Tag Archive | Norman Corwin

On the Lower Frequencies: Norman Corwin, Colorblindness, and the “Golden Age” of U.S. Radio

Editor’s Note: This is Liana, Managing Editor for Sounding Out!, introducing you to this special fall installment of our series “Tune Into the Past,” penned by our very own Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor, Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman. We at SO! have been waiting for months for Jennifer to share with us a brand-spanking new blog post! She’s back in action this month with a post that asks readers to listen to the cultural landscape that foregrounded Norman Corwin’s success as a radio writer and producer, inspired by her research on her book manuscript on the sonic color-line. In particular, Jennifer addresses the notion of colorblindness and its very real repercussions on radio artists and producers of color in the 1940s. Want to catch up on our series on Norman Corwin? Check out this summer’s posts by radio scholars Neil Verma, Shawn VanCour, and Alex Russo. If you’re all caught up, open your ears and your eyes then (to paraphrase Kurt Cobain). –LMS

Almost every day, I hear someone on the radio hailing America as the home of democracy. Yet almost every network is guilty of discrimination against the Negro performer. There are a few isolated cases of Negroes in broadcasting, but the lily-white policy is seldom violated.—Lena Horne, Chicago Defender 1940

The fine pieces in the “Tune in to the Past” series have thoughtfully considered the audible legacies of Norman Corwin: the “kaleidosonic” aesthetics that Neil Verma called the “Corwinesque,” the virtually seamless melding of artistic and commercial concerns that Shawn VanCour analyzed, and the echoes of Corwin remixed into WNYC’s Radiolab that Alexander Russo amplified.  But the research I performed for my book manuscript, The Sonic Color-line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening, about the fraught relationship between race and 1940s radio, left me pondering the gaps and silences of Corwin’s soundscape.  Radio’s “Golden Age” was also its most racially segregated: was the philosophy of “colorblindness” that Norman Corwin publicly espoused key to keeping it that way?

It’s not my goal to undermine Corwin’s work, but rather to enhance our understanding of it by embedding his broadcasts in the wider political, historical and sonic fields in which he was enmeshed. Just as Corwin’s sounded legacy left long-lasting traces in our media, so too have the silences and omissions fostered by the media executives, casting directors, union bosses, radio critics, and sonic auteurs of the “Golden Age.”  If Corwin’s work is difficult to access save for far-flung archives and spotty collector’s catalogues, the exclusions of African-American producers, performers, and listeners are even harder to hear, in part because of his very insistence that radio’s microphones were colorblind. As the epigraph from Lena Horne testifies, the discourse of democracy is not mutually exclusive with segregation.  In what follows, I discuss the intensely segregated history of the “Golden Age of Radio,” arguing that one of Corwin’s most far-reaching legacies may not have been set in motion by his virtuostic broadcasting, but rather by the World War II-era liberalism that shaped it.

The apex of Corwin’s radio career coincided with a profound shift in America’s dominant racial formation, the beginnings of “colorblindness.” By colorblindness, I mean the belief that if individuals and institutions ignored skin color as a signifier and eliminating race as an official category of identity—particularly within governmental institutions—it would cease to matter in American life and all groups would have equitable access to the privileges, opportunities, and freedoms afforded by citizenship.  The shift toward colorblindness—what Michele Hilmes calls America’s “wartime racial realignment” in Radio Voices—was predicated on creating a sense of unity that would inspire men across the color-line to sign up to fight what was dubbed a war to end racism and fascism, even as it raged on in their segregated hometowns. The Pittsburgh Courier’s Double V Campaign—Victory against fascism abroad and Victory against racism at home—addressed these ironies.  Barbara Dianne Savage’s Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race details the suppression of many black newspapers on military bases due to the Double V Campaign, as well as the pressure it put on government radio programs to address race.  However, she notes:

if black people had been forced to rely on radio as their primary means of communication about the failings of the federal government, they would have been on an impossible mission, since they were admitted to radio only as entertainers or as briefly invited guests expected to be on their best behavior (94).

