There is a plaque at last on Weymouth House, erstwhile London residence of Edward R. Murrow. I’m not sure how much it is owing to Good Night, and Good Luck. (which I have not yet seen); but this recognition was long overdue. They are all over London, those blue signs, telling passers-by of the notables who once lived, worked and made history behind otherwise nondescript façades. Looking up at them makes me feel that I am walking among those who made a name for themselves—or, if the name fails to ring a bell, plain ignorant. What’s in a name? Well, you could look it up, for starters.
Being that I am in the middle of a series devoted to “Wireless Women,” I shall let that plaque speak for itself and switch from the celebrated Ed “This . . . is London” Murrow to one of his most popular if now less well remembered female colleagues: Mary Margaret McBride (seen above in a picture that appeared in the premier issue of Tune In magazine, March 1943).
Born in Missouri (and her voice will tell you as much), McBride began her broadcasting career at station WOR, New York, in 1934, playing the fictitious “Martha Deane,” dispenser of household hints. A few years later, she signed a contract with CBS and was heard thrice weekly interviewing noted contemporaries, writers, actors, and politicians. While few recordings of McBride’s talks are available online, a tantalizing clip from one of her programs is interspersed in this NPR interview with McBride biographer Susan Ware.
McBride is chatting with brazen Tallulah Bankhead, who manages to break a broadcasting rule while politely inquiring about it:
Bankhead: “I can’t say, uh, ‘hell’ on radio, can I?”
Bankhead: “Well, excuse me.”
Not that interviewer McBride was starchy or self-conscious. Indeed, she succeeded in making acceptable what, to the ears of many, listeners and journalists alike, was radio’s dirtiest kind of talk: commercials. Shrewdly enterprising, she was not above promoting the wares of the sponsors. She even turned her audience into advertisers, reading letters she received from loyal tuners-in who had tried the products she endorsed during her talks.
Apart from reaching millions of Americans with her broadcasts, McBride also exerted influence on the younger generation with proto-feminist novels like Tune In for Elizabeth (1945). Subtitled “Career Story of a Radio Interviewer,” Tune In is McBride’s commentary on—and vindication of—her own profession, packaged as a piece of juvenile fiction.
Within the framework of her story, McBride offers advice and encouragement to those who, like everyday heroine Elizabeth Cary, are trying to break into radio without having to churn out serial romances (a career suggested to her by a female colleague): “World War II, it seemed, had cracked completely the walls of the Fourth Estate where women were concerned.”
The title character is one of those aspiring young women who pushed her way through the temporarily loosened patriarchal brickwork at a time when executive doors were still reserved for her male counterparts, too few of whom had gotten, let alone accepted, McBride’s message.
Elizabeth moves from Glendale, Illinois, to New York City in order to pursue a career in journalism. Family connections in the newspaper business notwithstanding, she finds herself drawn to the world of broadcasting; her inspiration is radio interviewer Janet Adams, a fictional stand-in for McBride. Rather than imitating her idol, who started out writing for the papers, Elizabeth is eager to venture straight into radio:
The times—and especially radio—are moving too fast for that. I think a new technique is developing in radio itself. I think that people like Janet Adams are its pioneers.
Working for Adams, Elizabeth is impressed how seriously the interviewer is taking her job; she becomes convinced that broadcasting can be an honest business, run with dignity and integrity—despite the commercials that Adams is contractually obligated to read on the air:
[Elizabeth] had thought of commercials as necessary evils, watching the announcer check off the list of products, everything from tea to toffee, as Miss Adams said a few words about each in the course of her broadcast. She had heard from her mother and other sources that housewives all over America trusted Janet Adams, took her advice without hesitation. But she had assumed that the product part of the program was arranged in advance with the sponsors, on the understanding that Miss Adams would feed it into the program as occasion offered. Elizabeth felt a glow of satisfaction. Granted that radio, as it was organized today, could not live without advertising, it was invigorating to learn that one program spoke its mind boldly, even where sponsors were concerned.
In addition to McBride’s justification of her part in radio advertising and the role of commercials in broadcast journalism, the novel emphasizes radio’s respect for the audience. Reading listener mail,
Elizabeth resolved never again to think of people as the public, to be dealt with on the basis of polls and surveys and experts who glibly listed the things ‘They’ liked or told you what they were able to understand. Why, they understood the whole wide world, these men and women from everywhere who tuned you in—or out, as you deserved—and who, if you were wise enough to keep close to them, would guard you from the awful conceit and self-satisfaction that would swiftly wreck both your job and you.
This is how McBride wanted to be perceived by her listeners. Expressing her ideals in uplifting fictions, she improved on—embroidered and enriched—this cherished relationship. In fiction, at least, she could generate fan mail without becoming the mouthpiece of corporations.