Edward R. Murrow's radio storytelling
17 April 2023
Season 11, Episode 04
Re-Imagined Radio considers Edward R. Murrow’s efforts to help American listeners understand "The Blitz," fifty-seven consecutive days of German air force bombing of London during World War II. His keen observation, vivid verbal descriptions, and attention to sounds provided a sense of what was happening. What could be observed. Radio historian Jeff Porter calls the unmatched immediacy Murrow provided listeners, "the proximity effect" (Porter Lost Sound 90) and says it prompted a new form of radio storytelling. We sample several examples of Murrow's radio storytelling, and its "proximity effect," in this episode.
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READ the "Proximity Effect" working script.
Minor changes may have been made in production. Voice actors are creative. Otherwise, this is an accurate textual description of what is heard in our broadcast.
Written, Produced, and Hosted by John F. Barber
Sound Design, Music, and Post Production by Marc Rose of Fuse Audio Design
Promotional Graphics by Holly Slocum
THIS . . . is London.
—Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965)
The appeal of being close
Edward R. Murrow often said, "Things must be experienced to be understood" (Murrow This Is London 178).
He insisted on reporting events from the location of their happening, vividly describing what could be seen and moving the microphone close to the sounds that could be heard. During his March 9, 1941 report, Murrow remarked, "No one will ever describe adequately just what it feels like to sit in London with German bombs ripping the air, shaking the buildings, and causing the lights to flicker, while you listen to the German radio broadcasting Wagner or Bavarian folk music."
Murrow understood that radio's ability to capture and share sound was a distinctive advantage over other media. As social psycologists Hadley Cantril and Gordon W. Allport suggested in their book The Psychology of Radio, listeners are well disposed to what they hear. Hearing sounds brings the event to the listener. Transcends space and time. Creates a sense of immediate and personal connection between listeners and radio personalities.
Founded broadcast journalism
He never worked as a reporter before he became THE radio news commentator. But Edward R. Murrow is called the founding father of broadcast journalism, and is said to have made more than 5,000 radio and television broadcasts, from his eye witness of Adolph Hitler's seizure of Austria to his observation of President John F. Kennedy's inaugural address (Bliss X1).
Born 1908 in North Carolina, near Greensboro, raised in Blanchard, Washington, near Mt. Vernon, and a graduate from Washington State College (now Washington State University), Murrow went to London in April 1937 as Director of Talks for the Columbia Broadcasting System, CBS. His job was to organize lectures, speeches, and performances for shortwave radio broadcast to America. Not to talk on the radio himself.
Murrow's job description, and career, changed, however, when he traveled to Vienna, Austria, to report the arrival of Adolph Hitler.
European News Roundup
On March 12, 1938, Nazi Germany troops crossed the border and annexed Austria, the so-called Anschuluss, joining, connecting, or political union. William S. Paley, president of CBS, eager to topple rival NBC as the nation's top-rated radio network, envisioned a next-day radio program that would provide live news from European capitals and other major cities as Adolph Hitler arrived in Vienna and formally claimed Austria part of the new German Empire, the Third Reich. Paley had CBS Vice President Paul White call William L. Shirer (SHY-ra), CBS Central European Correspondent, then in London, that afternoon and order a special program for the following day.
Normally, Shirer was based in Vienna. He tried to broadcast news of the Anschuluss the morning of March 12, but was prevented from doing so. Germany suspended broadcasting rights of all networks other than NBC. Murrow was in Warsaw, arranging a Polish children's program for the CBS American School of the Air. Shirer called Murrow with the news. Murrow asked Shirer to fly to London. He, Murrow, would fly to Vienna and report from the scene. Shirer flew from Vienna to Berlin, and from there to London, arriving in time to announce his story about the Anschuluss. Murrow flew to Berlin and from there to Vienna, riding into the city aboard a streetcar (Kendrick 155-157; Fang 308; Cohen citing Shirer from his Berlin Diary).
