News + Drama = Early Radio Newsreel

Monday, July 25, 2011 - 12:00 AM

These days the recreation of news, or what I call near-news events, is not uncommon. On The Media recently devoted a segment to such 're-enactments' on television.  But the genre has a history that goes back to the early days of radio

There were no reporters in the field with tape recorders. This even predates 'portable' fifty-pound recording devices requiring coated aluminum discs and a cutting stylus. It was 1929, and Time magazine began to send out daily releases they called 'news casts' along with transcription discs containing five-minute dramas they referred to as 'news acting.' They started to used the name March of Time. Others followed suit. Among them, WBEN Buffalo, owned by the Buffalo Evening News. Their inaugural broadcast in September, 1930, included a dramatization of items from the newspaper. There were other local stations that tried it as well, but Time magazine kept with it and six-months later launched the national broadcast of The March of Time over the CBS network. It was March 6, 1931 that the network began the weekly series sponsored by Time magazine. They would take three to five leading stories of the week and give them to dramatists to script into short recreations for actors in the studio.

By 1939 The March of Time's fifteen-minute program was regarded as the most successful and longest running of the genre. Each week its listener-winning format and formula required 1,000 'man-hours' by some 72 writers, editors, actors, engineers and production. Its actors were described as "adept at impersonation and can simulate the voices of news figures so well that it is frequently difficult for listeners to believe they are not actually hearing the voices of these news figures...Aiding in accuracy is a library of thirty-second recordings of over six hundred voices that may possibly be in the news. March of Time actors listen to the inflection and accent of these persons and are able to reproduce a startling duplication of them." [1] These touts were joined with claims of expert fact checking and journalistic objectivity, although listening to them now, it's pretty clear they towed Time Inc.'s editorial line.

Other pioneers of this genre followed with varied success. Among them was The News Parade, a series produced by The Marben Advertising Company and airing on WMCA in New York.  Their broadcasts were a mix of Hollywood gossip, crimes of passion and hard national and international news. In the above broadcast of March 26, 1933 there are three stories. Among them (the last item in the line-up) is what I believe to be the earliest extant broadcast of news about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Remember, Hitler had only become Chancellor of German on January 30th of that year.    

[1] "Best News Dramatization - The March of Time," Best Broadcasts of 1938-39, ed., Max Wylie, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1939, pgs. 138-139.

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