Norman Corwin: Radio at the Intersection of Art and Commerce

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Editor’s Note: Today, Shawn VanCour continues our summer series “Tune In to the Past,” which explores the life and legacy of radio broadcaster Norman Lewis Corwin, the “poet laureate of radio” who died last summer at the age of 101.   Sounding Out!‘s three-part exploration of his legacy by radio scholars Neil Verma (June), VanCour (July), and Alex Russo (August) not only gives Corwin’s work new life (and critique), but also speaks to the growing vitality of radio studies itself. And now, a word from our sponsor, Shawn VanCour.–JSA

An experiment in radio is something nobody ever tries except strange people with a funny look. Good businessmen know better than to try experiments . . . . on account of you can’t play too safe when it comes to trying out new things.

–Unaired passage from script for “Radio Primer,” Twenty-Six by Corwin, May 4, 1941

The story of Norman Corwin is by now a familiar one: joining such illustrious figures as Irving Reis, William Robson, and Orson Welles, Corwin led a new generation of sound artists in developing pioneering techniques of radio drama that exploited the medium’s potential as a “theater of the mind” and inaugurated the celebrated “Golden Age” of network broadcasting. In death as in life, Corwin has been much praised for these contributions, and for his signature style so eloquently analyzed by Neil Verma in the opening volley of this SO! series.

Advertising dollars spent on network radio programming from 1935-1948, based on data compiled in the 2002 edition of Christopher Sterling and John Kittross’s Stay Tuned: A History of American Broadcasting. Advertiser investment climbed sharply, spurred by a corresponding growth in network affiliates.

However, as Erik Barnouw notes in his preface to LeRoy Bannerman’s biography of this broadcasting legend, Corwin’s story is also bound up with a larger economic history of radio, unfolding during a period of intensified growth in and controversy surrounding commercial broadcasting. From Corwin’s first show for CBS in 1938 to his last network broadcast in 1947, the percentage of affiliated stations in the country grew from 52 to 97, while investment by commercial advertisers more than doubled. To answer critics of commercialism and give its network signs of distinction, CBS dramatically increased its public service commitments (what David Goodman refers to as “radio’s civic ambition”), investing heavily in “sustaining” (unsponsored) shows that gave producers like Corwin room for unprecedented aesthetic experimentation.

This second, institutional dimension of Corwin’s story warrants further consideration. Observing the Marxist adage that history is made by individuals not in conditions of their own making, I propose that assessing Corwin’s legacy for radio and sound studies demands we attend not only to the what of that legacy–the techniques Corwin pioneered and programs he produced–but also to its how and why: the institutional context that spawned and encouraged these aesthetic innovations. How, in other words, did commercial concerns at the structural level shape and enable the rise of the “Corwinesque” as a viable mode of sonic expression? What peculiar set of economic relations undergirded these grand experiments in twentieth century sound art, and what lessons might this period offer for understanding creativity and aesthetic innovation in subsequent eras such as our own?

Sounds of Commerce

Corwin’s 1941 play, “A Soliloquy to Balance the Budget,” opened with the sounds of an adding machine and voice of a “soliloquist” tabulating the cost of each musical note and on-air gag. Such is the secret soundtrack of every broadcast since commercial radio’s inception, as one of the past century’s largest and most successful industries dedicated to the business of packaging and selling sounds for corporate profit.

Excerpt from script for “A Soliloquy to Balance the Budget,” broadcast on CBS’s Twenty-Six by Corwin series, June 15, 1941.

Rather than seeing the flowering of the Corwinesque as a brief but “golden” reprieve from an otherwise dark history of commercial mediocrity, I propose we use the case of Corwin to critically interrogate presumed antipathies between opposing forces of art and commerce in U.S. broadcasting, and seemingly intractable tensions between competing goals of public service and corporate profit. Might we see in Corwin, instead, an instance where concerns with profit margins in fact facilitated aesthetic innovation, and where goals of public service and commercial success entered into strategic (if temporary) alignment?

This perspective is by no means intended as a neoliberal apologia for the commercial system. Yet, at the same time, the modes of aesthetic experimentation in which Corwin engaged were never so antithetical to run-of-the-mill commercial forms as traditional histories have implied. Corwin contributed to both sustaining and commercial programs, and the techniques he developed were eagerly copied by radio ad-writers. Moreover, public service programming for CBS was no mere loss leader, but rather offered opportunities for financial profit both in its own right and as part of a larger system of coordinated transmedia flows. Listening for the sounds of commerce in these programs demands  a more sophisticated grasp of industry economics than the reductive binaries of traditional histories allow, beginning with an interrogation of the Romantic ideology of art on which those binaries rest.