The program was called European News Roundup, a thirty-minute broadcast on European reaction to the Anschluss. Morrow and Shirer were in charge. They had eight hours to contract reporters, rent shortwave radio transmitters, coordinate radio engineers in five countries, and put together a network that allowed picking up shortwave radio transmissions from international cities, and sending them across the Atlantic Ocean to New York for broadcast over the nationwide CBS network. All in real time. Two similar programs had been tried previously. Both required months of planning. This time there was only eight hours until broadcast. Shirer coordinated the details from London.
The European News Roundup began at 1:00 AM London time, 8:00 PM New York time, with an introduction by Robert Trout, CBS news correspondent.
Tonight the world trembles, torn by conflicting forces. Throughout this day, event has crowded upon event in tumultuous Austria. Meanwhile, the outside world, gravely shaken by the Austrian crises, moves cautiously through a maze of diplomatic perils. Since the German troops crossed the Austrian border on the historic invasion last Friday news has flowed across the Atlantic in a steady stream. The German Chancellor now winds his way through the conquered nation in parade of triumph to end in a tremendous spectacle in Vienna. As German troops swarm across frontiers in their first offensive since 1914 momentous decisions are being reached in the capitals outside Germany. And so the world's spotlight, for three days fastened upon Austria, is shared tonight by London's tiny Downing Street, by the Quai d'Orsay whose buildings of state line the Seine River in Paris, by other chancelleries throughout the world. To bring you the picture of Europe tonight, Columbia now presents a special broadcast which will include pickups direct from London, from Paris, and such other European capitals as at this late hour abroad have communication channels available. This is Bob Trout, speaking to you from New York, opening Columbia's shortwave trans-Atlantic program to cover the key cities of Europe . . . To bring you the picture of Europe tonight, Columbia now presents a special broadcast which will include pickups direct from London, from Paris, and such other European capitals as at this late hour abroad have communication channels available. This is Bob Trout, speaking to you from New York, opening Columbia's shortwave trans-Atlantic program to cover the key cities of Europe . . .
After his introduction, Trout reviewed the news surrounding Nazi Germany's invasion of Austria the week before. Then listeners heard from CBS reporter William L. Shirer in London, reporter Frank Gervasi in Rome (who phoned his report to Shirer in London who read them for the broadcast), former Labour Minster of Parliament Ellen C. Wilkinson, Edgar Ansel Mowrer, a Chicago Daily News reporter in Paris, reporter Pierre J. Huss of International News Service in Berlin, Lewis Baxter Schwellenbach, US Senator from the state of Washington, and Murrow in Vienna.
Murrow's first "official" radio broadcast, but not his first
Murrow's broadcast from Vienna, Sunday night, March 13, 1938, is considered his first official news broadcast. Murrow at the time was thirty years of age. His broadcast was historical. But it was not his first. Murrow biographer Joseph Persico notes that Murrow's first radio broadcast was in 1930, his final year at Washington State College. Murrow enrolled in "Speech 40, Community Drama," the nation's first college radio course, taught by Maynard Daggy. Portions of the class were broadcast by the campus radio station KSWC (Persico 58). Persico also tells how, following a CBS Publicity Department Christmas party in 1936, Murrow accompanied Robert Trout into the broadcast studio to observe him deliver the five-minute newscast at ten o'clock. Murrow, saying Trout was too intoxicated to go on air took the script and delivered the newscast (Persico 108-109). According to Inving Fang, Murrow read the news perfectly, "never missed a beat" (Fang 306).
A first for several reasons
The European News Roundup was a first for several reasons. The first official news broadcast by Edward R. Murrow. The first news broadcast to combine shortwave reports from international cities into a single broadcast. And the genesis for, in the fall of 1938, CBS World News Roundup, the longest running network newscast in the United States.
Fang says Murrow remained in Vienna for ten days and "was on the air regularly" (Fang 308). Two Murrow broadcasts from Vienna, March 14, and March 15, 1938, are noted but not verified. From these Vienna broadcasts Murrow developed prototypes for his later reports from wartime London, where he addressed three questions: what is happening? How does it relate to America? And, how do the ordinary people feel? (Bliss 4).
