The Reign of News Radio
From Quill magazine, November 1959, pp. 49-52:
Radio News Has Matured Since World War II
By WILLIAM J. SMALL
• In the beginning there was a newscast—and that's how radio began.
Actually the first newscast preceded radio as we know it by some nine weeks when experimental station 8MK, operated by the Detroit News, broadcast Michigan's primary election results on August 31, 1920. The first regular commercial radio station—KDKA, Pittsburgh—went on the air November 2, 1920, with one Leo Rosenberg reading the Cox-Harding election results. They say reception was fine up to seventy-five miles away.
While only a handful of "hams" heard that broadcast, four years later the election victory of Calvin Coolidge was heard by an estimated ten million radio listeners. Even recalcitrant Coolidge must have been impressed. He might be even more impressed, were he alive today, to find that those few words he uttered with such infrequency might be quoted on newscasts over 3,600 radio stations in business today.
• Despite its getting off on a good news foot, radio neglected daily news coverage for the next decade or so. It did, however, concentrate on that field in which it to this day performs superbly: the special event. From the abdication speech of Edward VIII to political convention coverage to the 1937 Ohio Valley flood, it was on the scene with the excitement of the voices of those in the news.
My concern here is less with these special items than with regular news coverage, though I cannot resist repeating the famed moment in 1937 as American radio prepared to cover the coronation of King George VI, an elaborate coverage that called for fifty-eight microphones, thirty-two of them in Westminster Abbey alone. Still, the Columbia Broadcasting System asked the British Broadcasting Corporation to help set up more originating points, namely in a moving car along the two-mile parade route that had only a few observation points.
• When the BBC refused the roving mike, the Americans pressed the point, asking, "What if some crackpot should take a shot at the King?" Replied a staid British broadcaster, "In that unfortunate event, we would consider it a matter for Scotland Yard, not the BBC."
Returning to early radio and broadcast news, we might note that in the early thirties, newspaper owners felt it unfortunate that radio had come about, considering news a matter for print and not the microphone. As radio began to attract advertisers, newspapers began to look uncomfortably at this upstart medium which transmitted top events so rapidly that it threatened the cherished on-the-street "extra."
A number of individual newspapers tried to curtail airwave competition by applying pressures to the news services. As early as 1922, the Associated Press warned its members that broadcasting its news was contrary to AP by-laws.
• For the 1932 elections, CBS contracted with the United Press to get election results for some $1,000. Just before the eventful day, UP pulled out, noting that UP's income was derived almost entirely from newspapers and the temper of publishers was such that if UP sold service to CBS, it would lose thousands of dollars. Fortunately for radio, AP didn't know about this. Fearing a loss to its competitor should AP credits fail to get on the air, that wire service offered its election bulletins to both CBS and NBC for nothing. As it turned out, UP and International News Service somehow became equally available for much the same reason.
Publishers protested loud and strong. In April of 1933, the AP Board of Directors withdrew all service to radio networks. That same year, UP and INS suspended service to radio under strong persuasion from the Radio Committee of the American Newspaper Publishers Association.
Then a remarkable thing happened, due to two remarkable men. NBC news chief A. A. Schecter and his CBS counterpart, Paul W. White, brashly decided to go into competition with the giants of the wire services.
Paul White, a former UP editor who became one of the greatest figures of news by radio, began to gather his own news staff in 1933 when the advertising manager of General Mills offered to pay half the cost if CBS could manage to keep it under $3,000 a week. The Columbia News Service came into being in September of 1933. It took less than a month to get underway with White setting up bureaus in New York, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles. The managers of these bureaus, in turn, lined up correspondents in virtually every city over 20,000 population by the simple expediency of paying them higher space rates than newspapers did. For overseas coverage White bought Exchange Telegraph, a British news agency, and for financial news, a subscription to the Dow Jones ticker which, on the side, moved quite a bit of Washington news.
Over at NBC, Schecter set up what he called his Scissors-and-Paste-Pot Press Association. He'd clip news leads from newspapers and then would make rich the AT&T, RCA, Western Union, Postal Telegraph and Mackay Radio by calling or wiring news sources for details. It produced a remarkable number of scoops and added dimension to many a story.
