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Radio Grows Up
How the novelty item of 1920 became the world-straddling colossus of 1940
August/september 1983 | Volume 34, Issue 5
The dean of them all was H. V. Kaltenborn, a mature journalist who had been free-lancing as a commentator since the early twenties. Born in Wisconsin, where friends called him “Spiderlegs Kalty,” he had left school at the age of fourteen and served as a twenty-year-old volunteer in the Spanish-American War. He took a degree at Harvard and was the classmate of John Reed, Maxwell Perkins, and Walter Lippmann. By 1910 he had landed a $40-per-week job as an editor at the Brooklyn Eagle ; in 1917 he became its war editor when he was rejected as a volunteer in the Allied Expeditionary Force because his uncle, Hans von Kaltenborn-Stachau, had been German minister of war during the 1890s.
On April 4, 1922, at an experimental radio station in Newark, New Jersey, Kaltenborn clamped his head into a viselike frame to keep his lips near the crude carbon microphone and gave his views on a coal strike, the first “spoken editorial” ever heard on radio. From then on he developed a unique mixture of reporting and extemporized interpretation. By 1930, when he turned to full-time radio work, he had traveled the world and had interviewed Sigmund Freud, Chiang Kai-shek and Chang Tso-lin, Aguinaldo and Manuel Quezon, Adolf Hitler, and the man who had embalmed Lenin. When war broke out in Spain in July 1936, Kaltenborn found a farmhouse located on a thin finger of French territory that protruded into the area where the Battle of Irun was taking place. Then he persuaded a French radio engineer to run a phone line to the farmhouse and also to a haystack in the line of fire. Wires in place, he sent a message to CBS in New York that he could report a raging battle, live and complete with rifle and artillery fire. The reply was: “Stand by. … Too many commercial programs just now.” As Kaltenborn waited, fearful that the fighting would shift away from him, the cable broke twice, and each time the engineer crawled out under fire to splice it. Then, when the network sent word that it was ready, the relay engineer in Bordeaux was out having an apéritif. It was 9:00 P.M. on September 3 when Kaltenborn finally got his pathbreaking broadcast on the air. He spoke for fifteen minutes, pausing at intervals to allow listeners to hear the sounds of rifles and explosions.
Murrow was spending all his time fulfilling the command from New York: “Give us this day our European sensation.”
For this broadcast, CBS paid him its customary fee—$50.
While the live broadcast was an impressive technical feat, the series of talks he gave upon returning to America had more profound consequences. Not only was Kaltenborn critical of U.S. nonintervention, he also foresaw, as few Americans then did, the possibility of a more widespread war in Europe. The most crucial convert to this point of view was his boss, William Paley. The CBS president was in the midst of an “upgrading” campaign. Burns and Alien, Kate Smith, Lum and Abner, and Eddie Cantor brought in record income—$28.7 million in 1937, more than $3.0 million net, though still less than NEC’s $38.5 million and $3.7 million net—but Paley wanted prestige. In the summer of 1935 he had hired the industrial psychologist Dr. Frank Stanton (who would become president of CBS) as a $55-per-week research specialist and a twenty-eight-year-old named Edward R. Murrow to whom he gave the vaguely defined title of “director of talks.”
A few months later CBS decided to ship Murrow to Europe as chief correspondent. To a Scribner’s reporter of the time, he was “tall without being lanky, darkish without being swarthy, young without being boyish, dignified without being uncomfortable … a scotchand-story man.” Murrow immediately called on J.C.W. Reith, head of the British Broadcasting Corporation; he would need use of BBC facilities for his broadcasts to America. The BBC policy, Reith said proudly, was to give its audience what they should have. “We are not so daring, Sir John,” replied Murrow. “We give the people what they like.”
Though he had no journalistic training or broadcasting experience whatever—he had worked for an international student organization before coming to CBS—Murrow had a natural talent for turning contacts into friends and news sources into scoops.
The first person he hired had just lost his job as Berlin correspondent for Universal News Service. He was William L. Shirer, a crack reporter with an unfortunate handicap. He had broadcast just once for CBS and his voice was extremely soft; “he sounded timorous and often tended to drone.” But he had excellent connections and, like Murrow, his job was mostly to line up other speakers rather than to broadcast himself. Before the end of the year Shirer was installed in Vienna, where he expected the next European crisis to break.