Merita was a longtime sponsor of The Lone Ranger on radio and television beginning in 1938. Image by Flickr user Jeffrey.

De-Romanticizing Radio Art

Unlike other radio greats such as Robson and Welles who worked extensively on commercial series, what distinguishes Corwin in traditional accounts is his alignment with a protected sphere of noncommercial programming. Hired by CBS to work on sustaining series such as the Columbia Workshop, Corwin was celebrated by contemporaries like Richard Goggin as “pleasantly isolated from ‘commercial’ broadcasting,” with its “struggle for sales and maximum audiences” (63-4). His official biographer similarly praised him as an artist who “flourish[ed] in a freedom of ‘sustaining’ programming [that was] the hallmark of the Golden Age” and “refused to forsake this liberty for commercial earnings, although corporations clamored for his talent” (5).

Corwin himself directly contributed to this anti-corporate mythos. In a 1944 book on radio writing, he advised those aspiring to work in radio to “Do the opposite of what a sponsor or an agency executive tells you, if you want to write originally and creatively” (53), while including regular jabs at network and advertising executives in scripts for sustaining shows such as his “Radio Primer” or “Soliloquy to Balance the Budget.”  But by 1947, Bannerman explains, “the contest for higher ratings” had won out, and Corwin exited the network arena for greener pastures and a new job with the United Nations (10). In a 1951 article for The Writer, Corwin now recommended that “the writer who wants to do the best work in his power, in defiance of formula,” simply “forget radio,” and “until such time as [it] returns to a constructive attitude toward public service and the esthetic values in writing, look upon [it] as a trade outlet, not an art” (1, 3).

Opening lines of February 1951 essay by Corwin for The Writer, in which aspiring writers who wish to exercise their creative freedom are advised to “forget radio” and look elsewhere.

Setting aside the dubious merit of a narrative that denies any real aesthetic achievements for the 15 years preceding and 65 years following Corwin’s ten-year run in network radio–the apogee of a tragically brief “Golden Age”–we may recognize the conception of creativity espoused here as a distinctly Romantic one.  Within this view, so-called “true art” flouts the rules and formulas on which commercially driven mass art depends, and is pursued for purposes other than financial gain. This Romantic ideology of art has been repeatedly challenged, from earlier work by M. H. Abrams, to more recent critiques by Noel Carroll and R. Keith Sawyer. My own concern is not with its veracity per se, but rather with the historical exclusions needed to sustain its underlying binaries of art/commerce and public service/commercialism vis-à-vis the work of Norman Corwin. These exclusions (acts of forgetting on which remembrances of Corwin’s legacy are grounded) may be grouped into three basic categories: the selective operations of canon-formation, cross-fertilization of techniques in commercial and sustaining programming, and profitability of public service within the CBS business model.

Canon-Formation

The received view immediately works to remove Corwin from the sphere of commercial programming, marginalizing his contributions to sponsored series such as the Cresta Blanca Carnival—whose ad agency Corwin himself commended for checking the customary “fear of anything suggesting artistic endeavor” (402)—or Dupont’s Cavalcade of America, for which he wrote his “Ann Rutledge” play, better known from its later revival on the Columbia Workshop. So, too, does it single out among his many production credits a comparatively small list of broadcasts for which he wrote his own scripts, while limiting its purview to his radio works at the expense of his contributions to other media. (For a comprehensive list of Corwin’s creative works, including his many commercial film and television productions, see the appendix in this volume.) As with all processes of canon-formation–a crucial component of what Michel Foucault calls the “author-function”–bids for Corwin’s artistry thus entail a series of selective filtering operations. The totality of the individual’s creative labor is negated within a synecdochical logic of “best” works that renders the exceptional as typical and relegates the typical to the realm of historical oblivion. What other “Corwins” might further scrutiny reveal?

Cross-Fertilization

Efforts to preserve the purity of Corwin’s art by maintaining its opposition to and inherent tension with commercial broadcasting also ignore the extent to which the advertising industry itself embraced Corwin’s techniques. In 1942, trade magazine Broadcasting reported with much clamor Corwin’s acceptance of a bronze medal at New York’s Annual Advertising Awards Dinner, given to honor an “individual, who by contemporary service has added to the knowledge or technique of radio advertising” (22). Authors of popular radio writing manuals noted, in particular, the impact of Corwin’s technique of “choral speech,” which Barnouw in his 1945 Radio Drama in Action claimed was “so successful with listeners that . . . producers of dramatized commercials . . . [now] use [it] for spot announcements to sell soap flakes” (204-5).