Cast Photo of the Jack Benny Program. Eddie Anderson, who played Benny’s valet, was one of only a handful of steadily working black radio actors in the 1940s

Despite high-profile protests in the black press, mainstream broadcasters constructed radio as an unmediated purveyor of equality and truth with increasing frequency during World War II—its “lofty aerials, symbols of freedom” according to New York Times radio critic Orrin Dunlap.  In the case of Norman Corwin, he wrote a symptomatic  (and nervy) editorial  for Negro Digest in 1945 that depicted U.S. radio as a direct material and technological representation of colorblindness itself.

In “A Microphone. . . is. . . Color Blind”–what revealing ellipses!–Corwin assures black readers that “my feeling about Negroes in radio is that they belong as surely as the microphone.”  This strange opening gambit compares black participation in radio to the mute technological presence of the microphone that, while absolutely central to broadcasting, is an object with no inherent agency.  Unlike the proprietary, agenda-setting presence of whites in radio, a microphone amplifies the voices of others, while speaking not a word of its own. From his privileged vantage point, Corwin doesn’t quite realize how colorblindness enables him to use black people as tools.

Norman Corwin’s “A Microphone is Color Blind” from Negro Digest (1945), Image by the author

And, while Corwin’s title insists on the microphone’s colorblindness, his article suggests otherwise.  Much of his description of what America is missing without black people’s radio presence has to do with aural racial difference:  “I have found the same thing that makes Negroes supremely great artists in song makes them great in speech.  The color and warmth conveyed in the performance of a Negro artist is directly communicable by air.  The microphone is a faithful reporter and says exactly what it hears.”  In addition to perpetuating the old stereotype of black people as natural performers, Corwin’s realist depiction of the microphone as a “faithful reporter” that “says exactly what it hears” covers up exactly how much black voices were sculpted for white consumption during this period in radio; as actor Johnny Lee (“Algonquin C. Calhoun” on Amos ‘n’ Andy) told UCLA graduate student researcher  Estelle Edmerson in 1954: “I had to learn how to talk as white people believed Negroes talked.  Most of the directors take it for granted that if you’re a Negro actor, you’ll do the part of a Negro automatically.”

Johnny Lee as “Algonquin C. Calhoun” on Amos ‘n’ Andy

Whereas radio listeners were able to hear a wide range of white voices in a spectrum of roles—major and minor, comedic, dramatic, musical, informational—the sound and the content of black speech was circumscribed by the sonic color-line that marked it as “automatic,” essential, comedic, and potentially dangerous.  Corwin’s use of the word “communicable” rather than “communicated,” for example, is a revealing flourish giving black sound a tinge of contagion and infectiousness.   While ostensibly celebrating black voices, this passage simultaneously assures white listeners that they will still be able to unequivocally identify the race of any speaker over the “colorblind” airwaves and that this experience will be a pleasurable one for them. While the microphone may be color blind, it clearly is not color deaf.

That Corwin assumes a white audience becomes more obvious with his assertion a few lines later that “I have found too few Negroes who have taken an interest in radio.  I suspect it’s because they don’t know about it.” This statement is fairly incredible, considering that the Research Company of America published a study in the radio industry magazine Sponsor that placed African American radio ownership at 87%, just shy of the national figure of 90% (October 1949, 25).  Sponsor dubbed black audiences “The Forgotten 15,000,000.”

Sponsor, October 1949, Image by author

In addition to being inaccurate, Corwin’s suggestion that African Americans had limited knowledge of radio performs one of the signature moves of colorblindness; it makes institutional barriers to access—lack of training, networks, and mentorship, as well as straight up discriminatory hiring practices—invisible by asserting that black people only need to work harder to succeed in the American media industry.   Under colorblindness, the failure to achieve success equitable to white citizens falls squarely on the shoulders of those oppressed.  It also willfully mutes the protest of many black actors—such as Butterfly McQueen—who refused to participate in the segregated industry and the agency of all the black listeners who turned the dial on shows distasteful to them, allowing the fantasy of a unified (white) America to remain a powerful referent.

