696). Again, however, there has yet to be any detailed discussion of the radio series' content or evolution. In contrast to Murrow's wartime broadcasts and See It Now, scripts and recordings of Hear It Now have not been widely available. Consequently, questions have gone largely unaddressed regarding what stories the radio series covered or how it covered them, how it dovetailed with or differed from Murrow's other work, or how it served as the prototype for its television successor.

The present study aims at answering those questions. Its primary source material consists of transcription discs of all 27 hour-long Hear It Now programs that were recorded from the original 1950-1951 broadcasts and subsequently stored in a university archive. The author listened to each of the discs with an ear toward common themes and storytelling devices. In addition, the author drew upon documents from the microfilm edition of Murrow's collected papers. Those contain correspondence, publicity, and clippings related to Hear It Now's production as well as a script of a pilot of sorts for the series, although they do not include scripts of the series itself. The papers also do not contain much in the way of correspondence between Murrow and Friendly or CBS executives concerning the birth of the series. For that part of the story, the present study relies upon Murrow's biographers (who knew or interviewed some of the principals); it also draws upon news accounts from the day's trade and popular press.

Origins of Hear It Now

In 1947, Edward R. Murrow concluded a brief stint as a CBS vice-president. "I was going to revolutionize radio from the inside--make it adult and intelligent," he later said (Wertenbaker, 1953, p. 36). However, he disliked administration, and he returned to the air with a nightly newscast and a vow "not to use this microphone as a privileged platform from which to advocate action" (Murrow, 1967, p. 115).

Before resigning his managerial post, Murrow did help create the CBS Radio Documentary Unit, described as "more ambitious, comprehensive and vital than any other effort in print or sound" in aiming to provoke citizen response to social problems (Heller, 1947, p. X11). An example was 1947's The Eagle's Brood, reported and written by Robert Lewis Shayon. It explored the causes of juvenile delinquency and called for the creation of neighborhood councils. Like other radio documentaries of the time, it used actors and dramatizations instead of recorded actualities (Shayon, 2001, pp. 101-109).

In fact, CBS and NBC had long banned recordings. Soon after the war, however, the networks started using them to rebroadcast programs to different time zones ("Disks Catch On," 1947). Norman Corwin also had taken a wire recorder around the world for his 1947 CBS documentary series One World Flight (Ehrlich, 2006; Lawrence, 1947). Plastic audiotape came into common use by the following year; it proved a vast improvement in terms of cost efficiency, audio quality, and ease of editing ("Tape for the Networks," 1948).

Recordings underlay the original pairing of Murrow and Friendly. Friendly wanted to produce a phonograph album history of the Depression and war years featuring newsmakers' actual voices. He took his idea to agent J. G. Gude, who introduced Friendly to Murrow. The CBS journalist narrated the album, and I Can Hear It Now became a surprise hit for Columbia Records in late 1948, taking advantage of a musicians union recording ban and the resulting demand for fresh material. A pair of sequels followed ("Runaway," 1949; see also Friendly, 1967, pp. xvii-xviii; Kendrick, 1969, pp. 314-317; Persico, 1988, pp. 284-288; Sperber, 1986, pp. 320-322).

Subsequent to the first I Can Hear It Now album, Murrow recorded a 1949 pilot for a CBS radio magazine that included his commentary on "how to control Communism without endangering the right of dissent" ("Sunday with Murrow," pp. 541-542). The pilot never aired; according to one account, CBS executives and potential sponsors believed that there already were "'too many' news documentaries on the air" (Kendrick, 1969, p. 319). The next year, Murrow traveled to Korea after war erupted there, and he filed a bleak report asking whether "serious mistakes" had been made and whether the war would only drive Korea further toward communism. CBS incensed Murrow by not airing his report on the grounds that it could hurt the war effort (Murrow, 1967, pp. 166-169; Persico, 1988, pp. 289-293; Sperber, 1986, pp. 340-349).

Meanwhile, Friendly had gone to NBC, where he produced the four-part radio series The Quick and the Dead shortly after the Korean War's outbreak. The series traced the development of nuclear weaponry and examined the peaceful uses of atomic energy. Actors played figures such as Einstein, and the first atomic bomb test was recreated with mallets pounding a huge drumhead and 16 turntables all playing thunder at once. There also were numerous actualities from doctors, scientists, and others (Jacobi, 1950).

The series prompted CBS to recruit Friendly while Murrow was still in Korea. According to CBS public affairs director Sig Mickelson, executives William Paley and Frank Stanton had grown dissatisfied with dramatized documentaries. Mickelson suggested using more taped actualities and (at J. G. Gude's suggestion, according to Gude) recommended hiring Friendly, to which Stanton agreed (Persico, 1988, pp. 288-289; Sperber, 1986, pp. 352-353). Competition may have played a role in CBS's interest in rejuvenating its documentaries after not airing Murrow's pilot the previous year; apart from The Quick and the Dead, NBC had already begun its series Voices and Events, built around actualities from each week's news (e.g., "Record on Vogeler," 1950). In addition, the Korean War had made news more of an audience draw (Bliss, 1991, p. 233).

CBS's move also extended the Murrow-Friendly partnership that had been so lucrative for the network's record division and that would prove a turning point in...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP