The Shared Experience: Big Events on Radio and TV

Part of the pleasure of watching events like the Super Bowl or the Olympics is the fact that we can share the experience with others. We compare notes with family members as well as people at work, and today we additionally share what we’ve observed by forwarding news articles and video clips via e-mail, posting on facebook, or tweeting event photos and news.

From sharing the pleasure of witnessing Tracy Porter’s 74-yard touchdown that sealed the Saints’ Super Bowl victory to watching in horror at the luge athlete’s horrific end, we feel part of the action because we witnessed it. Despite the increasing time people are spending on all types of other electronic devices, television viewership of these major events is at an all-time high. This speaks volumes about people’s desire to share in major happenings.

In the Beginning it was Radio
Up until 90 years ago, the only way to share an experience was to attend it. In the early 1920s, the growth of radio broadcasting changed all that. Early programming ranged from the reading of children’s stories on air to concerts and soap operas. (Many of television’s long-running soap operas began in the early days of radio.)

An early pioneer in radio news was a general manager at Time magazine, Roy Edward Larsen, who introduced a quiz program, Pop Question, in 1928. Soon Larsen had arranged the release of ten-minute news casts of an announcer reading selected stories from the pages of the magazine.

Citizens were used to getting their news via print, and radio executives determined that merely reading the news on radio was too boring, so they invented a “value-added” aspect to the news. They created ten-minute dramatizations about significant events of the day. Like any other dramatic production, scripts were written; actors were cast and chosen to as to who sounded like current newsmakers, ranging from Adolf Hitler to Bruno Hauptmann (tried and executed for the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping). Appropriate sound effects were also mixed in.

The first dramatized news program was called NewsActing, but Time magazine, the company that produced the program, soon changed the title to March of Time. The program was enormously expensive to produce, so in 1932, Time announced they were discontinuing the program. There was a huge outcry from the public, enough to convince Time to continue producing the show and the Columbia Broadcasting System to pick it up. March of Time continued to air until 1939.

The Power to Thrill–and to Terrify
From the excitement of witnessing man’s first step on the moon to the historic moment of Barack Obama being sworn in as president, the media has the power to uplift but it also has the power to horrify its audience. Few people will forget the images and the emotions of watching the planes hit the World Trade Center on 9-11, and while there is no doubt that our experiences are intensified by the visual, radio, too, brought disaster into the home in a way that was terrifying.

Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre inadvertently stirred these emotions with their dramatization of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” Welles wanted to create a more viable story for listeners, so he changed the location of the story from Victorian England to the present day; the occurrences were described as happening just outside New York City. (The fact that radio audiences were accustomed to “dramatized news” places what happened next in a whole new light.)

People all over the country tuned in to the program, which aired on October 30, 1938. At the beginning of the program and four times within the hour, the fictionalized nature of the program was announced, but too few people heard. Some of the audience may have tuned in late, or perhaps audience members just became so agitated that they couldn’t absorb what was being said.

Many people grabbed some belongings and ran out of their homes; many more called the police, the newspapers and anyone they could think of to find out what to do. So believable was the reporting about a crash of something–perhaps a meteorite–near Grovers Mill, New Jersey that geologists at Princeton set out to verify this. (If they had stayed by their radio, they would have been even more panicked as the “meteorite” lands, and a Martian emerges.)

Patrons in a New York theatre began to empty out onto the street to go home. In a day with no text messaging and no cell phones, how did they hear the news? Several wives were left at home and happened to hear the broadcast. They telephoned the theatre and had their husbands’ paged. (That’s how word got out in pre-cell phone days.)

Like 9-11, the terror the people in the area felt was accompanied by offers of help from elsewhere in the nation. One gentleman roared into the telephone: “My God, where can I volunteer my services? We’ve got to stop this awful thing.” (New York Times, 10-31-1938)

A New Style Emerges
The panic caused by the “War of the Worlds” was just one more piece in what was becoming a natural progression away from dramatized newscasts. The defining event that brought about a new reporting style was an eyewitness account of another major disaster.

The Hindenburg, a huge passenger airship that was built to make round trips from Europe to the United States, had departed Frankfurt and was expected to dock near Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937. Herbert Morrison, a radio newscaster who was at the landing field, planned to describe the event and put the report on WLS radio in Chicago the next day. His dramatic and very emotional response to the horror he witnessed eventually ushered in a new style of reporting.

Morrison’s report, watch below. This clip includes video but it is the audio that grips the attention.

By 1940, the dramatized versions of the news were coming to a close. News executives saw the need–and the possibilities offered by–a news reporter in the field whose reports could be enhanced by “actualities,” taped clips of interviews from the scene. Americans tuned in to listen to breaking news from Europe, and they heard from news reporters like Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) about major battles and the bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii just moments after the actual events. 

Radio broadcasts, of course, were not limited to news. From sports like boxing and baseball and entertainment programs like the adventures of The Green Hornet, a masked crime fighter, and Burns and Allen, the comedy duo who had started in vaudeville, radio opened us to the wonder of the shared entertainment experience.

As you watch the Olympics and compare notes with other people about what you’ve seen, think about how it all began, with families gathering in the living room around the radio, listening to election results, concerts, and the all-American favorite–dramatized stories.

Mass media expanded their world–and ours–for the rest of time.

My newsletter this month highlights another popular radio program, Jack Armstrong, All American Boy. To receive a free copy of the newsletter, e-mail [email protected] with “radio” in the subject line.

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