Example of choral speech from script for episode of Corwin’s 1938-39 Words Without Music, reproduced in Barnouw’s 1939 Handbook of Radio Writing

Choral Speech in ad for Ajax household cleanser, late 1940s


Omitted from later accounts, such lost tales of cross-fertilization suggest not simply blind spots in the received view, but a fundamental abnegation: the separation of art and commerce as much an achievement of historical memory as historical fact.

Profitability of Public Service

Positioning the art of Corwin in contradistinction to growing tendencies toward commercialism also ignores the tremendous profitability of public service programming within CBS’s business model, both in its own right and as part of a system of carefully coordinated, cross-platform media flows. As Barnouw notes in Vol. 2 his 1968 History of Broadcasting series, CBS ramped up its investment in sustaining programming during the 1930s as part of a race with NBC to attract affiliates and expand its national network. Whereas NBC charged affiliates for sustaining shows to defray production costs, CBS provided stations with sustaining programs at no charge in exchange for guaranteed carriage of its sponsored series. (NBC stations, by contrast, were given right of refusal for any sponsored shows they wished to opt out of.) For CBS, sustaining shows presented not a financial burden but a path to commercial profitability. Attracting stations eager for free “quality” programming, the network drew fresh revenue in membership fees for each new affiliate it added. Eager to capitalize on these expanded economies of scale and willing to pay the corresponding ad rates, sponsors in turn flocked to the network, giving CBS valuable new accounts and further revenue boosts.

Recognizing their economic value, CBS heavily promoted sustaining stars like Corwin as talented auteurs who represented the network at its best, while working to parlay their products across multiple media platforms. In a 1942 Broadcasting ad promoting Corwin’s newly published script collection, Thirteen by Corwin, the network highlighted his artistry while tracing its corporate signature into his own, reminding readers that these plays were “written and produced under the sponsorship of the Columbia Broadcasting System,” as a new “literature of the air . . . . [whose] first editions . . . [are] printed in decibels instead of type” (62-3).

Images of a well-oiled network publicity machine at work. Newspapers such as the New York Times frequently printed network-supplied publicity stills and promotional copy in their radio sections. Here’s a publicity still of Corwin with actor House Jameson preparing for the the “Soliloquy” episode of Twenty-Six by Corwin (6-15-41).

Publicity still of actors rehearsing for an encore presentation of Corwin’s critically acclaimed radio play, “Odyssey of Runyon Jones” (11-26-41).

Corwin’s 1945 VE-Day celebration, “On a Note of Triumph,” was released not only in print, but also on disc by Columbia Records, converting an otherwise ephemeral sustaining feature into a source of direct profit while advancing the larger Columbia brand.

Cover art for 1945 Columbia Records release of Corwin’s “On a Note of Triumph” – leveraging content across media platforms for increased profit potential.

Whether attracting new affiliates and sponsors, or offering opportunities to improve brand recognition and exploit ancillary markets, CBS’s public service programming thus operated not in opposition to commercial forces but rather in the service of the network’s larger bid for economic competitiveness.

Lessons for Radio and Sound Studies

My remarks here are not intended to impugn Corwin’s artistic integrity, nor to imply a lack of commitment to loftier civic goals by CBS executives. The question, again, is a structural one: within what institutional context do the forms of aesthetic expression associated with “the Corwinesque” become possible and desirable? Put simply, how and why, from a structural perspective, do innovations in radio and sound art occur, and what forms can they take under given conditions?

Such inquiries are ill-served by presuming ipso facto oppositions between art and commerce or public service and commercial profit. Indeed, while often resting uneasily together, in the American system they have been bedfellows from the very beginning. To presume, moreover, that aesthetic innovation demands a protected space of noncommercial programming, or that such a space inherently fosters meaningful alternatives to commercial fare, would be a mistake. Within the received view, the legacy of Norman Corwin can be read only as a tale of lament: the death of public service and triumph of commercialism over art. Instead, I suggest we critically interrogate both present and past alike: the “Golden Age” is gone and likely never was, while closer scrutiny of earlier or subsequent eras may reveal aesthetic and institutional complexities hitherto unsuspected.

In a historical moment characterized by an unprecedented proliferation of new media outlets and alternative distribution platforms, but also an extreme concentration of media ownership, can we chart a critical trajectory that avoids both the Scylla of knee-jerk anti-capitalism and Charybdis of hyberbolic neoliberal and techno-utopian praise?

Conflicting attitudes toward contemporary sound industries. User-generated images responding to the SodaHead.com post, “Is Hannah Montana a Tool of the Devil?”, offer excoriating views on the cultural effects of commercialization and conglomeration.

