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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
It did. The Nazis marched into Austria on March 11, 1938, and Shirer was prodded out of the Austrian radio studios in Vienna at the point of a bayonet. Paley, in New York and sick in bed with the flu, telephoned the head of Austrian radio to arrange a broadcast. The official broke down and wept, saying it was out of his control. Shirer caught the first plane out and at six-thirty the following evening broadcast from London. “I’m here tonight to report what I saw,” he said, “not to give any personal opinions. ” But he made it clear that the Nazis had lied about “violent Red disorders” in the Austrian capital and told such a vivid story that no one paid much heed to the quality of his voice.
Back in New York, Paley asked his engineers, “Why do we have to depend on one microphone? Can’t we get several overseas reports at the same time for the same program?” The news director immediately ordered Murrow, who had flown to Vienna when Shirer left, to arrange a news roundup for live broadcast eight hours hence, during prime time in America.
T HUS, ON March 13,1938, at 8:00 P.M. , the “Voice of CBS News,” Bob Trout, spoke in Studio 9 on the seventeenth floor of the CBS building: “The program ‘St. Louis Blues’ will not be heard tonight,” he said. Instead, there would be “pickups direct from London, Paris, and such other European capitals as at this late hour abroad have communications channels available.” It was 1:00 A.M. in London, and Shirer smoothly came in on Trout’s cue. He was followed by the leftist M. P. Ellen Wilkinson, then Edgar Ansel Mowrer from Paris, Pierre Huss in Berlin, and Frank Gervasi from Rome. Murrow, who had somehow gained access to a circuit in Vienna, concluded the half-hour roundup, his first significant broadcast.
Both technically and journalistically the program was a landmark. The splicing of firsthand reports on a precise schedule was considered miraculous, though Murrow thought it merely “lucky.” And Paley trumpeted to stockholders that radio, “by merely presenting events as they occurred and the factual but personalized accounts of its own reporters… was able to help make up people’s minds for them and to further one side of the biggest … question of the time, the rise of Nazi power.” NBC’s immediate reaction was to downplay radio news. “Radio is a show,” an NBC executive told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Its job is to build “illusions of reality for those in the seats before the proscenium of the loudspeakers.” To prove it, NBC news in 1938 featured an international competition for singing mice and, two months after the Anschluss , a talkingparrot contest won by a bird who squawked, “Polly wants a cracker.”
Less than six months after the Anschluss , when Hitler again was restive, this time over the Sudetenland, Shirer cabled New York asking for five minutes a day. “The home office thought I was crazy,” he recalled, and offered five minutes on a Sunday afternoon. But within a week CBS was broadcasting daily, not only from Berlin and Prague but also from London, Paris, Rome, Godesberg, and Munich. Since the Austrian invasion, Murrow had “lived in the air and in a suitcase” to fulfill the command from New York: “Give us this day our European sensation. ” When the Munich crisis broke on September 12, both networks were ready for live coverage at a level never before attempted. Within the next eighteen days, they spent $200,000, more than had ever been paid for coverage of any single sequence of events. CBS carried 151 shortwave pickups and NBC 147—at an average cost of $500 each. This time listeners not only heard directly from observers in various capitals, they also eavesdropped on spontaneous, continuing conversations among all of them as they questioned each other and commented ad lib.
The hero of those twenty tense days was H. V. Kaltenborn, as even the rival NBC news director Abel Schechter conceded. During the long crisis the sixty-year-old commentator lived in Studio 9 at CBS, napping on a cot between bulletins, flashes, running stories, and commentaries. He made 102 broadcasts ranging from two minutes to two hours in length. So habituated did Kaltenborn become to instant analysis that when the Archbishop of Canterbury broadcast a prayer for peace, he analyzed that too. “I drew on everything I had learned during my entire lifetime,” he wrote, “my travels, my interviews, my knowledge of languages, my close association with current events.” Not only correspondents but the participants themselves became familiar voices to American listeners: Mussolini from Trieste, Premier Milan Hodza from Prague, Pope Pius XI from Rome, Hitler personally attacking Czech President Benes, Chamberlain’s myopic “How horrible … that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we need know nothing.” Reporters and commentators were careful to avoid editorializing: “We are trying to provide material on which an opinion may be formed,” said Murrow, “but we are not trying to suggest what that opinion might be.”