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Loud Voices In The Forum

April 2024
9min read

(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.

We decided roughly—this was my formula which never was official of course-that we would have four people at every broadcast. We had first a big name. That was to get newspaper publicity and keep the thing before the public. The second person besides a big name was somebody who knew something about the subject, which was not at all necessarily the same as the first person. The third necessary element was a woman. I thought there should always be at least one woman, and she was chosen for various reasons. Sometimes she, too, was a big name; sometimes she knew a lot about the subject; sometimes she was just chosen because she was articulate and represented that segment of public opinion. And then the fourth person had to be—in our first years this was very scrupulously maintained—somebody from the street. He had to be a cab driver or a shoe clerk or a small bookkeeper or somebody. And on a number of occasions we went out and deliberately dragged somebody in off the street and said, “You’re going on a broadcast” which was a very daring thing to do in those days.

In Philadelphia one time, however, we went out and dragged a man out of the seat of a private automobile, a fellow in chauffeur’s uniform, and said, “Come on in, you’re going to discuss the third term for Presidents with some people on the air.”

He said, “Me? Who, me?”

“Yes, you.”

As a matter of fact, he was very good. He just had one thing to say during the whole discussion. We had a professor, a Philadelphia lawyer, a club woman and this fellow. He only said one thing, and he said it about seven times. “Well, if Mr. Roosevelt wants to run and the people want him, let’s elect him.” That’s all there was to it. He just failed to see that there was any question involved at all, which I suppose was the real opinion of the man in the street.

What we tried to do was to get a degree of informality, of unselfconsciousness, of directness, of earthiness into these discussions that the other discussion groups didn’t have.

We once had a very famous actress, Tallulah Bank-head, on The People’s Platform . Her press agent came around and asked if she couldn’t be on. She wanted that kind of attention. She wanted to discuss sports. She has always been a great baseball fan. So we got Bill [Martene W.] Corum, Ford Frick, president of the National League, one other sports writer, and Tallulah to come and discuss the place of baseball in American life. It was to be a serious discussion, but it turned out to be a good deal of a riot.

Tallulah wanted to talk, and she didn’t care whether anybody else talked or not. As we had the thing set up at that time, she was sitting across the narrow table from me. She didn’t ever stop talking. She just went like a streak and the others, if they had anything to say, had to say it against the obligato of Miss Bank-head’s continuous flow of words. So I began to stare her in the eye. I had developed a good deal of a basilisk glare by that time; and she saw that she was being a bad girl. She’s an old trouper, of course, and she couldn’t quite stand my minatory glance, so she turned away from the table, swung her chair clear around, almost out of range of the mike, so she wouldn’t have to look at me, and went right on talking.

Rolf Kaltenborn, Hans’s son, was one of the associate directors at that time, and he was in charge. When we went off the air, he came in the room. He was in hysterics. I remember he said, “That’s the only real dinner party ever put on the air—some blankety-blank woman talking right straight through it without a break.”

Then we proceeded to have a real riot. I don’t know where the people came from. There must have been twenty or thirty people that crowded into that little dining room. I never did find out who any of them were, but they all seemed to be friends and acquaintances of Tallulah. By this time she was just putting on a show and, after pictures had been taken and we’d had some brandy around she decided that she wanted to go out to the World’s Fair and see the baby panda. That gives you something of the quality of the evening.

This is one of the more raucous incidents. I could give you many. After all, eight years represented some four hundred programs. There is the usual tale, of course, about the light not working and my demanding in profane tones why we couldn’t get any signals from the engineers and discovering afterwards that we had been on the air for two minutes. That happens to everybody. That’s standard, and it does happen.

One of our most notable performances was on the mezzanine floor of the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston during a meeting of the American Legion. At the time we went on the air, there was an artillery salvo being fired every three minutes in the street just under the windows. In the general lobby of the hotel, into which the mezzanine looks, there were a fife and drum corps and a bagpipe corps having a contest to see which one could play the loudest. We had artillery on one side, just one story down, and the fife and drum and the bagpipe corps just under us. We just had pandemonium. We had to broadcast in the midst of that.

Louis Johnson, afterwards secretary of defense, was the main person in that broadcast. He was the only one who ever showed up at a broadcast with an unidentified person whom he didn’t introduce to me but who got right into the discussion on the air in no time. He came just before we went on the air. At no time did I have the slightest idea who this other fellow was. I don’t know to this day.

That’s one of the cases when the light system betrayed me. I had told the people in Boston that I wanted a signal from the engineer with a light under the tablecloth, set up so that people wouldn’t see it. I don’t mean to criticize my good friends, but they didn’t remember that a light bulb gets very hot, and they hung it against one of these light cottony tablecloths. I had an eminent club lady on my left, and the light was hanging down about between my knees against the tablecloth. Naturally when we had been on the air eight or ten minutes, I smelled something decidedly like burning cotton, and I looked down and I could see that this cotton was getting scorched. Of course, I didn’t know at what moment it might burst into flame and throw the whole business into an uproar. So without saying anything and unable to explain to anybody, I started with my left hand reaching around under the table trying to get the light, at which the eminent club woman at my left drew back from the table with the look of the most intense and shocked indignation on her face. I couldn’t explain, “My dear lady, I’m trying to keep the table from burning us all to death. I’m not insulting you.” I never could explain it to her because as soon as the show was over, she got up and left. I think she still believes I was trying to pat her on the knee.

You see, there are vicissitudes in this business.

Deliberately the People’s Platform became more and more conversation, and the skill that I developed was almost entirely in the field of keeping a conversation going—because you can’t let it lag—and giving it a slightly more dramatic impact than it ordinarily will have and still be natural. I began to see my job, as time went on, as a kind of dramatist of the moment.

As to choice of participants, I think they have got to be people who are naturally interesting and dramatic, without being too much involved personally and without being too easily inflamed emotionally.

I remember very distinctly one time we were going to discuss the housing situation in New York. We got Mr. Nathan Straus, who had been on the National Housing Board, and another housing expert, a third person whom I’ve forgotten, and a woman whose picture and the picture of whose “home” had been published in one of the newspapers as an example of how bad housing could be. She was a respectable and earnest woman who thought she ought to have a nice home for her children. She was young and was by no means poverty-stricken or anything like that, but she was living in horrible quarters.

It was a great error. That’s not the way to set up a discussion. I would generalize on that one instance because all she wanted to say was how bad her house was. Having said that, she was not only bored by whatever anyone else wanted to say, but within the time of the half hour she got very resentful because these national and local commissioners were discussing housing in general. She finally broke out into an almost hysterical complaint: “Why don’t you find me a better house? You don’t want to because you just want to talk about housing. I want a better house!!!” It had a certain quality at one point but there’s no way of going on from there. You can’t carry on a discussion by the reiteration of a grievance.

Another thing we found about selecting people was that there can be a degree of knowledge about a subject which is a handicap. Some people are so sure that they know all the answers to a problem, and build up their own picture of themselves as infallible experts to such an extent, that they won’t discuss with anybody-they will pronounce, and having pronounced, they’re silent. So you get no conversation.

It is astonishing how many people in politics, for instance, are like that. Even in debate, they’re not used to listening to the other fellow, they’re simply used to having an alternation of declarations. In a discussion you have to have somebody who has the gift of conversation; he has to have something of the dialectic temperament.

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