For the Record: Lindbergh and the Electrola

Announcer Graham McNamee called it the “most terrific broadcast [he] ever took part in.” He was referring to NBC’s on-the-spot coverage of Colonel Charles L. Lindbergh’s return from France to the United States on this day, 11 June, in 1927. It certainly was a technical achievement worthy of “this new world hero, this new ambassador of America to all other countries,” as McNamee heralded the “unassuming, quiet boy” who was anxiously awaited “not only the crowd of us ordinary folks but the cabinet of the President of the United States, high officials of the army and of the navy [. . .].”

According to the September 1927 issue of Radio Broadcast, NBC’s coverage of the event set a “new record,” requiring fourteen thousand miles of “wire line” and involved three-hundred and fifty engineers.

Now, the figures differ depending on who does the counting and recounting. In Empire of the Air, for instance, Tom Lewis claims it took twelve thousand miles of wire and four hundred engineers. But never mind those figures now—or the fact that the figure of Lindbergh itself differs now that the man must be held accountable for his fascist views and Third Reich sympathies. It was an historical event on and in the air, in aviation and broadcasting alike.

Awarding him with the Flying Cross, President Coolidge called Lindbergh a “[c]onqueror of the air and strengthener of the ties which bind us to our sister nations across the sea.” When it came to strengthening ties, the public-conquering airwaves were second to none. Not only was NBC’s coverage of Lindbergh’s return home the biggest network hookup to date, it was also, as McNamee reminded listeners, “the first time band music or music has been transmitted from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast, which is another epoch.”

As columnist John Wallace argued in the September 1927 issue of Radio Broadcast, the

making known of great national events, while they are actually taking place is, after all, radio’s unique contribution, and the one field in which it reigns supreme without competition from phonographs, theaters, churches, or newspapers. And it is greatly to radio’s credit that it does this job so thoroughly and well.

Seizing the day, NBC may have rather overdone its coverage of the “hullabaloo incidental to Lindbergh’s arrival.” Commenting on the banquet given in the aviator’s honor, Wallace remarked that he

would have been quite content had all the speeches of eulogy been omitted and only that of the flyer broadcast. Never have we heard worse blah sprung at a banquet, and sprung by such eminent leaders, divines and statesmen!

Aware that his was no doubt a minority report, the journalist added that “the nation as a whole was interested in every and any detail of the flyer’s reception and credit must be given to the National Broadcasting Company for slipping up on no smallest part.”

What, though, of all those who were unable to be part of that moment because they were away both from Washington, D. C., where the celebrations took place, and from the wireless? Able to annihilate space, radio was nonetheless time-bound. Given the “ephemeral” nature of broadcasting, the effort and money set aside to capture and yet not hold this historic moment seemed almost perverse:

Thousands of dollars are spent to engage talent, wires covering half a continent are hired, advertising is scheduled in newspapers, several studio rehearsals are held, and finally the elaborate program is put on the air. For an hour it lasts but it can never be repeated. If you did not hear it, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put it into your loud speaker again.

For some time, radio listeners had been able to appreciate the voices of their radio favorites on their phonographs. Not only could they take home Sam ‘n’ Henry, Vaughn De Leath, or the Happiness Boys—radio had made that happen—but they could hold and keep them there. “A very great number of well-known radio artists are regularly recording for each of the important phonograph companies,” Radio Broadcast pointed out—and supplied a list of

fine recordings made by the favorites of the Atwater Kent hour, and the famous artists of the Victor, Brunswick and Columbia hours. As for the jazz bands, the comedy duos, and other entertainers with a more local fame, they, too, are forever at your beck and call on the black discs.

What makes the festivities in honor of Lindbergh’s return to America another milestone in the history of radio is that, for the first time, phonograph records of the live broadcast were made available for sale. As Radio Broadcast reported,

Victor has the distinction of pioneering and they offer three double-face records of the national welcome to Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh at Washington. On these three records you have the voice of President Coolidge, the interspersed announcements of Graham McNamee, a short address by Colonel Lindbergh, and his longer speech at the National Press Club. It’s all there and if you close your eyes, it isn’t hard to imagine that the events are just taking place .