By and large, Corwin’s article paints colorblindness as already achieved.  In his estimation, it is up to black people themselves to take advantages of the opportunities he suggests already await them via the colorblind microphone:  “My attitude is not unique among radio directors—at least not in the main centers of radio[. . . ],“Corwin insists, “there is less prejudice in this field than in any other. It exists unfortunately, but you can get a hearing.”   For someone whose bread and butter was rhetorical flourish, Corwin’s use of passive sentence construction to discuss racial prejudice is significant—he naturalizes it as something that merely “exists,” tooling along without any specific historical agent performing the discriminatory and oppressive actions.  Such omission lets the white gatekeepers of the 1940s radio industry off the hook for both the institutional and individual forms of discrimination that kept the industry largely, as Lena Horne phrased it, “lily-white.”

Radio’s profound whiteness was aural as well as visual.  In Corwin’s colorblind America, a radio “hearing” comes at a heavy price for African Americans.  Without commenting on educational segregation, Corwin proclaimed: “Negro schools should have in their curriculum courses in public speaking, radio, theater.  There is no reason why there should not be Negro announcers.  It is important to study diction so that distinction in speech cannot be noted.”  While Corwin begins “A Microphone. . . is. . .Color blind” by arguing that black voices should continue to retain the racial markings that are legible (and pleasurable) to white listeners, he then suggests they must also simultaneously sound enough like the white voices surrounding them in order to be heard and accepted as fellow American citizens. Radio didn’t just passively reflect the sounds of American citizenship during this period–it actively constructed them on a foundation of exclusion and silencing.

There remains, then, a profound disconnect between the full exercise of American citizenship, the idealized discourse of colorblind equality forwarded by government officials, media critics, and prominent broadcasters exemplified here by Corwin, and the actual representation of African Americans as radio producers, performers, and listeners during and after this period.    At the same time as state-sponsored colorblind ideology rose to prominence during the war years, the U.S.’s airwaves became almost exclusively white.  There were no black writers regularly employed by any national radio station during the 1940s and there was not a single black member of the Los Angeles Writer’s Guild. While black authors Langston Hughes and Carlton Moss wrote occasional scripts on one-shot contracts, they were about topics deemed of black interest by the networks.  Black radio critic Joe Bostic—who would later become one of the nation’s first black radio sportscasters—described the limited openings for black radio performers:

publication last week of the most authoritative and comprehensive of the radio polls showed not a single Negro entertainer placing in the first ten of any branch of radio entertainment.  Such a compilation outlines, in bold relief the disturbing fact that the Negro, long a leader in every phase of   entertainment, is being excluded in this newest and most lucrative branch (People’s Voice, 1942).

Regular on-site broadcasts from nightspots that featured black performers all but vanished after 1940, meaning that the vast majority of black musical performances broadcast over the American radio networks were conditioned and mediated by white announcers and sponsors as well as the sounds of white-oriented programming that introduced and followed them.

Lena Horne guesting for NBC’s Blue Network

To be clear, I don’t blame Corwin individually for the ideology of colorblindness and the world it has wrought, but I do think it is important to consider his role as a cultural producer in the “Golden Age” of segregated radio, and as a power broker who helped shape the media landscape with which we now contend. While we commemorate his labors as a sonic artist with high journalistic standards who undoubtedly worked to “glorify the ‘common man,'” we also have to consider the institutionalized privilege that enabled him to claim this role as his own, as well as the many people silenced by him doing so, inadvertently or not.  Tuning in to the past demands a vigilant ear attentive to the profound silences of exclusion: the traces of words muted, mangled, disciplined and unsaid, as well as the subterranean reverberations ghosting the triumphant tones of the “Golden Age,” a shadow broadcast, on the lower frequencies, of all the sounds that might have been.

Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman is co-founder, Editor-in-Chief and Guest Posts Editor for Sounding Out! She is also Assistant Professor of English at Binghamton University and a former Fellow at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (2011-2012).

The Sound of Radiolab: Exploring the “Corwinesque” in 21st Century Public Radio

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Editor’s Note: Today, radio scholar Alex Russo, author of Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio Beyond the Networks , 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), Shawn VanCour (July), and 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, hey everyone, you are listening to . . .Alex Russo  Alright? Okay? Alright?–JSA  

P.S. Look for a special bonus fall installment of the Corwin series in September!