• In later years, Schecter told how he once clipped a British newspaper and had Lowell Thomas broadcast a story about a monkey that carried a bag containing 10,000 rupees into the Indian jungle. The story was days, perhaps months, old but the Lowell Thomas report created such a stir that two days later the monkey story was carried by an American press association.
Newspapers responded to White's new service by dropping CBS listings from their daily radio log. But by the end of 1933, the networks, the newspapers and the wire services were ready to talk things over. They met in the Hotel Biltmore in New York and signed the ten-point "Biltmore agreement."
• For publishers, it appeared to be a smashing victory. It set up a special news bureau called the Press Radio Bureau which was wholly supported by the networks and was to provide material for two unsponsored five-minute newscasts, one after 9:30 a.m. and the other after 9:00 p.m. each day. In addition, special bulletins involving news of "transcendental importance" could be broadcast if followed by the statement, "See your local newspaper for further details." Of the Biltmore settlement, White later wrote, "Radio had given up income, some integrity and a glorious opportunity."
But the battle wasn't the war. Radio networks soon decided that Winchell, Thomas, Boake Carter and Kaltenborn were not news reporters but "commentators." As such, they could be sponsored.
• Meanwhile, a number of radio stations sought news service and began to find it. The Yankee Network service came out of WNAC, Boston. Some radio men have noted that Boston newspapers made no threats to remove program listings of WNAC. The station was operated by John Shepard, owner of a department store that bought considerable advertising in Boston newspapers.
At the same time, a former Columbia News Service rewrite man, Herbert Moore, started Transradio Press which sold directly to radio for sponsorship. By May of 1935, UP and INS—neither enthusiastic supporters of the Biltmore pact—began selling to radio. AP held out for a while but by 1940 was permitting sponsorship of its news on radio.
Radio, freed of the problem of news services, found itself tied down in another area in which newspapers had complete freedom. In 1941, in the famous Mayflower case involving WAAB, Boston, owned by the Mayflower Broadcasting Corporation, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that a licensee cannot use radio to advocate preferred causes. Interestingly enough, the position that radio should not editorialize had majority industry support. However, within five years broadcasters changed their stand and began attacking the Mayflower decision. In 1949, the FCC ruled that a licensee could express his opinions, providing that editorials were fair and not one-sided.
• Today, ten years later, radio hears much talk of editorializing and hundreds of stations claim they do it. This writer remains skeptical, noting that the number who editorialize on anything other than the evils of sin and the glories of motherhood, the horrors of traffic accidents and the wonders of "the American way" is still a small percentage of those on the air.
|"CBS News correspondents broadcast a radio news program. From the left: Howard K. Smith, then European News Chief; Edward R. Murrow; Rome Bureau Chief, Winston Burdett, and John Secondari (Quill, November 1959, p. 52)|
• It is impossible in so short a space to list the many wonders of radio news coverage. One might recall such thrilling moments as Kaltenborn in 1936 giving an eye-witness account of a pitched battle in the Spanish Civil War from a haystack, Max Jordan from Munich as a world catches fire, William L. Shirer from Prague as the flames spread, Edward R. Murrow bringing the Battle of Britain to homes in Iowa and Idaho, George Hicks with his eye-witness description of D-Day as planes strafed the ship he broadcast from, or James Bowen's thrilling account of the scuttling of Graf Spee.
• Radio news had its finest hour in World War II and has been traveling along at a merry clip ever since. Networks today have larger news staffs than the biggest of newspapers. Small stations have aggressive, professional newsmen, the match of most any reporter in town. The accomplishments of radio news have earned, sometimes grudgingly, the respect of journalists everywhere. This is not to say that all radio news is professional, but where it is done well it can be superb.
Radio has the advantages of speed and intimacy. It is speed that no other can match. When Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war in 1917, some remote regions of the nation got the news weeks later. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt made a similar request in 1941, radio listeners everywhere heard his voice sooner than some Congressmen in the back of the hall in which he spoke.
