“There [still] ain’t no sense to nothin’”: A Wayward Text Comes Home

“Home at last,” I could almost hear myself sigh as, out of the narrow slit in our front door, I yanked the packet arriving today.  Bearing my name, as few pieces of mail of any consequence or sustenance do nowadays, it contained the volume Audionarratology: Lessons from Radio Drama, to which I had been invited a few years ago to contribute a chapter.  The book was published in July 2021 by Ohio State University, a press renowned for its contribution to the evolving discourse on narratology.  

The titular neologism suggests that an engagement with aural storytelling is proposed as one way of broadening a field that has enriched the interpretation not only of literature but also of visual culture.  Whether such aural storytelling should be subsumed under the rubric ‘radio drama’ is something I debated in my study Immaterial Culture, for which I settled on the term ‘radio play,’ as, I argued, the fictions written for radio production and transmission are hybrids whose potentialities remained underexplored and whose contribution to the arts underappreciated in part due to the alignment of such plays with works for stage and screen.  Nor am I sure that, by adding the prefix, “audionarratology” will be regarded as a subgroup of narratology – which would defeat the purpose of broadening said field.

To the question what “Lessons” may be learned from plays for radio, or from our playing with them, the quotation that serves as title of my essay provides a serviceable response: “There ain’t no sense to nothin.”  The line is uttered by one of the characters in I Love a Mystery, the thriller serial I discuss – and it is expressive of the bewilderment I felt when first I entered the world created in the 1930s and 1940s by the US American playwright-producer Carlton E. Morse.  My cumbersome subtitle is meant to suggest how I responded to the task of making sense not only of the play but also of the field in which I was asked to position it: “Serial Storytelling, Radio-Consciousness and the Gothic of Audition.”

By labelling ‘gothic’ not simply the play but my experience of it, I aim to bring to academic discourse my feeling of unease, a sense of misgivings about explaining away what drew me in to begin with, the lack of vocabulary with which adequately to describe my experience of listening, the anxiety of having to theorise within the uncertain boundaries of a discourse that I sought to broaden instead of delimiting.

Throughout my experience with radio plays of the so-called golden age, I felt that, playing recording or streaming play, I had to audition belatedly for a position of listener but that I could never hear the plays as they were intended to be taken in – serially, via radio – during those days before the supremacy of television, the medium that shaped my childhood.

In the essay, I try to communicate what it feels like not knowing – not knowing the solution to a mystery, not quite knowing my place vis-à-vis the culture in which the play was produced or the research culture in which thriller programs such as I Love a Mystery are subjected to some theory and much neglect.  Instead of analysing a play, I ended up examining myself as a queer, English-as-second-language listener estranged from radio and alien to the everyday of my grandparent’s generation – never mind that my German grandfather fought on the Axis side while the US home front stayed tuned to news from the frontlines as much as it tuned in to thrillers and comedies that were hardly considered worthy of being paraded as the so-called forefront of modernism.  So, a measure of guilt enters into the mix of emotions with which I struggle to approach or sell such cultural products academically.

The resulting chapter is proposed as a muddle, not as a model – although its self-consciousness may be an encouragement to some who are struggling to straddle the line between their searching, uncertain selves and the construct of a scholarly identity.  Its failings and idiosyncrasies are no strategic efforts to fit in by playing the misfit or refitting the scene – they are proposed as candid reflection of my mystification.  

They also bespeak the fact that the essay, unfinished or not fully realised though it may seem, was a quarter century in the making.  It started out by twisting the dial of my stereo receiver and happening on Max Schmid’s ear-opening program The Golden Age of Radio on WBAI, New York, agonising whether to turn my newly discovered hobby into the subject of academic study, enrolling in Richter course “The Rise of the Gothic” at CUNY, and by responding to the essay brief by exploring gothic radio plays and radio adaptations of Gothic literature.

Once I had decided to abandon my Victorian studies in favor of old-time radio, the essay was revised to become a chapter of my PhD study Etherized Victorians.  It was revisited but removed from Immaterial Culture as an outlier – the only longer reading of a play not based on a published script – during the process of negotiating the space allotted by the publisher.  It had a lingering if non-too-visible presence on my online journal broadcastellan as an experiment in interactive blogging, and it now appears in a volume devoted to a subject of which I had no concept when I started out all those years ago.

The draft, too, has gone through a long process of negotiation — of editing, cutting and rewriting – at some point of which the frankness of declaring myself to be among the “outsiders” of the discourse did not make the editors’ cut.

So, home the essay has come; but the home has changed, as has its dweller, a student of literature who transmogrified into an art historian with a sideline of aurality, and who now has to contend with tinnitus and hearing loss when listening out for clues to non-visual mysteries and, ever self-conscious, waits for his cue to account for the latest of his botches, or, worse still, to be met with silence.  Estrangement, uncertainty, and the misery of having to account for the state of being mesmerised by mysteries unsolved – such is the gothic of audition.