Meanwhile, popular books such as Start and Run Your Own Record Label celebrate opportunities for creative autonomy and aesthetic innovation afforded by niche marketing and digital distribution technologies.

The proper course, whether studying conditions and possibilities for sound art in Corwin’s era or our own, lies somewhere in between.

Featured Image Credit: Julia Eckel, Radio Broadcast, 1934, Courtesy of the American Art Museum. An idealized representation, it contains no scripts in hand, no call numbers on the microphone and, importantly, no sponsors’ symbols on the wall.

Shawn VanCour is a media historian and lecturer in Film and Media Studies at the University of South Carolina. He has published articles on radio music and sound style in early television, as well as essays on Rudolf Arnheim’s radio theory and the origins of American broadcasting archives. He is currently completing a book on production practices and aesthetic norms for early radio programming and pursuing work for a second project on the radio-television transition of the 1940s-1950s.

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8 responses to “Norman Corwin: Radio at the Intersection of Art and Commerce”

  1. svancour says :

    Thanks for chiming in, Neil. Agreed that the game of historical “firsts” is probably not the most productive approach for studies of radio and sound art, though style (as you point out here) certainly DOES have a history and should be situated in its proper social and institutional contexts. Of course, even if Corwin didn’t “invent” the intimate and kaleidosonic aesthetics you describe in your book, and even if the admen whose contributions Cynthia discusses were dabbling with many of the same techniques that Corwin used (in some cases, well before his own radio career began, as Bob points out), Corwin’s use of those techniques remains powerful and instructive, and is indeed worthy of “close” listening. I’m personally not so shy about applying the art label, so long as we can shed the Romantic connotations often attached to it (art as the expression of the artist’s inner being, the product of inspired genius, breaking free from established convention, etc). Philosophers of art like Carroll have powerfully argued the need for descriptive and value-neutral definitions of art (Corwin’s art vs. Corwin as “art”). This value-neutral approach, I think, can help us overcome any wariness about speaking of radio as art (whether the public service programs for which Corwin was most celebrated, or the more crassly commercial fare with which he was often contrasted), and lets us apply that label independent of any personal judgments of the aesthetic or moral worth of the works studied. For my money, this approach also gives us greater historical perspective, allowing us to bracket out the immediate concerns of the present and more easily recognize the different ways in which art objects have been historically constructed and negatively or positively valued in the past (both important components of the second, “distant” listening you describe). Personally, I suspect it’s no coincidence that we see the Romantic view so fervently reasserted by critics throughout the first half of the 20th century, when Corwin experienced his initial rise to fame. Accepting mass art on its own terms poses fundamental challenges to the Romantic ideology and threatens to expose its ideological character as such – a logical consequence of the proliferation of mass art during this period, then, being a corresponding effort to defend and re-naturalize the purported “truth” of Romantic conceptions of art.

  2. Bob says :

    I’m pretty sure that “choral speech” technique was around long before Corwin. Tyrone Guthrie famously used it on the BBC in the late 1920s in his play “Squirrel’s Cage,” didn’t he? And I believe William N. Robson used it on the Workshop before Corwin arrived. Even commercial shows used it. See the introduction in this transcript of the 1937 premiere episode of “Big Town”: http://www.genericradio.com/show.php?id=K8NXV0M4E — which also includes a brief, scene-setting “kaleidosonic” montage. Guys like Welles, Corwin and Oboler always get credit for innovations, but just about every technique had already been pioneered by the late thirties, as often as not by the advertising industry.

    I’ve always suspected that the W, C & O types earned their big reputations not so much because they were great pioneers or even great artists (nobody outside of radio studies takes “Radio’s Poet Laureate” very seriously), but because they were effective propagandists — dramatists on the liberal end of the mainstream political spectrum who appealed to an educated audience — just what the industry needed, and cultivated, in the late thirties as it became one of the state’s biggest ideological institutions. When the spectrum narrowed in the repressive postwar years, the W, C & O types were deliberately phased out (or, like Robson, switched to genre programming). In other words, their main achievement was to try to get the liberal part of the “political class” to take radio drama seriously as an art form so it could then be used for propaganda purposes.

