The Life of Radio: Norman Corwin Turns 97

Well, I just cast my two votes in the National Election here in Wales. It is the first time I’ve been given such a voice in a country not my own, and the first I am asserting my right to raise it since leaving Germany for New York City back in 1990. It is an important election, too, considering that, beginning this month, the National Assembly for Wales is enjoying new legislative powers and can henceforth pass laws (or assembly measures) affecting everyday living in the principality. Now, I won’t divulge just where I placed that X on the ballot sheets; but—caveat: creaky transition—I am going to tell you who gets my vote for “Most Underrated and Ignored American Poet of the 20th Century.” That would be Norman Corwin, who on this 3 May 2007 celebrates his ninety-seventh birthday.

He has been called the “poet laureate” of American radio, even though that title was never officially bestowed. As writer, director, and producer, he created some of the most eloquent, witty and stirring plays ever conceived for listening. He was the life of the medium at a time when it was alive (if not always well) as an artistic forum, and is ready to reach out to those, including myself, who refuse to turn a deaf ear to it. As The Easy Ace reminds us, he had a profound influence on the lives and careers of creative minds (like the aforementioned Robert Altman) who turned on the radio and turned on to his works.

What is the life of radio? Is it the voice, the word made sound, or sound itself? Are the airwaves the domain of the bard who writes for recital or the journalist who listens and records? When asked (by Douglas Bell, in a published interview titled Years of the Electric Ear) whether he thought of himself as a “creative, imaginative writer or as a sociologist or documentarian,” Corwin declared himself to be “definitely” the former. Perhaps, he was rather too accepting of the dichotomy. After all, many of his most compelling pieces for radio are at once reportage and poetry.

It was not by choice that he assumed the role of a radio documentarian, that he achieved fame for commemorative specials like “On a Note of Triumph” and “We Hold These Truths” or acclaim for series like An American in England and One World Flight). He enjoyed being witty and whimsical, writing satires and fantasies in verse disclosing “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas” or opening the case of “The Undecided Molecule”; but, once his powers of engaging the mind became known, he was being “importuned by radio entities” to speak on behalf of the American people in moments of sorrow, cheer, and sheer confusion.

The height of Corwin’s radio career—the heyday of the medium—coincides with the period of the Second World War; indeed, radio’s influence and status during those years was largely due to that global conflict, as the airwaves connected the home front to the theaters of war, however careful the filtration. For purposes of propaganda, radio recruited a great many authors who otherwise would have had little to do with the commerce-corrupted mass medium. In Corwin, broadcasters and government officials found an artist who not only knew the medium but loved and respected it, who could exploit it (rather than its listeners) while exploring its potentialities.

Corwin never turned his back on broadcasting, even when commercial radio in the US began to abandon the production of dramatic programming, already rendered largely inconsequential during the 1950s as a result of anti-Communist hysteria. Unlike many former radio playwrights, Corwin did not consider the airwaves to be a path to ostensibly bigger and better projects in other media. And if his writings are not nearly as well known today as they once were and deserve to be now, we should fault neither the topicality nor the transient nature of his work in sound, but cite the neglect of the stage on which it had been brought into existence.

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