The Avant-Garde and Our Disregard: Network Radio as a Modernist Misfit

My copy of Tuning in to the Neo-Avant-Garde: Experimental Radio Plays in the Postwar Period arrived in the mail today.  Chapter 3 bears the somewhat cumbersome title “A Forefront in the Aftermath? Recorded Sound and the State of Audio Play on Post-‘Golden Age’ US Network Radio.”  My contribution to the volume, it is a sequel of sorts to Immaterial Culture, in which I sought to engage with radio plays written and produced in the United States between 1929 and 1954 – before sitting in front of the television became a national pastime in the US. The chapter looks at plays written and produced in the wake of that so-called ‘golden age of radio.’

In status and quality of production but not initially in quantity, radio plays in the United States decreased rapidly in the 1950s.  The ‘Aftermath’ referred to in my title meant an adjustment to the political developments and economic realities of post-Second World War society.  It reflects at once victory and defeat, opportunity and opportunism: the redefinition of the Pursuit of Happiness in terms of consumer culture, the concrete threat of anti-Communism, and the effect both had on the production, distribution and the experience of aural art.

In my writing, as in my teaching, I tend to be concerned primarily with definitions and the questioning of terminology. What is ‘radio’ about radio plays, for instance? And what, if anything, makes them ‘avant-garde’ rather than merely ‘experimental’?  

Addressing the conflation of – or the disregard for – production and broadcasting in discussions of radio plays qua texts, “A Forefront in the Aftermath?” considers the questions whether a radio play not ‘heard over the radio’ is still a radio play and whether aural play can meaningfully be termed ‘avant-garde’ without regard to the conditions under which it is produced and the system in which it becomes enmeshed.  

When, in 2018, I was invited to submit a proposal for the conference Tuning in to the Neo-Avant-garde, I set out by mulling over the term ‘neo-avant-garde’ to determine whether I could make a meaningful contribution to the discussion.  As someone who has devoted a doctoral study, an obscure book, and several hundred blog posts to mid-twentieth century US radio culture, I harbored doubts about the aptness of the label ‘neo-avant-garde’ in the context of my endeavor to keep up with texts presumably well past their sell-by date: plays created for and broadcast on US American network radio priorto 1954 – the year that the TV dinner came on the market to drive home that radio was no longer fresh, the year that retired radio satirist Fred Allen, reflecting on his career in broadcasting, declared that radio had been ‘abandoned like the bones at a barbecue.’  “A Forefront in the Aftermath” examines the leftovers – and it has a bone to pick with those who glean selectively.

Examining recordings of US network radio broadcasts dating from, roughly, the first decade after the end of the Second World War, alongside commercial records and tape recording exchanges, my essay seeks to demonstrate how experimental ‘radio play’ – as distinguished from the broader term ‘audio play’ – was defined and circumscribed by the system of network broadcasting.  The creative possibilities of recorded sound, in particular, where never fully explored.

It is no coincidence that, just as New York City was becoming the centre of the Western art world – and sound recording was gaining recognition as art – radio ceased to be regarded as a medium for artistic experimentation, which it had been, to some extent, in the 1930s and early 1940s.  Experimentation, once in the service of left-wing, anti-fascist causes, had no utility for broadcasters when such an agenda no longer served to unify the US American public against foreign powers, as wartime propaganda had done.

In recent years, modernist scholars have tried to claim the output of the popular medium for modernism.  Calling the guarded play of popular culture ‘avant-garde’  – after decades of disregard – is part of that misguided and rather disingenuous effort.  The fact that US network radio does not fit modernist narratives suggests that constructs such as modernism are not fit for the purpose of catching up with the unclassifiable products of the past.

Ekphrasis My Eye; or, An Ear for Tulips

How many times have I said to myself, “Wake up and hear the tulips”? Literally, never.  But the improbability of following such a directive has crossed my mind, especially during the pandemic that has kept us from venturing out into the world and fully to engage all of our senses.  Seeing images of flowers is hardly the same thing as experiencing spring.  

The limitations of vicarious living online have made themselves felt.  I, for one, am not feeling it anymore, this ersatz world of keeping in touch without touching, of being nosey without the chance of a whiff, of getting a taste of what it’s like out there without getting as much as a morsel of it inside me.

That said, here I am online, flicking through digitized magazines and newspapers of yesteryear, a forest of ancient pulp springing back to life for a belated flowering.  Searching for nothing in particular, I came across this headline in an edition of Radio Dial dating from 20 May 1937: “Ted Husing to Describe Tulip Festival.”  Is there anything less phonogenic than an oversized still life of flowers?

