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Radio Utopia

Postwar Audio Documentary in the Public Interest

Matthew C. Ehrlich

Publication Year: 2011

As World War II drew to a close and radio news was popularized through overseas broadcasting, journalists and dramatists began to build upon the unprecedented success of war reporting on the radio by creating audio documentaries. Focusing particularly on the work of radio luminaries such as Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, Norman Corwin, and Erik Barnouw, Radio Utopia: Postwar Audio Documentary in the Public Interest traces this crucial phase in American radio history, significant not only for its timing immediately before television, but also because it bridges the gap between the end of the World Wars and the beginning of the Cold War._x000B__x000B_Matthew C. Ehrlich closely examines the production of audio documentaries disseminated by major American commercial broadcast networks CBS, NBC, and ABC from 1945 to 1951. Audio documentary programs educated Americans about juvenile delinquency, slums, race relations, venereal disease, atomic energy, arms control, and other issues of public interest, but they typically stopped short of calling for radical change. Drawing on rare recordings and scripts, Ehrlich traces a crucial phase in the evolution of news documentary, as docudramas featuring actors were supplanted by reality-based programs that took advantage of new recording technology. Paralleling that shift from drama to realism was a shift in liberal thought from dreams of world peace to uneasy adjustments to a cold war mentality.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: The History of Communication


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. i-vi


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p. vii

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pp. ix-x

Thanks to the staffs of the following archives, who made researching this book such a pleasure: CBS News Archives Reference Library, New York; Daley Library Special Collections, University of Illinois at Chicago; Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin; Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University; Library of American...

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Introduction: Utopian Dreams

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pp. 1-11

It was the spring of 1945, so the story goes, and Edward R. Murrow was holding court among a group of his colleagues in war-ravaged Europe. During World War II, radio journalism had come into its own. Murrow had become internationally renowned during the German Blitz against London prior to America’s entry into the war. According to the poet Archibald MacLeish...

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1. A Higher Destiny

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pp. 13-23

Utopian hopes for American radio are almost as old as the medium itself. In the words of one historian, radio was widely seen in the early 1920s as “a force new and powerful that seemed to have unlimited possibilities for social good” and as a “bright hope for a better world.” It would promote peace and democracy while raising the standards of education and mass culture. ...

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2. One World

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pp. 24-45

Norman Corwin was born in 1910 in Boston.1 As a young man, he worked as a newspaper journalist and movie-studio publicist, but he always viewed radio with wonder—it was “‘a theater without walls whose roof was the sky itself, a theater not for the optical but the mind’s eye, a locus in which thought, language, imagery, and metaphor enjoy an authority seldom honored...

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3. New and Sparkling Ideas

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pp. 46-70

The creation of the CBS Documentary Unit in 1946 reflected contradictory impulses within CBS and its head, William Paley. A common historical assessment of Paley and the network in the immediate postwar years is that they largely abandoned the pretense of public service in favor of finally seizing the competitive edge over their archrival NBC.1 Paley wrote in...

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4. Home Is What You Make It

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pp. 71-103

If CBS started its Documentary Unit in part to differentiate itself from NBC, the rival network was slow to respond in kind. Writing in the New York Times in August 1947, Jack Gould described CBS’s documentary efforts as “magnificent topical radio,” whereas NBC offered “outmoded and old-fashioned public-service programs” that relegated the network “to a...

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5. The Quick and the Dead

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pp. 104-128

“Is the documentary dead?” Addressing that question in Variety in July 1949, the CBS vice president Davidson Taylor declared that it would survive “so long as Americans refuse to believe that the state knows all the answers, and are convinced that the people must decide things for themselves.” But he acknowledged that audio documentary was facing new challenges at...

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6. Hear It Now

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pp. 129-154

Robert Lewis Shayon had reason to be optimistic that 1950 would be happier for him than the previous year had been. He was “shocked and perplexed” over his firing by CBS while feeling “a sense of public humiliation.”1 At the start of the new year, however, he was offered a new position in Paris supervising the radio operations of the Economic Cooperative Administration (ECA). ...

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7. Lose No Hope

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pp. 155-164

In assessing the postwar documentary’s legacy, it should be asked whether Murrow was naive when he asserted in 1951 that the ear is capable of great understanding. It was, after all, a time when demagoguery was on the rise and liberal attempts at reform were in retreat simultaneous with “the final demise of a national radio service which had dominated the American...


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pp. 165-209


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pp. 211-221

Further Reading, About the Author, Publication Information

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pp. 223-224

E-ISBN-13: 9780252093005
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252036118

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: The History of Communication
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OCLC Number: 739387332
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Radio Utopia

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Subject Headings

  • Radio broadcasting -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Documentary radio programs -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Radio broadcasting -- Social aspects -- United States -- 20th century.
  • Radio broadcasting -- Political aspects -- United States -- 20th century.
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