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Rare "Hear It Now" recordings lend insight on Murrow and news history

Craig Chamberlain, News Editor

Released 9/26/2007

Matthew Ehrlich
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Matthew Ehrlich, a professor of journalism at Illinois, says the success of the 1950s program “See It Now,” hosted by Edward R. Murrow, was due in part to its innovative radio predecessor and prototype, “Hear It Now.”

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The 1950s program “See It Now,” hosted by Edward R. Murrow, has earned a place in the early history of television news. Most recently it was the setting for the 2005 movie “Good Night and Good Luck,” in which Murrow famously clashed with U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Largely forgotten and little studied, however, has been its innovative radio predecessor and prototype, “Hear It Now,” says Matthew Ehrlich, a professor of journalism at the University of Illinois.

Yet in research published in the September Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, Ehrlich suggests that “Hear It Now” played its own important part in the history of broadcast journalism.

Ehrlich had access to rare transcription-disc recordings of the full run of the program, which he had discovered in the U. of I. archives during his earlier years as a reporter at WILL-AM, the university’s public radio station. The discs, which look much like old 78 records, had been recorded by WILL from other stations at the time of the broadcasts.

Through those recordings, along with research into Murrow’s collected papers and other sources, Ehrlich found a program ahead of its time in content, style and production. “Hear It Now” was innovative with many techniques still in use today, Ehrlich writes.

The program also was an important chapter “in what has been called the ‘most productive, most influential partnership’ ever in broadcast journalism,” that of Murrow and producer Fred Friendly, Ehrlich writes. The show “provided a capstone to Murrow’s career in his preferred medium of radio.”

It also built a foundation for, and established many of the themes, for Murrow and Friendly’s “See It Now” that would follow, according to Ehrlich.

The program was part of a period that Ehrlich terms a “radio utopia,” in which radio reporters and producers were given unusual freedom to explore and innovate, and about which Ehrlich is planning a book. Among other period broadcasts Ehrlich has researched is Norman Corwin’s “One World Flight,” a 1947 radio series based on Corwin’s postwar round-the-world trip with a cumbersome wire recorder.

The weekly hour-long “Hear It Now” was broadcast for just six months, or 27 installments, from December 1950 to June 1951. It nevertheless serves as a “unique record of a tumultuous moment in American history,” Ehrlich writes. Within those six months, the program covered the darkest days of the Korean War, the political firestorm around the firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Kefauver organized-crime hearings in Congress and the early days of anticommunist redbaiting by McCarthy.

It also featured Murrow’s distinctive take on the news, Ehrlich writes. “That take, rather than being ‘oppositional,’ stressed collective responsibility and reason.”

record label
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
“Hear It Now” was part of a “little golden moment” in radio news that did not last, Ehrlich said, as network attention and resources shifted to television. The last broadcast was in June 1951. “See It Now” would debut that November.

Ironically, as television was fast eclipsing radio as the medium of choice, “Hear It Now” showed radio journalism coming into its own in the use of newly developed tools, Ehrlich said. Just a few years before, portable recording equipment “was either nonexistent or extremely crude,” he said. In addition, CBS and NBC had banned the use of recordings, including interview and sound “actualities” recorded outside the studio. As a result, news shows often used docudrama techniques such as staged re-enactments.

Plastic audiotape came into widespread use about 1948, however, along with better portable recording equipment, Ehrlich said, making a new kind of radio journalism possible.  “When ‘Hear It Now’ comes along, they’re just going hog wild with all these sound montages, layered kinds of audio portraits, stories that are totally told through actuality with almost no narration whatsoever,” he said.

According to an announcer in the show’s debut, the voices and sounds would be “presented as they were spoken in the heat and confusion of a world in crisis.” Murrow would end a later broadcast saying, “Just as we believe that often one picture is worth a thousand words, occasionally one word or one sound is worth a dozen pictures.”

“Hear It Now” would use sound to bring the Korean War home to listeners, whether it was the sounds of battle from the scene, commentary from wounded soldiers, or the sound of sawing from the amputation of an arm in a military hospital, Ehrlich writes.

In a different use of sound, Murrow showed how the federal budget was allocated by dropping pennies to represent percentages (national defense got a fistful, with 58 of the 100 total). Another piece on the common cold featured a montage of people offering their home remedies, as well as the sound of a gorilla sneeze.

In another example of innovation, “Hear It Now” did a “biography of a pint of blood,” which followed a pint of blood from a donor’s arm in the U.S. to an operating table in Korea, where it helped save a wounded soldier. The blood-donation story, which ended with a direct appeal, “prompted half a million donations across the country,” Ehrlich writes.

“You can listen to these shows and hear the kinds of techniques that we still hear today,” particularly in public radio, Ehrlich said. “You can hear the experimentation, the desire to increase the range of voices heard on the radio … the voices of ordinary people from all walks of life. You hear not only the voices, you hear the sounds from around the country and the world. And it’s just like new vistas opening up … little audio insights into what life was like.”

Unfortunately, “Hear It Now” was part of a “little golden moment” in radio news that did not last, Ehrlich said, as network attention and resources shifted to television. The last broadcast was in June 1951. “See It Now” would debut that November.