Voice 1: What if you were the best in the world at something…

Multiple Voices: [background] He is the greatest….most stupendous…. most thrilling…most inventive

Voice 1: and then your entire industry collapsed.

Voice 2: [continuing and fading out] Radio[?] Writer.

Voice 1: But you kept on working?

SFX: Typewriter, continuing until coming to a dead stop when return bell rings and the carriage returns with a clunk on “pass away”

Voice 1: Outliving all your peers, until, 77 years later, you pass away?

Voice 3: Norman Corwin? Never heard of him. He defined a generation’s engagement with sound?

Voice 1: And there is no one left to eulogize you? What is your legacy?

This post is the third in a series that engages with the legacy of Norman Corwin, a – perhaps the – preeminent radio writer and producer of the late 1930s and 1940s. Specifically, it picks up on Neil Verma’s challenge back in June to consider the legacy of the “Corwin-esque.” Verma devotes considerable space to mapping the aesthetic syle of Corwin in his post and his incredibly insightful and astute book, Theater of the Mind.

The analysis that follows leans on Verma’s argument with a caveat. The question of legacy stems in part from Verma’s assertion that Corwin lived for so long, few were left to speak for his legacy. Corwin may not have the name recognition that he should within the broader public, but for radio practitioners, he is regarded with considerable reverence.  In this sense, the Corwinesque style lives on by inspiring contemporary radio producers, especially, I will argue, in the aural style of the syndicated WNYC public radio program Radiolabhosted by Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. Radiolab describes itself as “a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” While ostensibly a science program, designed to make complicated scientific phenomena comprehensible to a general audience, the show engages in fundamental questions about nature, being, and experience in creative ways.

Certainly, Abumrad and Krulwich regard Corwin as an inspiration, such as when Krulwich responded to a claim by This American Lifes Ira Glass that the turn of the 21st century is the true Golden Age of Radio, by describing Corwin as “Homer in a modern form. . .a lyrical reporter who wrote and spoke like he was wearing a toga and sometimes was so spectacular you’d get dizzy listening and sometimes seems a little too old fashioned and oratorical.”   In his earlier post, Verma defines Corwin’s aesthetic style through a number of formal elements, including what he describes as a kind of “overworked literary calisthenics.”  Putting their own spin on Corwin’s dizzy oratory, Abumrad and Krulwich mark Radiolab with complicated and intentionally convoluted speech patterns. The program features Abumrad and Krulwich in rapid fire banter – far faster than typical public radio fare.  Often, this onslaught of language crowds and overlaps, producing a highly staged simulation of conversational flow. Often, Abumrad is a voice of enthusiastic discovery, while Krulwich plays the role of skeptic, particularly in the early seasons.  Abumrad’s voice is more nasal, higher pitched and, notably, recognizably younger than that of grizzled veteran Krulwich, creating a contrapuntal effect.

Radiolab Producers/Hosts Robert Krulwich (l) and Jad Abumrad (r), Image by Flickr User ThirdCoast Festival

These voices usually interact with a third voice, what typically radio documentary calls the “actuality.” However, instead of than separating “the real” from the narration’s voice of authority, Radiolab juxtaposes sentence fragments from all the voices (analysis, counter-argument, evidence) to create a conversation that proceeds dialectically, on parallel parts that intersect at points to lead to a thematic conclusion.  While Radiolab’s dialogic style has been explored by other radio scholars, like Andrew Bottomley and Eleanor Patterson, its link to Corwin’s model of radio drama deserves more attention. While not exactly the same as Corwin’s signature “choral” vocal style, with voices chiming in from all directions, it performs a similar function, aurally representing a multiplicity of viewpoints.

Furthemore, Abumrad and Krulwich work hard to create a feeling of liveness and connection with Radiolab‘s listeners, much like Corwin did.   Radiolab is certainly not a live program, but we must also remember that much of Corwin’s work was also developed to be recorded and sold–as Shawn VanCour discussed in his offering to this series. Although violating typical news protocols, mangled sentences, mis-matched vocal levels, and cross-talk are not removed during Radiolab‘s editing process; rather they are left in to create the feeling of spontaneity. Krulwich and Abumrad as quite conscious of this effect, with the latter noting in a New York Times profile, “It’s a funny thing, when you find yourselves laboring for weeks to create what you felt at that first moment.”