More incongruous than the idea of devoting a sound-only broadcast to such a spectacle is the choice of Ted Husing as the guy to try out his ekphrastic skills on it. Was not Husing a celebrated sportscaster, typecast as such in movies like To Please a Lady (1950), as I mentioned here a long while back?  It must have been challenging for him to get animated when tasked with the assignment of making Liliaceae sound lively through verbal acrobatics.  I’m guessing.  I never heard the broadcast.

‘Actually,’ sports were only one aspect of his career in radio. Husing remarked in retrospect that he ‘logged far more broadcasting time on music and special events.’  He claimed to have been responsible for the discovery or promotion of entertainers including Rudy Vallee, Guy Lombardo, Bing Crosby, and Desi Arnaz.  

Husing had a nose for radio’s no-show business, all right.  In fact, he had it broken for that very purpose, as he explained it in his first autobiography, Ten Years Before the Mike (1935):

Some of the acoustics experts and sinus engineers decided my voice would have a bit more resonance if my antrums were widened. Or is it antra? Anyhow, since the technical people had spent years perfecting microphones especially for my vocal vibrations, I couldn’t see how I could hold back on my antrums, personal as they are to me. So I went to the sawbones, took a couple of shots of coke, and had ’em broken out.

Having gone through such lengths, you might as well travel to Holland to tell folks at home what tulips look like.  In fact, Husing only went as far as Holland, Michigan, where the festival in question was held annually.  And it wasn’t all about the tulips, either, as tiptoers were given a run for their money by the ‘Klompen Dance,’ an orchestrated clacking of thousands of wooden shoes on the pavement.  The article also threatened folk songs.  Not much demand for subtle word-painting there.

Antrum, tantrum.  However he felt that day, Husing was lucky to have had assignments like this, to have spent years translating observed sights into spoken words.  Lucky, because he ended up losing his eyesight after a brain tumor operation.  I imagine that spending much of his life on the air, creating a world made of sound helped him to shape a life for himself that was focused on the vision he only partially recovered.

Sure, radio is a sound-only medium; but it encourages the translative act of hearing that opens us up to the senses that we might lose sight of if we rely too much on our eyes. No need to cue those Klompen Dancers to drive the point home.

Forecasts in Hindsight: Wrongly Predicting the 1948 Presidential Election

As my motto ‘Keeping up with the out-of-date’ is meant to suggest, I tend to look toward the past; and yet, I resist retreat.  Retrospection is not retrogressive; nor need it be it a way of reverencing what is presumably lost or of gaining belated control over what back at a certain time of ‘then’ was the uncertainty of life in progress. I am interested in finding the ‘now’ – my ‘now’ – in the ‘then,’ or vice versa, and in wresting currency from recurrences.

Many articles in Crosby’s column made it into this 1952 volume, which is on my bookshelf. The item discussed here did not.

I also tend to look at the ephemeral and everyday, the disposable objects or throwaway remarks we think or rather do not think of at all and dismiss as immaterial and obsolete, as too flimsy to carry any weight for any length of time.  Take an old syndicated newspaper column such as John Crosby’s “Radio in Review,” for instance.  Back in November 1948, Crosby, whose writing was generally concerned with programs and personalities then on the air, commented on a US presidential election that apparently no one, at least no one in the news media, had predicted accurately.  “Dewey Defeats Truman,” the headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune erroneously read on 3 November that year. Having listened to the words dispensed over the airwave on that day after – or, depending on your politics, in the aftermath of an election that paved the way for another term for President Harry S. Truman – Crosby noted:

‘Perhaps never before have such handsome admissions of error reverb[e]rated from so many lips with such a degree of humility as they did on the air last week.’  Truman had been in office since the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945; but in 1948, he had confirmation at last that the public – or the majority of those who made their views public and official – agreed that he belonged there.  As Crosby pointed out, even seasoned political commentators had predicted a Republican victory.

‘[T]here probably never has been an election post-mortem in which the words “I told you so” were not heard at all,’ the columnist remarked, adding that ‘if they were said, [he] didn’t hear them.’  To his knowledge, ‘[n]o professional commentators … told anyone so.’

Among those who, according to Crosby, got it more wrong than others was the ultra-conservative broadcaster Fulton Lewis Jr., an opportunist and influencer who, Crosby remarked, had gone ‘far beyond’ his fellow commentators by predicting ‘Republican victories in states where most observers foresaw a seesaw battle.’  

Speaking from the secular pulpit that was his radio program, Lewis ‘fully admitted his wrongness’ after the fact, Crosby noted, reading aloud the messages he received from listeners who ‘invited him to drop dead,’ to ‘throw himself’ into Chesapeake Bay, or to ‘go soak his head in a vinegar barrel.’  Far from remorseful or self-deprecating, such revelling in controversy is representative of right-wing provocation as we experience it to this day.  

