The Living Room Fixture

Lee DeForestThe first time that an audience turned to radio to hear breaking news was in November of 1916. Prolific inventor Lee DeForest announced plans to broadcast returns of the presidential contest between Woodrow Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes. An estimated audience of several thousand, in a 200 mile radius around New York City, listened in the comfort of their own homes as DeForest relayed the reports from the offices of the New York American.

It was four years before the next election cycle and the next news broadcasts. On August 31, 1920, radio station 8MK (later licensed as WWJ, owned by the Detroit News) broadcast returns from a Michigan primary election. In November of 1920, Pittsburgh's KDKA reported Warren Harding's victory over James Cox. In the days following that broadcast, KDKA owner Westinghouse received hundreds of postcards from all over the U.S., and some foreign countries, responding to an invitation to let them know who was listening. [2]

H. V. Kaltenborn

Wisconsin native H.V. Kaltenborn was one of the first journalists to break into radio. In 1921 New York City radio station WEAF invited Kaltenborn, then associate editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, to discuss news events on the air. A well-traveled journalist, Kaltenborn embarked upon a radio career that lasted until 1955, moving from station to station and then network to network. Kaltenborn usually spoke extemporaneously, eschewing notes. His German heritage and language skills were particularly useful in the late 1930s and early 1940s. [3]

The first radio network news reporter was Graham McNamee, hired in 1923 by WEAF, the flagship station of a network developed by AT&T. He anchored coverage of both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 1924, and Calvin Coolidge's inaugural in 1925. Known for his colorful descriptions of events transpiring in front of his microphone, McNamee handled major sports events and political events with equal ease. [4]

Gradually men like Kaltenborn, McNamee, Lowell Thomas, and a few others, established their reputations as reliable news voices though regular news reports were aired only a few times a day (like television news before cable TV, because radio at first was a living room fixture and people listened then like they watched television later).

presto disk cutter

Radio news in those days was typically either newspaper or news wire copy read by a staff announcer, or live reports of special events such as the "Scopes Monkey Trial" (in 1925). Audio recordings, in those days, were made by transcription machines, similar to cutting a record. They were large and bulky machines. But their news use was limited. Not only were their recordings almost impossible to edit, but the radio networks had a policy against use of recorded material.

A rare exception to that policy was made for Herbert Morrison's 1937 report on the Hindenburg disaster. Morrison traveled from Chicago to Lakehurst, New Jersey, in order to make an archival record of the dirigible's landing for WLS radio. He was several minutes into recording a description of the giant airship's approach when it suddenly burst into flames. His account was so riveting that CBS and NBC overlooked their policy and played it anyway. In this video a portion of Morrison's audio report has been edited to newsreel footage.

Gradually news reporting became a larger and larger part of the radio schedule as people began to appreciate the immediate and personal connection to major events that radio offered, in contrast with print. However, newspapers and wire services did not appreciate radio stations and networks using the news gathered by their reporters to build up radio audiences (unless, of course, the newspaper owned the radio station, which was the case for about one third of all licensed stations).[5] In 1933 the print journalists attempted to block radio stations and networks from using their news. Some newspapers actually took radio stations to court. But judges ruled both ways and after several years the dispute fizzled.

The dispute was a sign that news was becoming important to radio. Some independent radio news networks were established during this period, to serve radio stations. CBS and NBC also started their own network news operations. Paul White, at CBS, and Abe Schechter at NBC, were both originally hired as Directors of Publicity. Then, when news became a higher priority, their titles changed to Director of News and Special Events. [6]


A March 1938 FCC survey found one tenth of all radio time devoted to news. [7] Dark war clouds were roiling in Europe and Americans had the uneasy feeling that they were going to be drawn into the conflict, just as they had been drawn into the previous European war two decades earlier. They wanted to know what was going on and radio could tell them, almost instantaneously. A 1938 study by Princeton University professor Daniel Katz found that radio gave relatively more attention to international news than did newspapers. [8]

In September 1938 the world waited nervously as European leaders met in Munich in an attempt to negotiate a halt to the German war machine. During the Munich Crisis radio networks provided non-stop coverage. H.V. Kaltenborn made 102 broadcasts in 18 days, hardly leaving the radio studio. Radio receiver sales skyrocketed. More sets were sold that month than in any three-week period in history. [9]

One month later The Mercury Theatre of the Air presented a radio drama about a Martian invasion as a series of radio bulletins. Many listeners missed the announcement that it was only a story and reacted as if the invasion was real. The War of the Worlds broadcast showed that war worries had people on edge, and that people were listening closely to radio news reports.

Edward R. Murrow

All four networks, CBS, NBC red, NBC blue, and Mutual, prepared for war. And their broadcasts prepared the nation for war.[10] Earlier in 1938, Edward R. Murrow had lined up CBS correspondents in several European cities. CBS initiated the evening news round-up, tuning in successive correspondents live via short wave radio during the newscast.[11] The daily developments were heard instantaneously across America.

CBS, under the leadership of Paul White in New York and Edward R. Murrow in London, established itself as the radio news leader with its team of distinguished reporters. The team hired by Murrow, became known as "Murrow's Boys." [12] Many of them, including Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, and Richard C. Hottelet, remained with CBS News for decades following, on both radio and television.

While much of the early reporting focused on Europe, the war was also developing in the Pacific. Bert Silen broadcast the beginning of the Japanese attack live for NBC from Manila. He remained at the microphone until Japanese soldiers broke in and hauled him off as a prisoner of war. When the Philippine camps were liberated several years later, former NBC News Director Abe Schechter was on General MacArthur's staff and located Silen. After a debriefing he was allowed to go back on the air for NBC. His first words were, "As I was saying the last time when I was so rudely interrupted..."[13]

As Ed Bliss detailed, World War II was radio's war. "For six years, from the German invasion of Poland to the final Japanese surrender on the battleship Missouri, air raid sirens, gunfire and correspondents' voices were heard in the intimacy of American homes. Here the cliche about being 'glued' to the radio was born."[14]

Today, one of the most popular radio news anchors in America maintains the style and format of the early days of radio news. Paul Harvey News and Commentary is carried by ABC network stations. But new technology, developed after World War II, gave radio news reporters new tools to cover the news and led to a (short-lived) golden age of radio news reporting.



2. Edward Bliss Jr., Now The News, The Story of Broadcast Journalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991),  4,6,8
3. Erik Barnouw, A Tower in Babel, A History of Broadcasting in the United States, Volume I—to 1933 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966),  139
4. George Gordon and Irving Falk, On the Spot Reporting, Radio Records History (New York, Julian Messner, 1967), 55
5. Mitchell Charnley, News by Radio (New York, The MacMillan Company, 1948), 11
6. Gordon and Falk, 79
7. Paul F. Lazersfeld, Radio and the Printed Page (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940), 209
8. Ibid, 210
9. David Holbrook Culbert, News for Everyman (Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1976), 73
10. Culbert, 207
11. Erik Barnouw,  The Golden Web – A History of Broadcasting in the United States, Volume II—1933-1953, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968) 78
12. CBS News, Murrow’s Boys, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/02/24/murrow/main1343638.shtml
13. Gordon and Falk, 130-131
14. Bliss, 106