War comes to Britain
On 3 September 1939, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that a state of war existed between Great Britain and Germany. Within an hour, Murrow told listeners in America . . .
Forty-five minutes ago the Prime Minister stated that a state of war existed between Britain and Germany. Air raid instructions were immediately broadcast, and almost directly following that broadcast air raid warning sirens screamed through the quiet calm of this Sabbath morning. There were planes in the sky. Whose, we couldn't be sure. Now we're sitting quite comfortably underground. We're told that the 'all clear' signal has been sounded in the streets, but it's not yet been heard in this building. In a few minutes we shall hope to go up into the sunlight and see what has happened. It may have been only a rehearsal. London may not have been the objective - and may have been. I have just been informed that upstairs in the sunlight everything is normal, that cars are traveling through the streets. There are people walking in the streets and taxis are cruising about as usual. The crowd outside Downing Street received the first news of war with a rousing cheer, and they heard that news through a radio in a car parked near Downing Street" (Persico 155; Bliss 14-15).
Although the German Army stormed throughout Europe, conquering nations with lightining speed, an invasion of England, long anticipated, did not happen. There were air raids, when German bombers attacked military airfields and other targets in Southern England.
Murrow reported these attacks and British preparations for war regularly on CBS radio. Frequently he began his reports by saying, "THIS . . . is London." This opening became a trademark. He was a contributor to the daily The World Today program beginning in April 1939 (Fang 308). As result, his name and voice became familiar, and trusted. His reports were directed to listeners in America. Each was intended to convey the experience of the British people. For example, in his September 13, 1940 report, Murrow commented
I have been walking tonight. There is a full moon, and the dirty-gray buildings appear white. The stars, the empty windows, are hidden. It's a beautiful and lonesome city where men and women and children are trying to snatch a few hours sleep underground.
Murrow's approach to reporting
Reporters have long been guided by the so-called "journalistic questions"— who, what, where, when, and why. Joseph E. Persico, a Murrow biographer, said for Murrow the most important question was why. He always wanted "ample room to explore the why" (Persico 260).
Murrow had a definite approach to reporting . . .
Dig down deep into your story; get fully into it and let it get fully into you. When you know what you want to say, say it as clearly and briefly as you can. When you reach a conclusion, put it forward, even it it runs counter to the prevailing wisdom. Do not seek to be different or contentious, but do not shrink from it (Persico 247).
Digging into one's story, for Murrow, meant getting close to the story, close to the action. Murrow wanted to help American listeners understand the wartime experience in London. For this, he wanted to report live, DURING an air raid.
London After Dark
Murrow argued that radio was like an ear extending the range of human hearing over great distances. He wanted to bring that ear close to the action, give it direct access to the sounds of war around London -- wailing sirens, droning bombers dropping below the clouds, the thump of exploding bombs. Sounds represented the significance of the moment. Without them, without the immediacy of live, on location reporting, Murrow felt there could be no understanding. "Things must be experienced to be understood" he often said (Murrow, This Is London, 178).
An unexpected opportunity came in August 1940, when CBS and BBC radio began a joint venture. Titled London After Dark, and described as a "sound-seeing tour," this half-hour Saturday series was to provide listeners in America an idea of how Londoners were coping with the war. Murrow helped plan and organize the series.
With the impressive subtitle "Life in a blackout in the capital of Great Britain," the first episode, August 24, began at 11:30 London time, to best mesh with a 7:30 live broadcast schedule in New York, four time zones earlier.
On this night, there were three air raid alarms, but no actual bombings. Presenters were stationed around London. Murrow in Trafalgar Square. Robert Bowman at the Savoy Hotel kitchen. An anti-aircraft battery. An Air Raid Precautions Station. Eric Sevareid at Hammersmith Palais, a large London dance hall. Vincent Sheean in the silent streets of Piccadilly Circus. BBC reporters at Euston Station for interviews with trainmen, and British writer and broadcaster J.B. Priestly, at Whitehall. At each location commentators shared what they saw and heard.