Abumrad and Krulwich, performing a live version of Radiolab, Image by Flick’r User Jared Kelly

A final connection, Abumrad and Krulwich blend two aural styles, “intimate” and “kaleidosonic,” descriptors Verma coins in Theater of the Mind as the hallmark of Corwin’s formal mastery.  Verma defines broadcast intimacy through radio’s address to the listener as an individual, its placement of a program’s “audioposition” alongside the narrator, as well as its emphasis on place-centered narratives. Kaleidosonic style addresses the listener as a public, uses a multiplicity of auditing positions, and creates a broad model of engagement with narratives centered on events (70). A wonderful representative example of this combination of styles on Radiolab can be heard at several points in season two’s episode, “Detective Stories.”  First, the end of the opening beat features the stylized repetition of a New York Sanitation official describing the Fresh Kills sump as a “time capsule.” As the phrase “time capsule” echoes eight times, Krulwich begins to chant “time capsule” in a lightly mocking and metallic sounding tone. Abumrad tells him, “You can stop that now.”

Later in that episode, a segment entitled “Goat on a Cow,” follows Laura Starcheski across the country as she investigates the twelve-year story behind of a box of old letters found by the side of the road.

This segment takes place at different locations, a hallmark of the intimate style. At the same time, it also uses elements of the kaleidosonic style because the narrative turns on particular events, moments where new evidence is found and new theories of the story of Ella Chase, the letters’ recipient. Throughout this segment Starcheski’s voice fades in and around those of her actualities. When she intervenes to provide context, the other voices are not stopped, they continue, telling their story under hers until at specific moment both voices say an identical phrase. This juxtaposition suggests that the letters hold different meanings for the individuals who come in contact with them: For Starcheski they are a reminder of her childhood desire to invent life stories of strangers; For Erick Gordon, an English teacher who found the letters, they are a great mystery on which he can project his own imagined histories and build a teaching curriculum; Finally, for Robert Chase, they represent a relief that he is no longer the archivist of his grandmother’s life. Like Corwin’s work, “Goat on a Cow” combines intimate and kaleidosonic styles, creating pleasures that are linked not to narrative closure but to the process of sonically representing investigation and theorization.

Letters, by Flickr user aroid

In allowing the pleasures of aural storytelling  to enable the show’s narrative, Radiolab’s Corwin connection expands conceptions of the imagination.   Like Corwin (and radio writers of the network-era), Abumrad sees radio as both an act of “co-authorship” and “co-imagining” between the writer/performer and the listener.  However, he also sees his “job” as “put[ting] certain images and feelings in your head.” This link to discourses of the imagination is clear in the series’ opening episode, “Who Am I?” One segment in this episode, “The Story of Me,” suggests that what defines humanity is “introspective consciousness,” the ability to abstract images or events into a story of self.

Citing neuroscientist Dr. V. S. Ramachandran, Krulwich notes: “Only humans can take images from the real world, pull them into their heads, divide them into parts, and take those parts and turn them into abstractions.” To demonstrate, Krulwich leads Abrumrad through an example where the latter conjures the image purple striped red canary in his head. Ramachandran follows, noting that only humans can rearrange and manipulate “tokens” of “bird,” “striped,” and “red” to “imagine” something that doesn’t exist. The “peculiar human muscle” is that “ability to experience things and abstract them into a story. This definition is telling, while ostensibly it is about human consciousness, I would argue it could just as easily be seen as a description of the job of radio writing, taking recognizable symbolic tokens, manipulating them, and turning them into story. By equating human consciousness with radio, Krulwich and Abumrad exemplify a final theme that Verma attributes to network-era radio drama, its evolution “from being a theater in the mind to being a theater about the mind” (3).