• With speed, radio has the intimacy of the voices of those making news or those on the scene reporting it. Hundreds of instances pop up daily but to take a more recent example, how can mere print match the snarling exchange between Senator McClellan and Teamster Hoffa?
On the other hand, radio is strangled by time limitations, though less than television, which devotes less time to news and more of news time to the minute-snatching monster called film. Only a good newspaper can give the full detail and the full background day after day. As more and more newspaper editors and publishers recognize that broadcast news actually whets the appetite of their readers for more detail, they abandon the bitterness of the press-radio war of the thirties.
Radio newsmen have a first rate professional organization in the Radio-Television News Directors Association. One can foresee the day that it will match the national newspaper associations in prestige.
• The most serious threat to radio today is that infection called "modern radio" or "rock-n-roll radio." These stations, unfortunately increasing in number as imitators keep appearing, fill the airwaves with screaming sirens. They offer a hopped-up "news" format that runs the gamut from rape to ravage. In the long run—as with the "yellow journalism" of the printed page—this, too, shall pass, leaving behind a few stalwart practitioners.
The whistle-blowing school of radio news was made possible by the impact of television on radio programming, with the juke-box replacing drama, public affairs, decent news coverage and special events. The good stations remain, however, and will regain stage center when the raucous sounds wear thin. The good stations are turning more and more to news and public affairs to fill the void left as comedy and drama switch to television, leaving disc jockeys behind them.
• There are encouraging signs of more local and network news activity in radio. Longer radio news programs, news commentary, increasing editorial activity and discussion programs will become the core of important stations in every city, just as they already are in many cities.
• Radio offers tremendous service to the national defense as the one medium that can still move news faster and to more places (including moving vehicles, darkened bedrooms, work and play areas) than any other means of man-made communication. In times of emergency, people will turn to their radios first as they always have since the home set first broadcast the sputterings of Adolph Hitler and revealed the need for an informed public to get its information fast.
One can foresee the day when Washington will erase its prejudice of many years standing and permit radio coverage of House hearings as well as the Senate (over Sam Rayburn's final protest) or, even beyond that, full broadcast coverage of Congress in its hallowed halls. For those on Capitol Hill who protest that permitting cameras and microphones there would encourage the filibuster for the home folk, we might note that in New Zealand broadcasts of parliamentary bodies resulted in the electorate defeating long-winded legislators at the very next trip to the ballot box. For those who protest the possible "disruptive" influence of radio and television, one can point to technical advances that permit such coverage in a manner that rivals the silence and skill of Rudolph Valentino stealing into a desert tent.
• These same arguments, of course, apply to the courtroom. The day is fast approaching when the judiciary will recognize the good taste and silent posture which broadcast journalists display today. Like today's less colorful but more professional newspaper photographer, they are a far cry from the flash powder cameraman who made a mockery of the Lindbergh kidnap trial and brought about Canon 35.
As for other areas of restriction on broadcasting, as this is written Congress has taken first steps toward removing the odious restrictions of Section 315 of the FCC code, the equal time for political candidates provision. Here, too, respect for the professional abilities of broadcast journalism brings freedom from restrictions originally meant to prevent irresponsibility.
• The future of radio news is increasingly bright in many places despite the medicine men popping up in others. A public can be fooled part of the time, but when it sees through quackery, it turns to responsible radio news. In turn, this kind of news is the basis for good radio generally.
In the beginning there was a newscast. In the end, there will be more newscasts, using the tools of speed and intimacy to help tell the story of what's happening in our all-too-busy world, why it's happening, and maybe even what to expect next.
_________________BEHIND THE BYLINE
A native of Illinois, William Small has been News Director of Station WHAS and WHAS-TV in Louisville, Kentucky, since 1956. He went to Louisville from Station WLS in Chicago where he also held the post of News Director. Under his direction, programs of WHAS have won a number of citations and awards. Small is secretary of the Louisville Professional Chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, is married and has two daughters. This year he is serving as chairman of the fraternity's Committee on Ethics.