Loud Voices In The Forum

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(This continues Mr. Bryson’s recollections.)

After I had been in New York about a year—I think it was about 1935—George Denny of the Town Hall got the idea of the Town Meeting of the Air . It was a great forward step in radio. Every other proposal for free-for-all political discussion on radio had been met with jeers by the powers that be—it wasn’t safe, it couldn’t be done, and so on.

I remember the first broadcast. I went down. There was no clear issue. The thing was a series of interesting political speeches, but it wasn’t a very good broadcast.

After one or two of these Denny called me up and asked me to have lunch with him and talk over the Town Meeting of the Air . He said he was discontented because the questioning was too inert and nothing much happened when the speeches were over. His whole idea was that there should be a real open forum of the air.

He said, “Well, now this is your business, what would you do to make the questioning, the discussion by the crowd more lively when the thing’s over?”

I said, “My suggestion is that you hold a preliminary meeting before the broadcast, in which you get the audience whipped up and excited about the issues, not about the personalities, so that when the radio people come on and the thing begins to be broadcast, you have an audience that already has seen a number of issues and has already expressed some of these opinions and is in a sense a little bit warmed up on the subject.”

He said, “Let’s try.”

So the preliminary meetings of the Town Meeting of the Air , which for several years, as you know, were quite an important aspect of the Town Meeting , were launched that way. We timed it so that I practically stepped to one side of the podium at the conclusion of the open discussion and Denny stepped in from the other side and went on the air so that the largest possible amount of psychological pressure would be maintained. Of course the speakers of the evening practically always listened and watched from a box and came into an already dramatic situation. In those days they used to have a brass band and a big cast of super-duper characters, the bell ringer and everything else.

I’ll tell you one thing that nobody will ever know who hasn’t tried it: how easy it is to start a discussion if you follow a brass band. You’ve just got everything your way. They are the easiest discussions that anybody ever started.

While I was serving for about two years, as I say, in this capacity as leader of this preliminary meeting, I occasionally took over for George Denny as moderator of the Town Meeting of the Air —at times, for example, when he wanted to go on vacation. I learned in doing it a great deal about how discussions can be carried on with very large groups of people, because generally my discussion group was about 1500 and I always laugh at people who say that you can’t have discussion if you’ve got more than six people! You can only have certain kinds of discussion in a particular kind of group, but you can always get some kind of ad-lib and actually free exchange of opinion when you want to, no matter how big the crowd, if you can be heard.

[ In 1938, Mr. Bryson became a kind of adviser on educational matters to CBS and involved in starting a new panel program , The People’s Platform.]

I became the moderator and this was my radio job for eight years.

We carried on our discussions at a dinner table. We actually had dinner, and Mr. Paley opened his own dining room there in the building and put his own domestic staff on. I think this isn’t as well-known to the general public as it might be. Like so many other people who head big corporations in New York, he had his own dining room right in his office building. We always had a good dinner. We had a rule that we would serve no alcohol until after the dinner and the broadcast were over. We put the microphones in the flowers, but we didn’t attempt to conceal them because we soon found out that when we did try to conceal them the people spent all their time trying to locate them. So we’d say, “The microphones are right there, now forget them.” The idea was that this should be a dinner table conversation carried over on the air and that the people discussing it would not know when they went on the air. There’s no control room anywhere near the dining room—it’s on the other side of the building—and I had a little electric light under the tablecloth which enabled me to know when we were on the air. When the light flickered, that told me we were going on the air; when we were on, it was on. I also had an earphone if I actually had to communicate with the engineer, and I often did, because I could talk in the mike and they could talk to me by the earphones.