A question not posed by Crosby is whether future Barry Goldwater supporter Lewis simply got it wrong – or whether he predicted wrongly to demoralise Truman’s supporters by suggesting that a Republican landslide was a foregone conclusion. Given Lewis’s known bias, the miscalculation was obviously not calculated to rattle Truman supporters out of complacency. So, a question worth asking now not how commentators got it so wrong, but why.

Lowell Thomas, a conservative commentator courting an audience of both major parties, insisted that he had not predicted the election but that he had merely ‘passed along the opinions of others.’  Thomas added, however, that, had he made a prediction, ‘he’d have been as wrong as everyone else.’  Unlike Lewis, this statement suggests, Thomas distinguished between reportage and commentary, the line between which was drawn no more clearly in 1948 broadcasting than it is in today’s mass media, discredited though they are as ‘legacy’ and presumably obsolete by the social media weaponizing political right.

Reporter Elmer Davis who, also unlike Lewis, was critical of then on-the-rise Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Democrat who turned Republican and opposed the Truman presidency for being soft on Communism,  provided this statement to his listeners: ‘Any of us,’ he said, ‘who analyze news on the radio or in the papers must hesitate to try to offer any explanation to a public which remembers too well the lucid and convicing explanations we all offered day before yesterday of why Dewey had it in the bag.’  Commentators had ‘beaten’ their ‘breasts’ and ‘heaped ashes’ on their heads since the election, Davis told his audience; but they still looked ‘pretty foolish’ and should probably wait some time before sticking their ‘necks’ out again.

‘Cheer up, you losers,’ veteran newscaster H. V. Kaltenborn declared on his radio program, ‘It isn’t so bad as you think.’  The peculiar mash-up of scoffing, commiserating, mind-reading and prognosticating did not escape Crosby, who wondered just what went on in the ‘mind’ of someone who, more than having misjudged who lost, might himself have lost it.

The ‘explanations as to why President Truman won were almost as identical as the pre-election prediction that he wouldn’t,’ Crosby observed, namely that the nation ‘liked an underdog.’  Just how much of an ‘underdog’ can a presidential incumbent be? Playing one on TV would prove a winning formula for Donald Trump, at least, and the kind of doghouse he managed to furnish for himself, which is so unlike the residence some of us envision as rightfully his, provides support of that theory.

Summing up the state of desperation among commentators, Crosby stated that ‘many’ of them derived rather ‘odd comfort’ from the fact that US ally turned adversary Josef Stalin, who likewise incorrectly predicted a win for Republican candidate Thomas E. Dewey, ‘had been just as wrong as they were.’

Sure, there is momentary relief in Schadenfreude, seeing those who got it wrong having to admit – or trying to avoid admitting – the fact that, in hindsight, they were demonstrably wrong, and, being wrong, on the wrong side of the future.  And yet, getting it wrong may also be evidence of wrongdoing, of deceit and deviousness.  As someone relegated to the sidelines, I can offer only one reasonable piece of advice to those who prefer a Truman over a Trump: pay attention to but do not trust folks who are determined to convince you that your vote does not matter much by declaring the game to be over when it is still afoot.

That’s No Lady. That’s an Executive: Robert Hardy Andrews’s Legend of a Lady (1949)

Dust jacket of my copy of Legend of a Lady, which I added to my library in June 2020

In “‘Hawkers of feces? Costermongers of shit?’: Exits and Recantations,” the final chapter of Immaterial Culture, I briefly discuss how creative talent working in the US broadcasting industry during the 1930s and 1940s tended to recall their experience upon closing the door to the world of radio in order to pursue careers they deemed more lofty and worthy.  Few had anything positive to say about that world, and their reminiscences range from ridicule to vitriol.

Within a year or two after the end of the Second World War, attacks on the radio industry became widespread and popular; most notable among them was The Hucksters, a novel by Frederic Wakeman, a former employee of the advertising agency Lord & Thomas.  Between 1937 and 1945, Wakeman had developed radio programs and sales campaigns for corporate sponsors, an experience that apparently convinced him to conclude there was ‘no need to caricature radio.  All you have to do,’ the author’s fictional spokesperson sneers, ‘is listen to it.’

Such ‘parting shots,’ as I call them in Immaterial Culture, resonated with an audience that, after years of fighting and home front sacrifices, found it sobering that Democratic ideals, the Four Freedoms and the Pursuit of Happiness were being reduced to the right – and duty – to consume.  After a period of relative restraint, post-war radio went all out to spread such a message, until television took over and made that message stick with pictures showing the latest goods to get and guard against Communism.

Following – and no doubt encouraged by – the commercial success of The Hucksters, the soap opera writer Robert Hardy Andrews published Legend of a Lady, a novel set, like Wakeman’s fictional exposé, in the world of advertising.  Andrews probably calculated that like The Hucksters and owing to it Legend would be adapted for the screen, as his novel Windfall had been.