    • svancour says :

      Point well taken, Bob. As Neil Verma notes in his Theater of the Mind, Archibald MacLeish made quite celebrated use of choral speech in Columbia’s “Fall of the City” broadcast the year before Corwin joined the network, and the technique by no means originated with him, either. (For that matter, it was used in literature and stage plays long before radio hit the scene.) Many of the techniques of radio drama consolidated in the 1930s can in fact be traced to earlier broadcasts of the 1920s – Neil nods toward this, and it’s something I explore at length in my own book (stay tuned!). While you’re too modest to include any links in your comment, readers might be interested in seeing some of the records you’ve compiled on this prehistory of radio drama, going back as early as 1921-1922: http://www.geocities.ws/emruf7/1922.html. Barnouw’s writing manuals don’t necessarily claim Corwin as the sole inventor of choral speech, but in singling him out as an exemplar, they no doubt helped to consolidate his reputation as a pioneer in this area. As you note, the W, C & O triumvirate in general didn’t “invent” the techniques for which they became most celebrated, but I think we also need to recognize that concern with fixing a single point of origin for any given technique as very much part and parcel of the Romantic ideology of art that’s ruled so much popular and academic criticism to date (i.e., the idea that creativity and innovation are born through the inspired genius of the lone individual). The adequacy of this conception of creativity is questionable, and it seems particularly so for media such as radio that employ collective modes of production. Keith Sawyer has some interesting work on group creativity, and industry studies scholars such as John Caldwell, David Hesmondhalgh, and Tim Havens, Amanda Lotz, and Serra Tinic, have also offered useful models for thinking outside of the Romantic view to appreciate the complex balance between individual agency, mid-level production cultures, and macro-level institutional forces in modern media industries.

      • nkhverma says :

        Thanks for the great post, Shawn! It’s a powerful case, and well made. Just to be clear, I don’t think I ever claim that Corwin inaugurated what I describe as kaleidosonic aesthetics, which I agree stretches back much further than Corwin — my own genealogy starts with The March of Time and Cavalcade of America in the mid 1930′s. Rather, I think Corwin’s good at situating that move within depictions of intimate, deep relationships, which are also not his aptitude alone. In other words, Corwin was especially good at integrating at least two recognizable and very prominent aesthetic languages, neither of which was his own invention, to an audience of unprecedented size that itself became reducible to the terms of those languages, at least in Corwin’s mind. Also, I agree with your characterization of invention as a deeply romantic mythology. I’m not even clear about why it persists in academia. I mean, if we knew for sure who started using choral speech in the way Corwin does, what would that really tell us? I don’t know what the “so what” would be. That’s one reason why it’s fruitful to listen “distantly” along with listening “closely,” to pay attention to how styles evolve and unfold broadly across genres and dramatists, because that gives a picture of the unfolding of public experience. Finally, I agree completely with Bob’s assessment of the incorporation of liberal artists into the ideology of wartime (Archibald MacLeish and Robert Sherwood are even more glaring examples) during a propagandistic phase. It’s one of the reasons why I feel strange and a little sloppy when I describe dramatic broadcasts of this period as “art.” Indeed, if it is “art,” then it is the sort of art that becomes thinkable as such precisely in the moment in which it compromises itself.

  3. Cynthia B. Meyers says :

    Bravo! Thank you for speaking out against the religion of romanticism, artistic and academic, that insists on the false dichotomy of art and commerce. This is an excellent analysis and helps put Corwin in a much more interesting context. I plan to quote this in my forthcoming book, A Word from Our Sponsor!
    My own effort, not nearly as eloquent, to make a similar point about art vs. commerce can be found at this blog post: http://awordfromoursponsor.wordpress.com/2011/10/30/jazz-age-commercialism/

    • svancour says :

      Thanks for including the link to your blog, Cynthia – it offers some wonderful reflections on advertising’s impact on media culture both past and present, so I hope that interested parties will hop over and check that out. Cliff Doerksen’s book on commercialism in the 1920s (which you review on the linked page) is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the decade of broadcasting’s initial expansion and popularization in the U.S., and your own work likewise shows the pervasiveness of advertising (and diversity of advertising practices) on American airwaves from the very beginning. Of course, some stations did remain staunchly commercial-free, and corporate-owned chain broadcasters of the 20s tended more toward “politer” forms of indirect advertising than the local broadcasters Doerksen describes (see also Bill Kirkpatrick’s and Alex Russo’s work on this neglected tier of early broadcasting). However, there was never any moment of “purity” in the American context where radio existed wholly free from commercial influence. When viewed through the lens of the reductive commercial/noncommercial binary, U.S. radio has existed in a state of perpetual imperilment and decline since the moment of its inception. (And surely no medium has died more “deaths” than this one throughout its almost century-long history?) While I’m all for critical consciousness (which often seems in preciously short supply), I don’t think our inquiries are ultimately well served by post-lapsarian narratives that posit some imaginary and idealized state of grace from which broadcasting has fallen. This is not to suggest that there were never or are not now any alternatives, but I agree that we need to appreciate the structuring role that commercialism has played throughout the full history of American broadcasting, and its impact on the modes of creative expression pursued within that system.

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