True, what has been preserved for us is an edited copy of the live event; the “ceremonies were recorded on forty-six record surfaces” and “edited down” to six. True, editing is judging what matters; it is, to a degree, falsification, intentional or otherwise. Still, without the technology available back then, without the efforts of those broadcasting pioneers, I would not be writing about radio today. As much as I at times deplore my second-hand experiences, my removal in time and space from thrilling events and fascinating personages, I, as a belated auditor, am indebted to those records. And I am grateful, too, for the “new record” in aviation that marked the beginning of an age in which sound was no barrier.


Related recording
Graham McNamee on Lindbergh’s return to America (11 June 1927)
Recollections at 30, featuring the 11 June 1927 broadcast (26 December 1956)

Together . . . to Gaza? The Media and the Worthy Cause

The British Broadcasting Corporation has had its share of problems lately, what with its use of licensee fees to indulge celebrity clowns in their juvenile follies. Now, the BBC, which is a non-profit public service broadcaster established by Royal Charter, is coming under attack for what the paying multitudes do not get to see and hear, specifically for its refusal to broadcast a Disasters Emergency Committee appeal for aid to Gaza. According to the BBC, the decision was made to “avoid any risk of compromising public confidence in the BBC’s impartiality in the context of an ongoing news story.” To be sure, if the story weren’t “ongoing,” the need for financial support could hardly be argued to be quite as pressing.

In its long history, the BBC has often made its facilities available for the making of appeals and thereby assisted in the raising of funds for causes deemed worthy by those who approached the microphone for that purpose. Indeed, BBC radio used to schedule weekly “Good Cause” broadcasts to create or increase public awareness of crises big and small. Listener pledges were duly recorded in the annual BBC Handbook. From the 1940 edition I glean, for instance, that on this day, 29 January, in 1939, two “scholars” raised the amount of £1,310 for a London orphanage. Later that year, an “unknown cripple” raised £768, while singer-comedienne Gracie Fields’s speech on behalf of the Manchester Royal Infirmary brought in £2,315. The pleas weren’t all in the name of infants and invalids, either. The Student Movement House generated funds by using BBC microphones, as did the Hedingham Scout Training Scheme.

While money for Gaza remains unraised, the decision not to get involved in the conflict raises questions as to the role of the BBC, its ethics, and its ostensible partiality. Just what constitutes a “worthy” cause? Does the support for the civilian casualties of war signal an endorsement of the government of the nation at war? Is it possible to separate humanitarian aid from politics?

It strikes me that the attempt to staying well out of it is going to influence history as much as it would to make airtime available for an appeal. In other words, the saving of lives need not be hindered by the pledged commitment to report news rather than make it.

Impartiality and service in the public interest were principles to which the US networks were expected to adhere as well, however different their operations were from those of the BBC. In 1941, the FCC prohibited a station or network from speaking “in its own person,” from editorializing, e.g. urging voters to support a particular Presidential candidate; it ruled that “the broadcaster cannot be an advocate”; but this did not mean that airtime, which could be bought to advertise wares and services, could not be purchased as well for the promotion of ideas, ideals, and ideologies. The broadcasting of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats or his public addresses on behalf of the March of Dimes and the War Loan Drives did not imply the broadcasters’ favoring of the man or the cause.

On this day in 1944, all four major networks allotted time for the special America Salutes the President’s Birthday. Never mind that it wasn’t even FDR’s birthday until a day later. The cause was the fight against infantile paralysis; but that did not prevent Bob Hope from making a few jokes at the expense of the Republicans, who, he quipped, had all “mailed their dimes to President Roosevelt in Washington. It’s the only change they get to see any change in the White House.”

A little change can bring about big changes; but, as a result of the BBC’s position on “impartiality,” much of that change seems to remain in the pockets of the public it presumes to inform rather than influence.


Related recording
America Salutes the President’s Birthday, currently in my online library
My library of books on radio

Related writings
Go Tell Auntie: Listener Complaints Create Drama at BBC
Election Day Special: Could This Hollywood Heavy Push You to the Polls?

