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).
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.