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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

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.

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