Woodfin, Jane. Of Mikes and Men.  New York: McGraw, Hill, 1951.

 

“Jane Woodfin has worked for a West Coast radio station, in practically every known capacity, for more than twenty years—a period which almost spans the life of modern radio.” That is pretty much all I know about the wit that penned Of Mikes and Men, a narrative promising the “humorous inside story of early radio, when announcers doubled as soundmen and microphones went dead once a program.” I ought not to be quite so petty, or perplexed—but I still don’t know quite what I am reading. So far, at least, “humorous” is an entirely appropriate description of Woodfin’s story, published back in 1951, when radio was still the source of mystery, romance, and adventure—terms frequently used interchangeably.


Of Mikes and Men, which I picked up at a bookstore in Dryden, New York, opens like an episode of Remember WENN, the early years. You know, that nostalgic radio sitcom shown of AMC during the mid-to late 1990s. The narrator, presumably the author, relates how she, penniless and none too skilled, got a job at a radio station in Portland, Oregon just after Wall Street laid that infamous “Egg.” Perusing the want ads, the young woman applied for the only position offered to female job searchers—that of “continuity writer” at station KUKU.


Not that she had any idea what a “continuity writer” was. She beat out a number of applicants and, being paid partly in cash, partly in the goods the station’s sponsors tried to peddle, was expected to provide advertising copy and chatter (the so-called “continuity”), along with her own cooking program. That Jane, as her friend and neighbor points out, would be lost without a can opener, was something she kept to herself, until the audience, trying to follow her recipes, found out as much while gazing at the indigestible mess left in their pots and pans.


This is all rather amusing and preferable to leafing through I Hid It under the Sheets, the at times exasperatingly ungrammatical and disorganized reminiscences of Gerald Eskanezi, journalist, sports writer, and radio listener. At least, Ms. Woodfin knew how to turn a phrase and to tell a story. So, why am I irritated?


For one, I am wondering just whose story it is. I mean, is it fiction, is it based on fact, is there anything between the covers that might tell me something about those working in broadcasting before radio reached what is generally referred to as its “golden age”? How convenient, I thought, that Ms. Woodfin slyly dedicates her book to those who presumable worked with her by stating: “To my dear friends and co-workers in early radio who will attempt in vain to find themselves in the pages of this book. You aren’t here. I couldn’t put you in because you are normal. But you may recognize some of the screwballs we both knew.”


Station KUKU? I assumed Woodfin’s book to be an account of an early radio comedy of the same name. It was created by Raymond Knight, one of whose later Cuckoo programs can be found on the Internet Archive. According to the Gaver and Stanley, Knight began broadcasting on 1 January 1930 and distinguished himself by being one of the first radio satirists to poke fun at the medium. Groucho Marx reputedly thought him to be “the best comedian on the air.”


Turns out, Of Mikes and Men does not concern Mr. Knight, who broadcast from the East Coast. Nor have I come across a name that I recognize as referring to an actual radio pioneer. Still, leafing through Woodfin’s book, wondering whether Jane ever aired, I feel not unlike the earliest reader’s of Jane Eyre, who assumed the novel to be a biographical account of a governess in love with her master. That Woodfin loved the radio, and knew it well, I do not doubt. I was just hoping for a bit of dirt I could trace to some of the real men and women behind those carbon mikes; but then I remembered my Aunt Ilse, the baby crier, bit my captious tongue, and let Woodfin keep hers firmly lodged in her unblushing cheek. Besides, those distinctions between fact and fiction, well-nigh incomprehensible to today’s television audience, have gone out of fashion in the days of the Spanish-American War . . .


[An entry in my blog from 11 July 2008]