Indeed, the segment of “The Story of Me” finishes by noting that neural actions can only be understood in a group: “Even the thought ‘I am a one’ springs from a hundred million cells connecting through a trillion synapses and that all of this multiple activity paradoxically creates the you of this moment. You are always plural.” I imagine that Corwin, no stranger to celebrations of plurality, would completely agree.

Featured Image by Flickr User Jared Kelly

Alexander Russo is an Associate Professor in the Department of Media Studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He is the author of Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio Beyond the Networks (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010) as well as assorted articles and book chapters. His research interests include the technology and cultural form of radio and television, the aesthetics of sound, the development of “old” new media, the history of music and society, the relationship between media and space, and the history of popular culture.

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

http://soundstudies.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/ajax1.mp3

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.

Radio’s “Oblong Blur”: Notes on the Corwinesque

Miguel Covarrubias, untitled iIlustration to “Radio I: A $140,000,000 Art,” Fortune (May, 1938).


Editor’s Note: Today, Neil Verma kicks off 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. Corwin, pictured in the icon to the left with actress Peggy Burt around 1947, passed too quietly into the ether–as, unfortunately, has too much of radio history.   Sounding Out!‘s three-part exploration of his legacy by radio scholars Verma, Shawn VanCour (July), and Alex Russo (August) not only gives his work new life (and critique), but also speaks to the growing vitality of radio studies itself. As I mentioned this past March in my round-up of the 2012 Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference, radio scholarship is on the rise–a Radio Studies Special Interest Group was established at SCMS this year, reaching a critical mass–and scholars are finding new and innovative ways to approach radio’s unique silences.   We are proud over here at SO! to broadcast the future of radio studies by helping you “Tune In to the Past” this summer, so get ready for an array of voices–living and dead, textual and aural–spirited debate, and great sound history, in both senses of the word. So don’t touch that dial. –JSA


Norman Corwin in 1973 (Source: Arrowcatcher, Wikimedia Commons)

 

“I am a Dead Sea Scroll,” Norman Corwin, in an interview with writer Tom Lewis, 1992.

 Rising to prominence in the 1930’s, radio dramatist Norman Corwin (1910-2011) aired a body of work of unsurpassed variety, reaching audiences upwards of sixty million with plays that range from “The Odyssey of Runyon Jones,” about a boy searching the afterlife for his beloved dog, to One World Flight, for which Corwin visited 17 countries seeking voices of peace. Often compared to such figures as Eugene O’Neill and Walt Whitman, Corwin was known for seventy years as the “Poet Laureate” of radio, an unofficial title invented for him and impossible to confer on another. I interviewed Norman for my book Theater of the Mind (University of Chicago Press, 2012).  These remarks derive in part from those conversations.

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In June of 1947, New Yorker writer Philip Hamburger published a profile of Norman Corwin, then already recognized as a distinguished radio dramatist. From Pearl Harbor to V-J Day, Corwin had staged daring plays to mark Allied milestones and earned frothy praise from the likes of Carl Sandburg, who called Corwin’s V-E Day show “On a Note of Triumph” one of the “all-time best” American poems.

Such acclaim was not universal. That same broadcast drew scorn from historian Bernard DeVoto, who called it a “mistake from the first line” full of “pretentiousness” and “bargain-counter jauntiness.” Like many others, DeVoto and Sandburg reacted to Corwin’s habit of excess by mimicking it. Hamburger’s profile caught that same bug. Billing itself as “The Odyssey of the Oblong Blur,” Hamburger tells a gauzy story of Corwin’s older brother building him a crystal set out of a box of Quaker Oats, and relates tall tales of Corwin’s artistry, like the time he spent two days trying to simulate the sounds of depth charges. And not only did Hamburger write the profile as a radio play, but he wrote it in the style of Norman Corwin.

What is that style, exactly? Thoughts on that question have been surprisingly minimal. When Corwin died last fall, commentators celebrated his life (see here, here, here and here), but the memorials lacked precisely the sense of scale to which both Sandburg and DeVoto responded. There was no voice to speak of Norman in a “Corwinesque” manner, in part because the man probably outlived more likely eulogists than anyone else in the history of broadcasting. Had he not outlasted them, Corwin would have been mourned by the avuncular elders of midcentury liberalism, like his friends Edward R. Murrow and Carl Sandburg or admirers Robert Altman, Walter Cronkite and Studs Terkel, any one of whom could have written a loving burlesque in Corwin’s voice.

