On The Air, Forever

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How it was: it is late Sunday afternoon, mother and father in the front of the car, the children crowded into the back like puppies in a box. We are returning from a weekend at the beach, wind-blown and sunburned, sweating, itching, fidgeting, and cantankerous. Twice, father has had to stop the car, turn around in the seat, and fix us all with a baleful glare. But now it is six o’clock. The car radio is turned on, and no one needs to be told to keepquiet. It is The Great Gildersleeve . After that, it will be The Shadow , and by the time we turn into our driveway, we should be halfway through the Jack Benny show. Later yet, it will be Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, One Man’s Family , Fred Allen.…That was more than thirty years ago, but for most of our generation, the voices, the laughter, and the songs are still with us, fast in our memory and on the air forever. Radio gave us our jokes, our music, our adventure, news, politics, dreams, even in large part our view of ourselves—all of this through a witchery of wires and resistors, cathode tubes and condensers. The magic is gone now; the news and the music remain, but most of the rest of radio that excited the mind and tickled the ribs has gone out into the ether, unrecoverable. Even the equipment has lost its magic. A radio that is small enough to be strapped to the wrist simply lacks the mystique of a big Philco cathedral standing on a table in the livingroom, its lighted dial a time machine to anywhere. And will a phrase like “solid state” ever ring with the authority of “superheterodyne”? Of course not. Radio was an experience, one well worth the remembering—an opinion vigorously shared by the Museum of Broadcasting in New York City, which has preserved some of the best minutes and hours of air time loosed on the world since Marconi’s remarkable instrument was put to the uses of commerce. The museum, housed on three floors of a small building on East Fifty-third Street, just off Fifth Avenue, is the child of William S. Paley, chairman of CBS. “I think we often forget,” he has written, “just how major an impact broadcasting has had upon us.…Its growth has been extremely rapid—from 528 radio stations in 1926 to 8,000 radio and 962 television stations today.…Now, after fifty years of network broadcasting, that once fledgling industry has become a mature, responsible and important force in our national life. And therefore it is time that we take stock of our past so that we can know and understand the heritage of the broadcast media in building our future.” One could—one does—quibble with the notion that modern broadcasting is uniformly mature or responsible, but it is impossible to deny its importance or the value of the past in learning something of the future. In any case, Paley has put his money where his convictions lie: as long ago as 1967, thé Paley Foundation began studying the feasibility of such a museum, and even before its official opening in November, 1977, Paley personally guaranteed funding for the first five years. One can only applaud his efforts, for everything is here, in audio and visual abundance, for both museum members and the general public. One room contains a small library of books and a substantial card catalogue from which programs can be selected; another complex holds bank after bank of cassettes, as well as a recording room in which transcriptions are made from original material. But the heart of the museum experience lies in still another room, where eight futuristic consoles with earphones, viewing screens, and on, off, and playback buttons give the visitor access to yesterday. The museum’s collection of recordings numbers about two thousand (as in most museums and libraries, cataloguing tends to run behind acquisitions, so precise figures are unavailable). There are hundreds of television broadcasts, from Harry S Truman playing the piano in 1951 to the Kennedy assassination in 1963, from men walking on the moon in 1969 to the dramatization of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977. Yet it is the radio broadcasts which are likely to stir the remembrances of our generation most profoundly: Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 1924; Floyd Gibbons trapped in a cave in 1925; Charles A. Lindbergh addressing the Washington Press Club in 1927; Will Rogers on the Depression in 1931; Herbert Hoover on the same subject in 1935; the Hindenburg burning in 1937; Edward R. Murrow, Elmer Davis, William L. Shirer, and Eric Sevareid reporting the opening guns of World War II; Richard Harkness, Lowell Thomas, and H. V. Kaltenborn describing V-J Day; Town Hall Tonight, The Columbia Workshop, Toast of the Town, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, I Love a Mystery, Suspense, We, the People ; Ben Bernie, Jack Oakie, Kay Kyser, Joe Penner, Goodman Ace, Mary Margaret McBride, Norman Corwin, Orson Welles, Basil Rathbone, Arthur Godfrey—these and hundreds more, a cornucopia of treasures for the mind and memory. The Museum of Broadcasting provides only an ephemeral visit to the past, of course; leaving it, we have to return to the world of transistors and silicon chips, to the yammering of “Top Porty”disc jockeys or the kind of gummy music one often hears in the elevators of downtown office buildings. But to know that the museum is there is to know, again, that in the click of an “on” dial and the sonorous humming of a radio warming up there once lay the promise of laughter, drama, fantasy, and hope—all of it given the splendid reality of the imagination. There were dreams enough for everyone, then.