All over the airwaves
In these days of multiple methods of electronic communication, it’s hard to give a description of what it was like back in the ’30s and ’40s when there was only one medium of that sort — radio.
Television had not yet been developed commercially, so people would turn on their radios for information, as well as entertainment. At our farm in Londonderry, the radio stood 5 feet tall on four legs. I think “Monarch” was its brand name.
The stations it picked up most easily were WGY in Schenectady and WTIC in Hartford, Conn. Both were part of the NBC network, so we rarely heard the voice of Walter Cronkite of CBS, later well-known as a television personality.
Since radio was all sound and no sight, it didn’t matter what a person looked like. A clear and resonant voice was all that was needed and the listener could imagine the features that went with the voice. Recently, I compared notes with someone else who experienced that era, as to what a familiar performer looked like, judging by his voice. It turned out we envisaged completely different features.
The morning news usually came after 8 a.m. our time, which meant that reporters calling from various points in Europe had to remember that, though they were speaking in early to mid-afternoon, their listeners here were usually still at breakfast.
The NBC correspondent in Washington was named Earl Godwin. He had a special way of ending his presentation, saying: “And Earl Godwin says goodbye. That’s all from Washington at this time.” He gave a special emphasis to the phrase “at this time,” leaving the impression that he would be back on the air as soon as anything new developed, even though the next regular news was hours away.
One of the best-known radio news personalities was named H.V. Kaltenborn. He had a trick for making his presentations sound immediate and intimate. After Pearl Harbor, when Gen. McArthur was in Australia, he would hold regular briefings for the two dozen or more newspaper and radio reporters assigned to his headquarters.
But Kaltenborn would start his broadcast by saying: “General Douglas McArthur told me today ...” This gave the impression of a one-on-one interview, rather than what it really was — a report of a press conference attended by a score or more of reporters.
Kaltenborn remained prominent until he came a cropper in 1948. In that election year, Republican Thomas Dewey supposedly had the edge over Harry Truman. As the returns began to come in, Kaltenborn was asked to comment, and he repeated very confidently that, while Truman was ahead in early reports, when the major metropolitan returns arrived, Dewey was sure to come into the lead.
Of course, Dewey never did any such thing. In a victory speech widely shown on newsreels, Truman mocked Kaltenborn by mimicking his particular intonation, and NBC saw to it that Kaltenborn was pretty much sidelined. In any event, by that year, television was beginning to supplant radio as a major medium.
Another major radio news personality was Lowell Thomas, who had his own 15-minute time slot in the evening. Thomas had been a newspaper reporter, as well as the author of several books, and radio was well-suited to his methods. He liked to ski, for instance and once broadcast his 15-minute program from Stowe, describing the slopes of Mount Mansfield.
Radio was also a good fit for the entertainer Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy. You could listen to their banter on the radio and imagine what was going on. People who went to the studio said they were disappointed to see Bergen’s lips constantly moving, and that was a disadvantage when television came into play.
So the late-’20s, the ’30s and most of the ’40s were the era when radio was the major electronic method of communication.
Kendall Wild is a former editor of the Herald.