But no one did, and no one can, not now. Who would get the joke, anyway? Collective experience of Corwin’s sound is passing out of living memory. Yet this very elapsing “afterlife” of the radio age, I feel, lends new richness to the question of the Corwinesque, an aesthetic that needs clarification both to give full credit to the man behind it, and, in a larger sense, to show how a theory of sound experience can “happen” at the twilight zone of collective human memory.

So what was “the Corwinesque” around 1947? What is it nowadays? What might it become in the future? In this post I’ll consider both the nature of the “Oblong Blur” and the methods we’ve tried to bring its ongoing odyssey into focus.

Philip Hamburger’s New Yorker profile, with illustration by A. Birnbaum

A High Wireless Act

In its profile, The New Yorker poked fun at how Corwin made unreasonable demands of sound (e.g. “Music: a universal theme, oscillator beneath, denoting pain of the world and bigness thereof, fading”) and let childish literary tactics run amok, as when the audience is called “Sons of a Sun spinning sadly through space.” In his era, Corwin’s penchant for such overwriting was an unavoidable aesthetic issue.

Corwin’s work was widely understood as a challenge to technicians and actors just for the sake of it. In the script for “New York: A Tapestry for Radio,” for example, a date scene contains this befuddling note: “Music: Love on brownstone stoop at three in the morning after an evening at the RKO Proctor Theater and a long walk in the park. It sustains, behind.” In “The Undecided Molecule,” meanwhile, we learn of a particle that refuses to select his destiny before “The Court of Physiochemical Relations.” Here are some of many tongue-twisting lines in verse:

I’d argue that Corwin’s writing is impressive here precisely because it’s so easy to botch in delivery. The style spotlights its own overworked literary calisthenics, saying: look at me trying so hard I might blow it.

In this way, the Corwinesque names a connection between the soaring and the buffoonish, a link that a contemporary called his “frontier spirit.” Thanks to this spirit, even when the prose was purple, the defect came across as that of an innovator. To keep that up, Corwin had to innovate constantly. That’s why his plays took on so many other forms – the letter (“To Tim and Twenty”); the lecture (“Anatomy of Sound”); the pageant (“Unity Fair”).

So one key to the Corwinesque was to walk a high wire without a net, another was to say so. Nothing confirmed both better than a fall. I’d wager many listened for a lousy line or overdone tune as part of the pleasure of it all. Indeed, it may be incorrect to evaluate Corwin’s aesthetic as poetic; think of the Corwinesque as broadcasting rather than writing, and its liabilities come across as dares.

If that is correct, then the “high wire act” of the Corwinesque relies on a kind of listening-for-risk that’s hard for us to do now, because we can’t listen to Corwin’s work new, or live. One deep aspect of the Corwinesque of the 1940’s – the possibility, even anticipation, of artistic failure, up above an enormous audience out there in the dark – seems lost for good.

Coalition and Collation

But in another way, the Corwinesque is only possible to grasp now, at the safe remove of the digital era. Today it’s easy to listen “distantly” to classic radio through formats that allow us to pause, rewind, categorize and remix vast amounts of golden age audio in a way that was impossible in 1947. By doing so it becomes clear that what we call the “Corwinesque” drew on a broad vocabulary of radio dramaturgy, a way of “talking about” time and space that characterized many programs of that time.

Consider Corwin’s famous attempts to glorify the “common man” – farmers, G.I.s, factory workers – by drawing their voices to a sonorous space and national coalition, indeed by making these two imaginary sites mirror and rationalize one another. Perhaps the paramount example is “We Hold These Truths,” which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights only days after Pearl Harbor. In that broadcast, we hear Americans of the revolutionary period (widows, blacksmiths, politicians) speak from a series of shallow locations in a quick succession, and a similar group in the present (workers, Okies, businessmen, mothers), as a way of building mystical union through time.