Biggest Announcement Ever

No, I am not referring to today’s publication of the Academy’s chosen nominees for this year’s Oscars; nor am I going to circulate information about some future event of alleged significance. The kind of announcement of which I speak was made seventy years ago, to the day, back when announcing was both a business and an art. Whether they served as barkers or featured as sidekicks, whether they peddled toilet soap or introduced those nine out of ten stars who condescended to claim they used it, announcers heard on network radio were respected and highly-paid professionals. Celebrities in their own right, they had come to prominence in the 1920s, well before they had many big names to drop.

Beginning in the mid-1930s, NBC’s Chicago headquarters even ran an announcer school. According to the 16 April 1938 issue of Radio Guide, the school offered classes in “pronunciation, writing and reading script, speaking extemporaneously, reading three-minute announcements in town and four minutes, and other tests designed to simulate an announcer’s actual experience.”

About those actual experiences: as I perused the radio listings for Sunday, 22 January 1939 (which, along with hundreds of such published broadcast schedules, have been made available at this invaluable site), I became rather wistful about the printed announcements of so many fine or worthwhile programs I may never get to hear. Claudette Colbert’s visit with Charlie McCarthy, for instance, or Jane Cowl’s performance in an adaptation of Schiller’s Maria Stuart. And how about Mayor La Guardia in a “Two-Way Transoceanic Talk” with the Lord Mayor of London—from a police car no less!

Rather than getting carried away in an ode to faded echoes, I studied the listings to verify the broadcast dates for some of the recordings that are in my library. Of Carole Lombard’s Presidential prediction and Cary Grant’s singing in The Circle presided over by Ronald Colman I have found occasion to write previously; but the really big announcement was made on a March of Dimes spectacular (shared here), an announcement even greater than the cast assembled in the fight against infantile paralysis.

And what a cast! It isn’t often that you get to hear Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Rudy Vallee, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Frances Langford, Bob Burns, and Fanny Brice in a single broadcast, and find them joined to boot by film stars Norma Shearer and Tyrone Power, recording artist Maxine Sullivan and tenor Frank Parker, as well as teenaged Mickey Rooney performing one of his own compositions, “Have a Heart.”

Not that what they had to say or sing was all drivel, either. Eddie Cantor, who was an outspoken anti-fascist when it was not yet de rigueur or prudent to be one, had the best line of the evening when, commenting on the popularity of swing music, he remarked:

A lot of people say that maybe these children shouldn’t be worshipping at the shrine of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. And I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, as a father and as a citizen, I’d much prefer to have these children hailing band leaders than heil-ing bund leaders.

Still, what, above all, distinguishes this March of Dimes broadcast from any such extravaganzas is its opening announcement:

The thirty-seven voices to which you are now listening represent the combined personnel of announcers employed by Mutual, Columbia, and National Broadcasting Networks in Hollywood. Tonight, we speak as one voice, a voice which reflects the sentiment of an entire nation when it says: infantile paralysis must go.

On the air, nothing could bespeak radio’s commitment to a cause more forcefully. I wonder whether the NBC announcer school prepared its students for choric recitals.


Related recording
The Circle (22 January 1939)

Related writings and images
My album of radio stars, featuring Eddie Cantor and Frank Parker
Carole Lombard and Cary Grant on The Circle
Mickey Rooney live, December 2008
Mayor La Guardia’s response to Pearl Harbor

"I welcome their hatred": FDR’s Halloween Speech (1936)

“For twelve years, our nation was afflicted with ‘see nothing, hear nothing, do nothing’ government.” That is what President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared in a campaign speech at New York City’s Madison Square Garden on this day, Halloween, in 1936. Make that “eight years,” and a presidential nominee could give the speech today. Count the previous Bush administration and you got those twelve years, an era that the majority of those polled—and the majority of those looking on beyond US borders—are anxious to consider bygone next January.

“The nation looked to that government, but that government looked away,” FDR continued. It had been “nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadline. Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair.” Checking that Wall Street ticker lately, I have come to suspect that those years of despair and breadlines may well lie ahead. They will be a test for the candidate who succeeds next Tuesday.

FDR, who had pulled America out of that crisis, warned that “powerful influences” were “trying to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that government is best which is most indifferent to mankind.” That, to me, sums up Republican politics, the kind of politics that count on the voters’ lowest impulse, individual greed, to sell its idea of carrying on at the expense of all else, be it nature or the future of mankind.

