Magnetic Realism: Norman Corwin’s One World Flight

Well, it kept Bing Crosby on the air; but it also made that air feel a lot staler. Magnetic tape. Its introduction back in 1946 was a recorded death sentence to the miracle and the madness of live radio. Dreaded by producers of minutely timed dramas and comedy programs, going live had been the life or radio. Intimate and immediate, each half-hour behind the microphone had the urgency of a once-in-a-lifetime event. Actors and musicians gathered for a special moment and remained in the presence of the listener for the express purpose of being there for them and with them, however far away. They made time for an audience that, in turn, was making time for them. In a world of commerce in which democratic principles were reduced to the ready access to cheap reproductions, the quality of being inimitable and original was fast becoming a rare commodity indeed. The time for the magic of the time-bound art, the theater of the fourth dimension, was fast running out.

And yet, in the right hands, this new technology also meant innovation. It held the promise of unprecedented access to an unscripted and unrehearsed reality, the kind that live broadcasting scarcely approximated but often faked. One such groundbreaking program was Norman Corwin’s fourteen-part documentary One World Flight, which premiered on this day, 14 January, in 1947.

As I discuss it at length in Etherized Victorians, my doctoral study on so-called old-time radio, Corwin had played with the idea of taking listeners around the world in flights of fancy like “Daybreak”; he had created the illusion of on-the-spot reportage in dramatic series like Passport for Adams. Journalistically speaking, One World Flight was the real thing. As a recipient of the first annual One World Award commemorating Wendell Willkie’s diplomatic tour in 1942, Corwin spent four months circling the globe, gathering one hundred hours of interviews, indigenous sounds, and ethnic music. “Here is real documentary radio,” playwright Jerome Lawrence declared in his introduction to a published transcript of the first program; “[r]adio from a shiny chrome studio at Sunset and Vine or at 485 Madison [was] kindergarten stuff in comparison.”

One World Flight presented a post-war world in turmoil, at once a strange new world of opportunity and a breeding ground for hatred and conflict. Corwin’s editorial scissors did not snip away what his tape had managed to capture, even though the voices of hope were given a prominent spot. The future prime minister of India is heard calmly expressing the belief that “freedom for one world” lies in the acceptance of the fact that people and nations “are not alike,” that “everybody is not the same,” and that otherness does not imply inferiority.

One World Flight provides aural proof in support of this sentiment, “moments out of interviews with people high and low; optimists, pessimists; liberals, fascists, communists; stevedores, prime ministers.” According to Corwin who also narrated, the “profoundest things” were not always said by “presidents and premiers,” but by “ordinary” and “humble people.”

Among the “actually recorded” speakers are an Italian woman despairing over the loss of her family during the bombardment of her village; a Filipino girl dismayed that Truman did not drop the atomic bomb on Russia; a Russian newspaper editor who warns that fascist conflagrations begin with a spark; and an Australian accountant cautioning against the advancement of the “colored races,” a “Frankenstein monster” that would “turn on” and “devour us, like the Japanese.” Replacing his idealized—and idealizing—microphone with a magnetic wire recorder, Corwin picked up ideological dissonance where he had hoped for “testaments of agreement.”

To Lawrence, these recordings, though not always “Magnavox-clear,” were of an “authenticity” that was “startlingly refreshing to a fiction-tired radio listener.” He defied his readers to “sit down at a typewriter and compose such simple, straightforward literary dynamite” as was set off on One World Flight.

“Without the tape recorder one wonders if radio would be the exciting instrument it is today,” remarked one radio critic, citing as exemplary The People Act (1952), a short-lived series of community documentaries that relied entirely on taped interviews and speeches. Such uses of magnetic tape remained the exception, however; the increasing reliance on recorded material resulted instead in the prefabrication of formerly live programming and the institution of summer reruns, a new efficiency in network broadcasting that spelled artistic impoverishment rather than renewal.

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