A visual representation of the “kaleidosonic” from the 1939 broadcast “Americans All, Immigrants All”

This style has had many names. Historian Erik Barnouw likened it to painting, calling it a chance to “splash quickly over a large canvas,” while actor Joseph Julian called it a “telescoping montage.” Variety’s radio editor Bob Landry suggested that it resembled cantata. When I interviewed him, Corwin said that it was like writing music; elsewhere he spoke of a kind of “horizontal” drama, or mosaic form.

In my book, I employ another word: “kaleidosonic.” In kaleidosonic radio, we segue from place to place, experiencing shallow scenes as if from a series of fixed apertures, thereby giving time periods expressive existence. That can be contrasted with what I refer to as the “intimate style,” in which the listener is attached to a character who moves through deep scenes, as a way to give space expressive existence. A good example of the latter is Corwin’s American in England series, in which the horizon of wartime is shaped by a proximal relation to a surrogate narrating entity “nearby.” Here’s a representative episode:

Today, listening broadly, it becomes clear that neither of these styles belongs to Norman exclusively. For other uses of the kaleidosonic, consider the works of Stephen Vincent Benét, Orson Welles’ “The War of The Worlds”  or Cavalcade of America. For examples of the “intimate style,” listen to Brewster Morgan’s “A Trip To Czardis,” or any “first-person” style play from The Mercury Theater on the Air. What made Corwin special was how he made these styles complimentary. The opening of “On a Note of Triumph” is a good example:

In six minutes, we go from a kaleidosonic sequence of songs and crowds to an ordinary G.I. overseas asking questions intimately. This connection between the context and the individual, between the nearby and the simultaneous, is Corwin’s way of letting space and time merge together vividly.

It is that capability, I contend, that underlies and secures Corwin’s glorification of the common man, who is really Corwin’s public aestheticized. In 1939, Archibald MacLeish wrote, “The situation of radio is the situation of poetry backwards. If poetry is an art without an audience, radio is an audience without an art.” Corwin intuited what MacLeish didn’t understand: in radio, the audience is the art.

And just as airing a coalition of voices was an epistemological act that reinvented those it depicted in 1945, our use of a new collation of recordings today redraws the parameters of what those sounds might mean, amplifying latencies, superficialities, and entwinings hitherto inaudible.

A Dead Sea Scroll

By 1947, Corwin’s dedication to the “little guy” was out of vogue. It seemed seditious to red-baiters, phony to leftists, and compromised to critics – The Nation’s Lou Frankel wrote of One World: “It is as if the late John Barrymore decided, without warning, to play Hamlet in pantomime.” On this point Hamburger’s profile pivots from hagiography to satire, including a series of goofy verses voiced by a “Chorus of One Hundred Little Guys from Everywhere in the World” and a grouchy monologue by the “Common Man,” complaining that Corwin talked past him, advising “you ought to think about what the words mean before you use them.”

Norman Corwin in 1947 (Credit: Los Angeles Times)

That reminds me of another coda, this one in Corwin’s 1944 play “Untitled.” The play concerns a dead soldier named Hank Peters, who speaks as he lies “fermenting in the wisdom of the earth.” The monologue concludes this way:

Death is a patriotic act, a metaphysical state, but also a restless moral energy bearing down on life, a thing standing in requirement of its vindicating narration. Perhaps this feature of the Corwinesque will ring especially true as classic radio continues to exist in its ongoing pseudo-immortality. Now that Corwin reposes in his own acre of undisputed ground and his voice circulates ghostlike in clouds of data, our question may be what ontological relation we ought to have with that voice, and those of other dead social visionaries, who really do keep on advising us after death, and will go on echoing after we’re gone.

But the Corwinesque isn’t just about how the dead “speak” to the living, long the ruling conceit in the theory of sound recording. It is also about another enigma: how the dead listen to us, an audience eavesdropping, in hiding, taking notes on an old scroll in a lost language.

Neil Verma is a Harper-Schmidt Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Chicago, where he teaches media aesthetics. Verma works on radio and its intersection with other media, and has taught subjects including film studies, sound, art history, literature, critical theory and intellectual history. His book, Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama, is published by the University of Chicago Press.

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