Unlike in The Hucksters, the industry setting is secondary in Legend of a Lady.  Andrews has less to say about radio than he has about women in the workforce.  And what he has to say on that subject the dust jacket duly proclaims: ‘Legend of a Lady is the story of pretty, fragile Rita Martin, who beneath her charming exterior is hell-bent for personal success and who tramples with small, well-shod feet on all who stand in her way.’  The publisher insisted that ‘it would be hard to find a more interesting and appalling character.’

I did not read the blurb beforehand, and, knowing little about the novel other than the milieu in which it is set, I was not quite prepared for the treatment the title character receives not only by the men around her but by the author. The Legend of the Lady, which I finished reading yesterday, thinking it might be just the stuff for a reboot of my blog, opens intriguingly, and with cinematic potential, as the Lady in question picks up ‘her famous white-enameled portable typewriter in small but strong hands’ and throws it ‘through the glass in the office widow,’ right down onto Madison Avenue, the artificial heart of the advertising industry.

This is Mad Women, I thought, and looked forward to learning, in flashback, how a ‘small but strong’ female executive gets to weaponise a tool of the trade instead of dutifully sitting in front of it like so many stereotypical office gals.  Legend of a Lady is ‘appalling’ indeed, reminding readers that dangerous women may be deceptively diminutive, that they are after the jobs held by their male counterparts, and that, rest assured, dear conservative reader, they will pay for it.  In the end, Rita Martin, a single mother trying to gain independence from her husband and making a living during the Great Depression, exists an office ‘she would never enter again.’  Along the way, she loses everything –spoiler alert – from her sanity to her son.

The blurb promises fireworks, but what Legend of a Lady delivers is arson.  It is intent on reducing to ashes the aspirational ‘legend’ of women who aim to control their destiny in post-war America.  The world of soap opera writing and production serves as mere a backdrop to render such ambitions all the more misguided: soap operas are no more real than the claim that working for them is a meaningful goal.  As a writer of serials for mass consumption, Robert Hardy Andrews apparently felt threatened and emasculated working in a business in which women achieved some success in executive roles.  In a fiction in which men big and small suffer deaths and fates worth than that at the delicate hand of Rita Martin, Andrews created for himself a neo-romantic alter ego – the rude, nonchalant freelance writer Tay Crofton, who refuses to be dominated by a woman he would like to claim for himself but does not accept as a partner on her own terms, presumably because she cannot be entrusted with the power she succeeds in wresting from the men around her without as much as raising her voice.

Devoid of the trimmings and trappings of Hollywood storytelling, without glamor or camp, without gowns by Adrian or brows by Crawford, Legend of a Lady serves its misogyny straight up – but it couches its caution against ‘small’ women in spurious philosophy by claiming that, for men and women alike, there is life outside the proverbial squirrel cage that Andrews relentlessly rattles for his agonizing spin on the battle of the sexes.

Immaterial Me

My study Immaterial Culture: Literature, Drama and the American Radio Play, 1929-1954 has just been published. So, as well as explaining the subject matter of the book and the objectives of its writer, I decided to devote a few journal entries to the story behind its production, to its birth and life in relation to my own journey.  There is also the small matter of its afterlife, a matter to which no parent, proud or otherwise, can be entirely indifferent.

Along with my other recent publications and current projects, of which I have said nothing in this journal, Immaterial Culture has long kept me from materializing here.  No doubt, I could have made more effective use of broadcastellan as a promotional vehicle.  And yet, writing, like listening to radio plays, is a solitary experience; at least it is so for me.

Like the performers behind the microphone, writers are generally removed from the audience for whom their performance is presumably intended, an audience that often seems so abstract as to be no more than a construct.  The writer, script reader and listener may be sitting in a crowded room, and that crowd may well matter; but what matters more is the immateriality of the words once they are read or spoken.  Words that create images or match stored ones.  Words that evoke and awake feelings, stimulate thought.  Words that, uttered though they are to the multitude, begin to matter personally and take on a multitude of new lives.

That Immaterial Culture is a profoundly personal book will not be readily apparent to anyone reading it.  After all, I have refrained from using the first person singular to refer to myself as the reader or interpreter of the plays I discuss.  I thought I’d leave the privilege to say “I” to that “obedient servant” of the Mercury Theatre, the orotund Orson Welles.  Instead, I decided to disappear and let the play scripts and productions I audition take center stage, a prominent position they are often denied.