“For four years now,” FDR reminded his listeners,

you have had an administration, which instead of twirling its thumbs, has rolled up its sleeves. And I assure you that we keep our sleeves rolled up. We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace, business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering. They had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs; and we know now that government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.

I am sure that many Republicans fear nothing more tonight than the impending end of politics as usual; and they have as good a reason to be afraid as do those who dread the prospect of having to endure such politics for another four, devastating years. Whatever your mask or affiliations, this is the night to be scared together. Happy Halloween!

Will It Go Her Way?: Some Seriously Belated Oscar Predictions

As usual, I am slow to catch up. A few years ago, the BBC relinquished the rights to televising the Oscars; and since we are not subscribing to the premium channel that does air them, I am relying on the old wireless to transport me to the events. So, here I am listening to . . . the 17th Academy Awards. Considering that Claudette Colbert is nominated for Since You Went Away, I just had to tune in. Also among the nominees, for his supporting role in the same picture, is Monty Woolley, the man to whom our terrier owes his name. This year, the event is hosted by Bob Hope (it was rival radio comic Jack Benny last time). There will be scenes from the nominated pictures, which are going to be explained to us radio listeners. While the president of the Academy, Walter Wanger, is saying a few words (at sixty minutes, this is a rather overblown affair), I might as well share my predictions with you.

As much as I enjoyed Since You Went Away, my money is on Double Indemnity in the Best Picture category. Gaslight is just a one dark note affair, and I don’t think that Wilson, which I haven’t seen, or Going My Way got much of a chance. Stanwyck should get the trophy for Best Actress; but, as you may know, I am partial to Colbert, who hasn’t won in a decade. Besides, she’s delivered a beautifully restrained performance, rather than going all maudlin or hysterical.

Hush, the ceremony is getting under way. It is broadcast live from Grauman’s Chinese. Hope just quipped that he never knew it was a theater, but thought “that it was where Darryl Zanuck had his laundry done.” He can joke; after all, he is being honored with a lifetime membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his many services to the Academy (“Now I know how Roosevelt feels”).

Could Agnes Moorehead win this time for Mrs. Parkington, her second Best Supporting Actress nomination? I certainly like her radio acting. Did you catch “Sorry, Wrong Number”? Mark my word: if it ever gets adapted for the screen, she’s sure to get the Oscar for that role. She also was terrific in the brief scenes she had in Since You Went Away, in which Joseph Cotten’s character refers to hers as the voice that haunted him across the Atlantic. I don’t think Angela Lansbury got much of a chance in this category; Hollywood doesn’t quite know what to do with her. Maybe she’ll find her medium one day.

Gosh, can you imagine all those stars in one big auditorium? According to Hope, “it’s informal dress”—“they only had to send Bing Crosby home twice.” Now, the winner for Short Subjects (Cartoon) is announced; the award goes to Fred Quimby’s “Mouse Trouble”—what’s next, rats winning best animated feature?—and Max Steiner just scored for scoring Since You Went Away.

I know this makes me sound like a nance, but I’d be terribly upset if Art Direction (Color), did not go to the team behind Mitchell Leisen’s Lady in the Dark; the film faces tougher competition in the Cinematography (Color) category, though, where it is up against Kismet and Meet Me in St. Louis. For Black and White, Joseph LaShelle for Laura should come out on top. I was rooting for Leisen’s No Time for Love and its clever dream sequence to win the Oscar for Art Direction (Black and White), which just lost to Gaslight.

Hang on, there is some mix-up about the trophies. Sure sounds unscripted. In fact, Hope, the old pro at the microphone, seems to have forgotten the audience outside the theater, folks like me who don’t get to see what’s going on. At least we are being treated to a few notes from the twelve nominated songs and the voices of Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, Dinah Shore, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

Meanwhile, I am testing out my second sight. Best Director is going to be either Wilder or Hitchcock, who faced such tough competition a few years back when Rebecca lost, rightly, to The Grapes of Wrath. A shame, really, that Tallulah wasn’t even nominated for Life Boat, for the Original Motion Picture Story of which John Steinbeck is likely to get awarded. Original Screenplay, of course, will go to Preston Sturges, who, after all is nominated twice (for Hail the Conquering Hero and Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). And if the Screenplay Oscar doesn’t go to Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, then I don’t know what what is . . .