History of Radio: Big Voices

Graham McNamee

The very first words to ever be broadcast over network radio were uttered by Graham McNamee, his signature greeting “good evening ladies and gentlemen.” That was in 1926 and it was the inaugural program of the National Broadcasting Network (NBC).  By that time the 38-year old McNamee had already won the Radio Guide 1925 Gold Cup Award for the World’s Best Radio Announcer. He had already called the 1923 World Series for WEAF in New York and had covered the 1924 Democratic National Convention.

Raised in Minnesota, McNamee came to New York with the dream of becoming an opera singer. While on jury duty he auditioned at a radio station during his lunch break and his career took off from there. He would cover both political parties’ national conventions and presidential addresses to Congress. He broadcast Charles Lindberg’s return from Paris after his trans-Atlantic flight. He was the straight man on comedian Ed Wynn’s show “The Fire Chief,” and in the 30’s he was the voice of Universal Pictures newsreels.

But McNamee’s greatest impact was as a sportscaster. He was repeatedly NBC’s man for the three biggest radio sports events at the time: the Rose Bowl, heavyweight championship fights and the World Series. He broadcast 12 World Series. McNamee has been called the inventor of play-by-play. He brought both color and excitement to his broadcasts, which had previously been handled mostly by journalists in an unemotional and dry manner. By contrast McNamee exclaimed during one boxing match (Carnera vs. Baer) “Oh boy! Oh boy! These boys are fighting!” In her history of radio, Listening In, author Susan J. Douglas described McNamee’s style: “What McNamee invented was the combination of the blow-by-blow or play-by-play with what came to be called color, the telling, visual details about how the event looked and felt. He reported the event as it occurred, but he also dramatized it, so listening to the broadcast was often better than going to the game or match itself.”

Posthumously McNamee was awarded the Baseball Hall of Fame Ford Frick Award for Broadcasting. He was entered into the American Sportswriters Association Radio Hall of Fame and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


Father Coughlin

If you think angry demagogues making outlandish statements on radio to stir up their listeners is a modern phenomenon, consider Father Coughlin. This Roman Catholic priest turned political firebrand at one time in the 1930’s had 30 million listeners to a weekly show.

Charles Edward Coughlin was born in Ontario to Irish-Canadian parents. He bounced around a couple different religious trainings until he landed in Detroit where he was incardinated and assigned to a parish. Coughlin was on the radio in Detroit by 1926. Initially his show dealt with religious issues. He was signed by CBS in 1930 but the network later dropped him when he refused their request to screen his scripts in advance. Coughlin put together his own radio network and at the time his show became more and more political.

Like many people of his type it is much easier to identify what Father Coughlin was against than it is to figure out what he was for. He was a virulent anti-communist. But he was also a virulent anti-capitalist. He supported FDR when he was elected in 1932 but by 1934 he was railing against the President for his monetary policies. He founded an organization called the National Union for Social Justice. One of his slogans was “less care for internationalism and more concern for American prosperity.” Sounds a little like a certain recent Presidential inauguration speech.

During the latter half of the decade as American public opinion was beginning to shift toward intervening to support the Allies, Coughlin increasingly took a sympathetic view of the Nazis and his anti-Semitism became more and more obvious. He blamed Jews for both Communism and the excesses of Capitalism. A watershed moment in Father Coughlin’s decline was after Kristallnacht, the Nazi attack on German Jews, when Coughlin suggested “Jewish persecution only followed after Christians first were persecuted.” I found an even more outrageous and obnoxious quote on a Web site devoted to Coughlin (www.fathercoughlin.org): “When we get through with the Jews in America, they’ll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.”

By the end of the 30’s many had heard enough of Father Coughlin. Some stations dropped his show including his two New York outlets. Many in the church were anxious to get him off the air. After the outbreak of war in 1939 the Roosevelt administration forced his radio show off the air and made it illegal to distribute his daily newspaper via the mail. In 1942 Bishop Edward Aloysius Mooney of Detroit ordered Coughlin to cease all political activities and focus on his parish. He complied and continued as pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower until he retired in 1966.


Edward R. Murrow

News was not an important part of radio programming in its early years. Up until the late 1930’s the radio networks did not even have news divisions. That all changed leading up to and during World War II when millions of Americans were glued to their radios awaiting news from the two fronts. Between 1940 and 1944 the number of hours devoted to news on radio went up 300 percent. No one is more closely associated with the emergence of radio as the nation’s primary news source than Edward R. Murrow.

Born to Quaker parents in a log cabin in North Carolina, Murrow moved west to Washington at the age of 6 and later attended Washington State. His first job at CBS was in 1935 when he was hired as director of talks and education (there was no news group until 1938). Two years later he was sent to London as head of European operations.

Murrow usually did his best to conform to CBS’ standards for objectivity. But being in London and witnessing first hand what the British were facing he increasingly became an anti-isolationist and anti-fascist. At one point he confided, “I am finding it more and more difficult to suppress my personal convictions.” Murrow would become the gold standard for foreign correspondents. Listen to the clip below and you’ll understand why. It is Murrow on a rooftop in London awaiting the arrival of German bombers.


During the war itself he went on a Royal Air Force bombing mission over Berlin. He laid his microphone on the ground so listeners could hear the sound of advancing tanks. He was one of the first to file a report from the Buchanwald Concentration Camp in Germany interviewing emaciated survivors. Of that experience he said “I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words.” With his ever-present cigarette (he smoked three packs a day) and his signature sign off “good night and good luck” he was, according the Douglas “the apotheosis of American manhood.”

After the war Murrow got bumped up to a VP position but he was soon back on radio. He had two shows on CBS. “This I Believe” was a program that gave ordinary Americans five minutes to speak on the radio. The other was “Hear It Now” which later moved to television and became “See It Now.” It is on that program in 1954 that Murrow made a famous speech denouncing Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Murrow left the radio and became active in television news broadcasting but through the 50’s his relations with CBS started to sour. In 1961 he resigned and was appointed by JFK to head the United States Information Agency. He died in 1965 at the age of 57.

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3 Responses to History of Radio: Big Voices

  1. Donna Janke says:

    This is a great look at some radio on-air pioneers. Edward Murrow sounds particularly interesting. I love the title “director of talks and education”.


  2. BroadBlogs says:

    I’d never heard of him. Interesting to learn about him.


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