Talking about old radio plays as if they have no presence, as if they are chiefly of interest to the (broadcast) historian, only makes matters worse. Immaterial Culture, then, is an invitation to listen along, an invitation to talk about American radio plays of the past as one still discusses the material culture of books, motion pictures, theater, and television programs …

Air and Grouses; or, 180 Seconds to Mark 90 Years

“Give’m that off-the-air smile”

When Radio Times magazine announced a few weeks ago that its 10-16 November issue would celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of the Corporation largely in charge of the medium to which the pages of said venerable British weekly are nominally dedicated, I was very nearly all ears.  That I wasn’t ears entirely is owing to the skepticism I have developed when it comes to the wireless and its status in today’s mass-mediated society.  Sure enough, the Radio Times celebration fell as flat as my introductory sentence.  The promised “Anniversary Special” amounted to little more than a few pages of pictures designed to demonstrate that radio—or, strictly speaking, BBC radio—is very much alive.  Clearly, I haven’t kept my ear to the ground, as most of the personalities depicted are no more familiar to me in appearance or voice than the radio stars of yesterday whose images I put on display here to suggest that commemoration and oblivion are not mutually exclusive and that what is being marked by the “Anniversary Special” is not so much the birth or infancy or longevity of radio but its presence and relevance today.

 
 
“Remember what I said?”
“Print, they say, is dying,” news presenter Eddie Mair opens his commemorative Radio Times article, and television programs nowadays are “watched by a fraction of the numbers who used to tune in.”  The wireless, on the other hand on the proverbial dial, he argues to be in “rude health,” ninety years after the BBCs mics first went live” on 14 November in 1922.
 
No doubt, those words are meant to be eulogistically reassuring, albeit less so to the publishers of an ailing print magazine, in deference to whom Mair distances himself from his opening statement by injecting “they say.”  I might add—and shall—that if “they say” radio is thriving, then why isn’t there a radio on the cover of that ‘anniversary’ issue? It isn’t radio’s age, surely, that made editors decide against a shot of an historic wireless set, a glistening microphone, or any number of radio personalities, living or dead.  After all, the editors chose Sir David Attenborough as their cover boy—and he, at 86, is nearly as old as the BBC.
 
“Just who do they think we aren’t?”
Why Attenborough? Well, he, too, has a broadcasting anniversary worth celebrating; and, apparently, his sixty years of television are worth more to the BBC than its own ninety years of radio broadcasting, marked in the pages of Radio Times with a slim timeline of scant microphone highlights so miniscule that it, like the fine print in advertising, makes you feel what is really wanting is a microscope.  Could it be that the Corporation toned down its self-glorification in light of the scandal surrounding desanctified saint Jimmy Savile and the efforts to cover up or deal with his posthumously emerging history of pedophilia? While this may not be the time for airs and graces, it does not follow that any self-reflexive, critical history the BBC airs disgraces.
 
Sure if your face is red, you are not inclined to parade it in public; but that does not quite explain, let alone justify, the way in which the wireless anniversary is scheduled to unfold sonically this afternoon.  At 5:33 PM precisely—the exact time of the first BBC radio broadcast back in 1922—all BBC stations jointly air a newly commissioned composition of music and sound bites, the latter to be contributed by listeners.  However thrilling and noteworthy, the whole rather self-defacing event lasts about three minutes, less time by far than commercial television sets aside for a single block of advertising.
 
Not quite believing my eyes at the sound of that announcement, I flicked through the pages of Radio Times in search of further commemorative programming.  Alas, it is, for the most part, business as usual.  And even though the “usual” is usually quite satisfactory, the extraordinary sure has a deflated air about it.

