Review of Radio Utopia by Matthew C. Ehrlich

Radio Utopia: Postwar Audio Documentary in the Public Interest, by Matthew C. Ehrlich (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011) ISBN-13: 978-0-252-03611-8 (hardcover), for the Journal of Mass Communication and Society.


Matthew Ehrlich’s excellent study of radio after World War II is a reminder of the old joke partisans of the medium would tell their colleagues in television.  The two forms have some things in common, goes the punch line, “but radio’s pictures are better.”  And never more so than in the period between 1946 and 1951: the narrow band of years when radio was the beneficiary of networks flush with cash, and motivated to support a nation battered by years of war.  Ehrlich’s book (the winner of AEJMC’s Tankard Book Award in 2012) is a meticulously researched history that focuses on mostly familiar names that we now associate with the early years of broadcast journalism: William Paley, Edward R. Murrow, Robert Lewis Shayon, Fred Friendly and others.  The stories of more obscure figures are told as well, among them, accounts of work by Ruth Ashton, Lou Hazam, and Morton Wishengrad.  At CBS Ashton broke through network resistance against women in substantive positions to produce a program called “The Sunny Side of the Atom.”  Hazam produced a series of NBC programs on the prosaic aspects of what it means to be “home.”   And Wishengrad had the perilous assignment of writing a series of three programs about “communism” that were endlessly second-guessed down to just one.  Since these were perilous times for left-wingers in broadcasting and the arts, the conclusion that Wishengrad’s effort was a mostly unhappy experience is perhaps the greatest understatement in the book.

If this detailed study offers a corrective to other narratives about this early period, it’s perhaps by more centrally placing Norman Corwin at the vanguard of early documentary production.  Most of us think of Corwin as a pioneer in broadcast drama.  But his early days at CBS were mostly consumed in the thrall of building a new world order that would bury fascism and reclaim the promises and social covenant of the New Deal.  The documentary series that were undertaken especially at CBS were ambitious, including Corwin’s One World Flight, which dared to incorporate taboo recorded sound from far-flung corners of the world.  The series captured moments from a generously-funded tour, and was intended to take the strangeness out of contrasting cultures.  Corwin interviewed miners, artists, scientists and ordinary people on the street.  A common theme in all of them was a distaste for fascism and colonialism.  But it was the grinding poverty of India and the Far East that posed the greatest challenge to repackage with any kind of hope.   As with Shayon’s later The Eagle’s Brood—a series focused on the rising fear of juvenile crime—the programs were earnest and melioristic; Ehrlich’s over-arching thesis emphasizes the desire of producers and program-makers to face post-war problems with optimism, and with an eye on searching for hopeful governmental or organizational solutions.

Of course, against this modest level of broadcast progressivism was an increasing American susceptibility to fantasies of internal subversion.  No one writing a history of this period could ignore it.  And Ehrlich generally gives Counterattack and Red Channels their due, perhaps in more neutral language than they deserve.  He ably recounts the spread of the poison of Red Channels from advertising agencies to the networks, and notes that a loyalty oath required of CBS employees soon followed.  Shayon is quoted to the effect that the venerable Murrow didn’t come to his defense, or speak to him again after he was fired because of blacklisting.  Never very happy with his management duties, Murrow apparently accepted the necessity of the oath to stave off the loss of even more talent.

One surprise of this study is how many of these programs in the late 1940s were fully scripted.  Radio documentaries were more akin to docudramas, even when the participants in the discussion where subject matter experts who were surely capable of extemporizing on their specialties.  So a 1946 program about the atomic bomb, Operation Crossroads, included notables like Henry Wallace, Harold Ickes, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglass, and Albert Einstein.  But Ehrlich notes that the “cast engaged in scripted dialogue with a group of ordinary citizens specially assembled for the program.”  The pattern continued later in CBS is There!, and still later in the long running Here it Now.  If we wonder today why electronic news remains centered on the convenience of reporters and anchors, this kind of safe predictability confirms a pattern nearly as old as the medium.

In the final chapter Ehrlich broadly assesses and summarizing reporting styles and other norms of the period.  It’s a brief chapter, and mostly positive about the commercial networks’ efforts in “democratic empowerment.”  The F.C.C.s 1946 “Blue Book” on the public service obligations of broadcasters looms large here as a motivating “stick.”  But it would have been interesting to venture into an admittedly more speculative discussion about how journalistic styles have changed, and how documentary as an electronic form has weathered the years.  In some ways it seems as if the casting and scripting of programs common to the 1940s seems to have become the method of “reality programs” today.  Except, of course, those programs document nothing so much as our narcissistic times.

Against the journalistic hunger for stretching the minds of listeners especially at CBS were the guiding hands of William Paley and Frank Stanton.  Stanton was the researcher and inventor (along with Paul Lazerfeld) of an early precursor to dial-group/audience analyzer technology widely used today.  He established the research ethos at CBS, but Paley gave it its strategic function.  “Sustaining” and unprofitable programs were fine to a point.  But he made it clear that CBS would cede no ground in the search for audiences to its richer entertainment rival, NBC.   So the legendary struggle between news and entertainment that we now associate with Paley and the team of Murrow-Friendly was actually set as early as 1948, when the CBS Chairman cautioned Corwin that news needed to be able to compete.  As Ehrlich notes, this era of experimentation with radio as a window onto our civil life would not last long.  Network rivalries were entering a new phase that would include the potentially lucrative addition of television.  The older medium that gave us images in our imagination would soon have to compete with a new one that required more from production staffs and arguably less from its audiences.


Gary C. Woodward

The College of New Jersey