On This Day in 1938: Americans Are Invited to "Stump the Experts"

Well, it was time to close the sixth broadcastellan poll, if only to devise another in which you are herewith invited to participate. So, what, in my view, has been radio’s chief contribution to American life in the pre-TV era? There is some validity to all of the proposed replies (which I would not have bothered to list otherwise); and even though the statement that the medium “promoted clear diction and elocution” was endorsed by none, it was not meant to be facetious. Depending so much on the spoken word, radio producers certainly had more respect for it than today’s entertainers, artists whose mumblings are the Brad Pittfalls of visual storytelling. And “Something else”? It might very well be broadcasting’s influence on the nation’s musical tastes, radio having served not only as an “everyman’s theater and public library,” but as a virtual concert hall.

Polls are nearly as fascinating to me as they are frustrating. I, for one, prefer not to give straight answers; I much rather respond or challenge, preferably after some reflection. The kind of question that can be answered decisively—the kind that requires one particular, supposedly right reply—is either unnecessary or suspect. Nor can I rely upon my memory as a fail-safe system for the ready retrieval of data, pieces of trivia with which I’d rather not clutter up my mind. So, it is with some trepidation that I note a significant anniversary in American broadcasting: the quiz program Information, Please, which had its radio premiere on this day, 17 May, in 1938 (and not, as the History Channel website will have you know, back in 1930).

Information, Please was billed as a celebrity quiz program on which everyday citizens asked the questions that experts from the fields of literature, science, motion pictures or politics were called upon to answer. Noted guest panelists to appear on the show during its first two seasons (along with regulars like the aforementioned Oscar Levant) include movie director Alfred Hitchcock, playwright Moss Hart, as well as authors Ben Hecht, Rex Stout, Louis Bromfield, and Christopher Morley.

Here are some of the questions raised during the first program:

“Correct the following line and name its author. And the line is: ‘In the spring a young man’s fancy always turns to thoughts of love.'”

“In what well-known symphony did the composer include a chord in order to awaken a sleeping audience?”

“How is immigration to the United States from the following nations restricted: England, Brazil, China?”

“Kyosti Kallio is a Greek Island, a dictator of Peru, President of Finland, or the name of a Japanese political party?”

Unlike the quiz and giveaway programs of late 1940s—which had an even more devastating effect on the production of dramatic entertainment than the reality show format has on today’s television storytelling—Information, Please did not depend for its success on shrewdly engendered greed and promises of instant gratification, whether experienced by the participant or felt by the listener. This does not mean, however, that the instincts worked upon by the comparatively sophisticated Information, Please were any less basic.

“Now, folks,” moderator Clifton Fadiman greeted the audience, “any education that you and I may pick up for the next half hour or so is all to the good; but beyond that we’re out simply to play this as a game and have some fun at it.” And the “fun” of Information, Please was not so much the thrill of getting it right, but of witnessing others of supposedly “towering intellect” (as Fadiman put it, mockingly) struggle and fail to meet the public’s challenge. To “stump the expert” was the objective, which was nothing less than an exercise in ridiculing the artist and the intellectual in a joyous vindication of mediocrity.

One Reply to “On This Day in 1938: Americans Are Invited to "Stump the Experts"”

  1. In its later years, the show\’s opening sequence would feature the crowing of a rooster and the announcer proclaiming \”Wake up, America! It\’s time to stump the experts!\”

    Like

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