She Said It in English: Olympe Bradna (1920-2012) on Men, Mikes and Milk

Cover of Cinegram 60, Say It in French (1938) starring Ray Milland and Olympe Bradna
Cinegram No. 60
“Olympe Bradna is a diplomat of the first rank!” So declared the editors of Cinegram in an issue devoted to Say It in French.  In that now largely forgotten romantic comedy, Bradna co-starred as a French student who impersonates a maid to be close to an American lover (played by Welshman Ray Milland) expected to marry a millionaire’s daughter (Irene Hervey) to save his father’s business.  Maybe that sounded better in French, in which the comedy was first staged under the title Soubrette. Never mind.  The “petite morsel of feminine allure,” so the Bradna legend goes, had “only been kissed by two men during her whole lifetime”—that lifetime amounting to eighteen years back in 1938.  One year into her brief Hollywood career, Bradna had overcome her “anxiety and embarrassment” and forgotten about her vow that she “would never kiss” at all, “either on the screen or off, until she had a ‘steady’ beau.”  Having been teamed with both Milland and Gene Raymond (in Stolen Heaven), the actress was “all in favour” of on-screen romance; but, when asked whose lips she preferred, the teenager refused to kiss and tell. “If I did that, it would be, how do you say? ‘propaganda.’” In the context of European pre-war clamour and the business of Hollywood glamour, the word choice is peculiar, especially since Cinegram was a promotional effort aimed at British audiences.  It is a telling statement, too, as it suggests Bradna’s questioning of the role she was expected to play in the propagation and exploitation of her own image.
Far from naive, the French-born performer knew all about the real world of make-believe, which is why, in her future pursuit of “real romance,” she was determined to “go outside the show business.”  In the early 1920s, her parents, Jeanne and Joseph Bradna, had a successful bareback riding act at the Olympia Theater in Paris, after which venue Olympe was named and where she made her stage debut when she was not quite two years old.  Hence, I suppose, her expressed need for security: “[A]ctors are fellows with uncertain jobs.  They’re generally honest, gay, intelligent and interesting, but they lack that quality of stability that is so important to a girl who wants to establish a home.”
Autographed portrait of Olympe Bradna from the pages of Cinegram 60 (1938)
Bradna in Cinegram No. 60
Presumably, she said all this in English, rather than in her native tongue.  When she first set her dancing feet on the United States as a member of the Folies Bergère and subsequently performed at New York’s French Casino, she was so dismayed at her “lack of English that she determined to learn to speak the language properly.  She succeeded so well,” Cinegram readers were told, “that when it came to making this new picture she had to put in several weeks of hard work under a French tutor to get her French back to standard.”  A Hollywood standard, that is.  After all, in romantic comedy, a French accent was as desirable as a maid’s uniform.
Bradna’s language skills were put to the ultimate test when, on 14 November 1938, she went behind the microphone for the Lux Radio Theater production of “The Buccaneer,” co-starring Clark Gable as French pirate Jean Lafitte; but her part was suitably Old-World, and all over the map besides, to account for any foreignness in her speech.  Bradna assumed the role of Gretchen, which had been played on screen by the Hungarian-born cabaret artist Franciska Gaal.  “Oh, I don’t know how I sound, Mr. DeMille,” Bradna said to in the nominal producer of the program during her scripted curtain call, “a Dutch girl with a French accent in an American play.”  Supported as she was by Gertrude Michael and Akim Tamiroff, both of whom enriched American English with peculiar accents and inflections, she hardly stood out like a sore tongue.
Back page of Cinegram 60, Say It in French (1938) starring Ray Milland and Olympe Bradna
Say It: A rickety vehicle for Milland
Not that Bradna, who appeared on the cover of the 27 July 2 August 1938 issue of Movie-Radio Guide, was a stranger to the microphone.  According to the March 1938 issue of Radio Mirror, Paramount Pictures “put her into five consecutive radio guest-spots for a big build up—but without giving her a nickel.”  Perhaps, DeMille would not have given her a nickel, either, for the privilege of making it into a Lux-lathered version of The Buccaneer, one of his own productions, nor given her an opportunity to promote her latest picture, Say It in French, had he known what British Cinegram readers gathered by flicking through their souvenir program for Say It.  Bradna, they were told, had “startled experts by announcing that the secret of her facial complexion [was] a daily buttermilk massage.”  The maker’s of Lux Toilet Soap could not have been pleased at Bradna’s insistence, fictive or otherwise, that buttermilk was “all” she needed: “My skin may be ever so parched and dry before the routine, but afterwards it is as fresh and smooth as I could want!”
Wally Westmore, Paramount’s make-up chief, reputedly explained that the “secret”—an age-old French recipe for a youthful complexion perhaps not quite so difficult to achieve at the age of eighteen—lay in the rich oil content of buttermilk, which had the same “softening and freshening effect upon the skin as the most elaborate and expensive preparations used by the stars.”  That, of course, was just the claim Lever Brothers were making each week on the Lux Radio Theater, which might explain why Ms. Bradna was never again heard on the program, whose stars were handsomely remunerated for their implied or stated endorsement of the titular product.  Perhaps, Bradna was not “a diplomat of the first rank” after all . . .
Olympe Bradna died on 5 November 2012 in Lodi, California.

Figured Speech: De-monstrating Lord Haw-Haw

When I picked up this slim and curious volume, Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen (1939), at an antiquarian bookstore in the Welsh border town of Hay-on-Wye, I was puzzled, to say the least.  I mean, I had heard about—and had listened to recordings of—the notorious Lord Haw-Haw, the fascist broadcaster whose role it was to demoralize the British, to make them turn against their own government by convincing them that to side with the so-called Third Reich was the safest, surest way to march forward.  Yet here was a book—written pseudonymously by a journalist calling himself Jonah Barrington and cartoonishly illustrated by an artist who went by the name of Fenwick—that turned propaganda into satire by lending form and features to a voice of terror that was infiltrating the home front.
Yes, it is a curious performance—a biographical act of deflating a windbag, of knocking the stuffing out of a nameless, disembodied operative whose dangerous air of mystery was just plain hot by the time Barrington had laughed off the threat by calling it “Haw-Haw.”  Those in Britain who, like Barrington, had caught the bizarre broadcasts from station Zeesen in Germany began to speculate about the speaker.  In the absence of evidence, Barrington created a character that, to him, had already “become real”; and out of the polemics that “nightly pollute[d]” the British air, the journalist set out to weave “silly fancies.”
“Let me make one point perfectly clear,” Barrington added:
Although Fenwick and I have use our imagination in building up the home life and background of Haw-Haw and his fellow propagandists, the actual speeches credited here to them are given verbatim—exactly as broadcast from the stations Hamburg, Cologne and Zeesen (D.J.A).
Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen defused a crisis by giving a ridiculous shape to uncertain things to come, by making preposterously concrete what had been potentially persuasive or at least dangerously ambiguous hearsay.  Filmmakers and journalists had parodied Nazi figures before—but the task of turning rhetoric into a figure of ridicule is a rather more complex strategy of counter-propaganda, especially since, in this case, print was rendering fictive what it had made definitive:
Haw-Haw in print needs stage directions, scene-setting and local colour.  And Fenwick needn’t thing he’s going to sit back and do nothing, either.  You want the best of Haw-Haw, and we give it to you—drawings and all.
Best or worst, readers of Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen were meant to get the better of him.

