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Radio documentaries came of age in postwar idealism and Cold War fear

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Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University

Fred Friendly, president of CBS News, left, and journalist Edward R. Murrow share the cover of a new book by journalism professor Matthew Ehrlich, “Radio Utopia: Postwar Audio Documentary in the Public Interest,” published this month by the University of Illinois Press.

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5/19/2011 | Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor | 217-333-2894; cdchambe@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — World War II had just ended. Radio still ruled the airwaves. And some of the medium’s brightest talents, among them Norman Corwin and Edward R. Murrow, set out to use the power of radio for postwar idealistic ends.

Matt Ehrlich
Links to audio samples from the era’s documentaries can be found on a Web page Ehrlich has set up about the book. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Their tool of choice was the radio documentary. Their innovative broadcasts would take listeners around the world, into “you are there” recreations of history, as well as into war zones and some uncomfortable topics. They would delve into juvenile delinquency, race relations, venereal disease, and the dangers of nuclear weapons.

They would even set an 800-page think tank report to music, with the help of Walt Disney and cartoon characters like Jiminy Cricket.

They sought to use radio “to try to remake America and the world for the better,” University of Illinois journalism professor Matthew Ehrlich writes in “Radio Utopia: Postwar Audio Documentary in the Public Interest,” published this month by the University of Illinois Press.

(Links to audio samples from the era’s documentaries can be found on a Web page Ehrlich has set up about the book.)

By 1951, however, radio was almost an afterthought, overtaken by television, Ehrlich said. Funding for these ambitious radio documentaries, which rarely drew prime broadcast slots or large audiences, had largely dried up.

The federal regulatory pressure that likely helped motivate the networks to produce them had faded.

And postwar idealism had been replaced by rampant Cold War fears of communism. Several of the documentary pioneers found themselves blacklisted for a time, unable to get work, thanks to a book, “Red Channels,” which claimed to identify communist sympathies in the broadcast industry.

It’s a story with many parallels to the present, Ehrlich said. Like today, it was an era of rapid technological change, of revolutionary shifts in the media landscape, and of dramatic political swings.

“I wanted to know how people react under these circumstances when the world is changing so rapidly and nobody can really see what those changes are,” Ehrlich said.

Early in the period, the radio documentary was nothing like what we would recognize as a documentary today, Ehrlich said. The technology for recording sound in the field was cumbersome and unreliable, and the CBS and NBC networks generally banned the use of recordings on air for other reasons.

A documentary, therefore, was a scripted and rehearsed production, performed live. Actors usually played the parts of reporters and interview subjects, sound effects were produced in the studio, and an orchestra supplied background music. The writers and producers were just as likely to be dramatists as journalists.

By today’s definition, it was more docu-drama than documentary, Ehrlich said.

About 1948, however, plastic audiotape came into widespread use, along with more-portable recording equipment, Ehrlich said. With the networks also dropping their recording bans, it opened the way for greater use of field-recorded sound, known in the business as actualities, and documentaries began to take a form closer to that of today.

Those changes, in a way, paralleled the change in mood and politics, Ehrlich said.

“Dramatized documentary invites listeners to imagine a better world, whereas actuality- or reality-based documentary invites listeners to view the world as it really is,” he said.

Ehrlich’s book also explores some of the key personalities and network strategies, as well as the influence of federal regulators and of the communist-hunting (U.S.) House Committee on Un-American Activities.

In assessing Murrow’s role as both broadcaster and CBS executive during this period, Ehrlich said he portrays him as neither the “patron saint of broadcasting” found in some accounts nor the overrated glory hound found in others.

For Murrow and Corwin, as well as Robert Lewis Shayon, Robert Heller and other leading documentarians, “these were peculiar times,” Ehrlich said. “You are caught up in it and you make the choices that seem best to you at the time; you do the best you can.”

Other figures Ehrlich does not treat as kindly. “Some people clearly acted with great cowardice, like CBS executives, I think, and perhaps the NBC executives as well.”

But it was the idealism and often “willful, stubborn optimism” of many of the key figures that Ehrlich found inspiring, perhaps best exemplified by Corwin in his making of “One World Flight,” broadcast in 1947. “Corwin sees ignorance and despair and poverty, and the worst that humanity can do, first-hand, and he comes back and he does a program that manages to be optimistic in spite of all that,” Ehrlich said.

“The late ’40s were a time when that kind of thought came to the fore in at least a little corner of broadcasting.”

Ehrlich wrote previously about Murrow’s “Hear It Now” radio news program, predecessor to the better-known “See It Now.” His previous book, “Journalism in the Movies,” dealt with the way reporters and journalism have been portrayed by Hollywood.

Editor's note: To contact Matthew Ehrlich, call 217-333-1365; e-mail mehrlich@illinois.edu.

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