Tuesday, November 25, 2003


In an era when the broadcast media—television in particular—is often criticized (and rightly so) for blurring the lines between news and entertainment, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that old-time radio was no saint in this area. The dearth of news coverage in the early years of Radio’s Golden Age created a void that would be filled by one of the first shows to present news in an entertainment-oriented format: The March of Time.

The concept for March of Time was concocted by Fred Smith, station manager for Cincinnati’s WLW, at a time when the news wire services were mostly at the beck-and-call of their masters in the print media. Newspapers were most assuredly not enthused about the upstart known as radio encroaching on their territory, and radio stations usually produced their newscasts by ripping off news from the wire and re-writing it in rapid fashion. Smith contacted Roy Larsen—the circulation director for Time magazine—about the feasibility of producing a news show that would be made available (in script form) to other broadcast stations across the country. The identification with the renowned publication would not only add prestige to the newscasts, but also allow Time stronger name identification and an opportunity to land new advertising accounts in areas where the program was broadcast.

Larsen talked it over with the powers-that-be at the magazine, and Time acquiesced to the project; The March of Time began on September 3, 1928, with its scripts being syndicated to additional stations. A year later, the March of Time operation had expanded into active syndication; nearly 100 stations were subscribing to the now fully-transcribed program, so much so that several imitators began to crop up at that same time. To solve this problem, Smith came up with a novel innovation: dramatizing the news. Larsen initially balked at the idea of using actors to impersonate living people, questioning the legality of such action in what he considered a serious news broadcast. But Smith argued that that was precisely the point—they would continue to be a serious news broadcast: no taking of poetic license, every word and statement by the people portrayed would be subject to scrupulous accuracy.

February 6, 1931 saw a closed-circuit audition program broadcast to Larsen’s home for both CBS executives and the editors of Time. (Among those present for the audition were Time publisher Henry R. Luce and CBS president William S. Paley.) The response to the audition was muted, to say the least, but the decision was made for the program to premiere March 6, 1931. Dismayed by what he saw as a carnival-barker-approach to the news, Luce continued to question the journalistic integrity of the program, even after the show caught on enormously with both critics and the public. In its prime, The March of Time frequently boasted of 25-plus Hooper ratings.

The format for March of Time was strongly reminiscent of a movie theater newsreel (in fact, the program "spun-off" a newsreel series of its own, produced from 1935-41), audio-style; the skillful use of sound effects, music and background extras served to convince much of the listening audience that they were literally hearing history in the making. It was a show that ran like “a clockwork machine,” worked on at a frenetic pace up until airtime, when outside events at the last minute could (and often did) dictate in what order the program’s segments would run that week—if they indeed ran at all. Time relied on a professional repertory company of some of radio’s finest actors—among the “names”: Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, Orson Welles, Jeanette Nolan, John McIntire and Art Carney, to name but a few. (Carney once commented in Max Wilk’s The Golden Age of Television that he was often called upon to impersonate Elmer Davis, whom Carney remarked “sounded a lot like Ned Sparks, the old movie comic.”) A 1938 Radio News article commented: “To get on The March of Time is the ambition of many a radio voice, for this program has become to radio what the old-time Palace Theater was to vaudeville troupers.”

I listened to a pair of consecutive March of Time broadcasts in the wee a.m. hours this morning, and I was pleasantly surprised because even though the shows came from the end of Time’s lengthy radio run, the program still makes for darned entertaining radio. The March 22, 1945 broadcast highlights news on how free Japanese in China are fighting against their own country and a spirited discussion on why wartime production is lagging from Victor Reuther (representing labor) and George Romney (representing management). What made me kind of chuckle was a story about the historic Dunbarton Oaks conference (one of the meetings instrumental in setting up what we now know as the United Nations); the League of Women Voters in Chattanooga, Tennessee interview 98 people on their opinion of the conference: two were against, two neutral, 44 in favor, and 50 had no idea what the hell they were talking about. (Proving that people may have been as clueless back then as they are now.) The second broadcast (March 29, 1945) has installments on the return of a WW2 soldier whose sight has miraculously returned, and “The Kitchen of Tomorrow,” which sounds like one of those hysterical Tex Avery cartoons made at MGM during the 1940s. As a first-time Time listener, I have to admit that this is exceptionally good stuff.

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