". . . he has an air": Floyd Gibbons, Wireless Adventurer

“Have voice, will travel.” That was the line my history of broadcasting professor Frank Kahn used to advertise his vocal services in the trade papers of yesteryear. And a voice for radio he did have, even though what he said and how he brought it across was appreciated by next to no one at Lehman College in the Bronx, where he ended up teaching in the cable TV age. Kahn was out of touch and, no doubt, keenly aware of it, incapable or unwilling though he was to do anything about it. “Have voice, will travel”? I mean, who among his students even got this sly reference to a time when the medium of radio was being challenged by sharp-shooting television? “Have voice, will travel.” The line came to mind when, some time ago, I read Douglas Gilbert’s biography Floyd Gibbons: Knight of the Air (1930). You don’t have to be out of touch to appreciate it, though it sure doesn’t hurt any if you catch up with someone whose fifteen minutes of fame (and airtime) was up nearly three-quarters of a century ago.
 
“There is no one in the world who can talk like Floyd Gibbons,” his biographer marvelled:
 
He speaks at a maximum speed of 245 words a minute and at an average speed of 216 words a minute and every word is clearly pronounced, completely enunciated, readily understood.  He dramatizes his speech, just as he dramatizes the news.
 
Gilbert, in turn, “dramatizes” Gibbons’s career.  Indeed, he melo-dramatizes it.  The biographer seems determined to turn the journalist into a swashbuckler and to imbue with romance what, on the air, was down-to-earth and up-to-date.
 
“He could, and often does, wear any sort of costume,” Gilbert says about Gibbons, “and when he does, he has an air.  It is a negligent and yet perfect air.” Shown with his signature patch (Gibbons lost one eye while, as a newspaper journalist, he was reporting from French battlefields during the First World War), the so-called “Headline Hunter,” then middle-aged, certainly has that “air” of romance about him.
 
According to Gilbert, Gibbons was through being a roving reporter at the age of forty.  His latest book, The Red Napoleon, which he was in the process of completing back in 1928, was a “prophesy of the next world war and the part radio was to play in it.”  To make such a prophesy, Gibbons consulted NBC president M. H. Aylesworth; and out of his luncheon with the radio executive there “developed the ‘Headline Hunter’ and the ‘Prohibition Poller’ and news gatherer that ma[de] the Literary Digest’s fifteen minutes over WJZ a radio ‘front page.’”
 
At 40 through with roving? Today at 42 he’s just begun—roaming for fifteen-million persons—their vicarious vagabond of the air, satisfying the gypsy lust of those of us who have never traveled.
 
“He’s radio’s knight errant,” Gilbert insists, “the listener’s passport to uncharted harbors; their open sesame to Cathay; their vista of a world whose only boundaries are the poles.”

 

For his audition, performed in front of an “unseen audience of Aylesworth and other NBC officials,” Gibbons recounted his “most exciting experience”—being aboard the Laconia when she was torpedoed.  The event had taken place over a decade earlier, on 25 February 1917; but Gibbons managed to bring it to life and to lend it urgency through the power of his voice. 
 
Back in 1917,
 
Gibbons had had a hunch, a newspaper man’s hunch when he took the Laconia.  He had been ordered to France as war correspondent.  He refused to go on the ship on which Von Bernsdorff [German ambassador to the US] was sailing because he knew no harm would come to that ship from the Germans.  He chose the Laconia, having a hunch she would be sunk and that he would escape and file a story of the sinking.
 
In the late 1920s, there was no indication that radio, too, was a ship under fire.  As Gilbert suggests, Gibbons would have gotten aboard anyway, had he known just how much danger lay ahead.  Not many people beside Gibbons imagined in 1930 that radio would become the medium most called upon for up-to-date accounts of warfare.  Had he been born a decade or two later—and not died in 1939—Gibbons would have gone straight into the thick of it and brought his spitfire delivery to a medium to which his voice was so adequately equipped.  Living too early, living too late? All we can hope is that our voices will travel some distance once we are convinced we have something to say . . .