Introduced by an unknown BBC announcer, Murrow's broadcast, live from Trafalgar Square is iconic. In the background are heard air raid sirens, emergency vehicle sirens, and people passing in the street. Murrow described it all, vividly, without a script, live, at the scene.
The next evening, August 25, Murrow spoke about the unreality of the bombing attacks.
Murrow provides witness
Then, on September 7, 1940, Murrow witnessed waves of German bombers coming over England after flying across the English Channel and heading up the Thames River for London. The next might, September 8, 1940, he reported this, the beginning of The Blitz, fifty-seven nights, September to October, 1940, of sustained bombing of non-military targets in London and other cities by German air forces. The idea was to terrorize British citizens to the point where they would demand thier government make peace with Germany. Murrow reported the first night of The Blitz, and many more after, as well as British resiliance.
In these reports Murrow described the "blood red" moon, the smoke "canopy" over the Thames River, the "fireflies" bursting from the anti-aircraft guns, the "grunting" of bombs, and the "pear-shaped flames" from their explosions for listeners in America, thousands of miles distant. His word pictures were vivid, but not the same as the actual sounds.
Repeated requests to the Air Ministry to broadcast live during an air radio were denied. Live broadcasts of air raids might provide details helpful to the enemy, said the Ministry officials. Eventually, however, Murrow was approved to broadcast live during an air raid.
The first broadcast was a disappointment. An intense air attack moved away from Murrow's location on the roof of a Portland Place building just before his broadcast began. Despite this setback, Murrow gave a compelling, live report of what he saw and heard the night of September 21, 1940. This was the start of his famous London "rooftop" reports.
America joined Great Britain in the war against Germany and Great Britian joined America's war against Japan following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Murrow flew aboard American and British airplanes as they took the fight to Germany. His report of the December 3, 1943 night bombing of Berlin, "Orchestrated Hell," joined Murrow's report from Trafalgar Square as a classic piece of radio journalism.
Two years later, April 15, 1945, Murrow was one of the first journalists to report the horrors discovered in German concentration camps. His "Liberation of Buchenwald" was transcribed in newspapers around the world, rebroadcast on BC, and immediately became another classic example of Murrow's radio storytelling.
Less than a year later, March 10, 1946, Murrow concluded his final radio broadcast from London saying, "and now, for the last time, this is Edward R. Murrow in London" (Persico 242). He returned to New York and began a new career as a CBS executive, and later as director of the United States Information Services.
Murrow creates new style
Radio historian Jeff Porter says Murrow's "figurative . . . narrative voice and language, a conversational on-air persona, vivid imagery, short understated sentences, and bold sound effects," created a sense of immediacy, "the proximity effect," that distinguished Murrow from his peers, and created a new form of radio storytelling (Porter 85, 90).
Murrow created this new form of radio storytelling in three ways. First, being close to the event helped Murrow better understand what he sought to share with listeners. Second, for Murrow, being close meant hearing the sounds of the event. These sounds BECAME the story. Murrow used sounds to spark a sense of immediacy in his listeners' minds. And, third, Murrow set out to help American listeners understand what Londoners were experiencing. He told stories about daily life in wartime London. About ordinary people during extraordinary times. As Murrow said, his reports should "describe things in terms that make sense to the truck driver without insulting the intelligence of the professor" (Nachman 406). He succeeded.
With his broadcasts, Murrow sought to bring listeners in America closer to the war in London than reports read by other news commentators from their studios. Other reporters and commentators followed Murrow's example. Here is a sample from George Hicks' "D-Day Dispatch," made aboard the communications ship USS Ancon off the French coast after midnight, June 6, 1944. It was D-Day, codename Operation Overlord, the opening of the Allied amphibious invasion of Europe — the largest in history — seeking to drive out the German army. Hicks recorded on-the-scene observations using an early tape machine known as a Recordgraph.
Bliss, Irving, Jr., editor. In Search of Light: The Radio Broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow 1938-1961. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1967.
Cantril, Hadley and Gordon W. Allport. The Psychology of Radio. New York, Harpers, 1935
Cohen, Andrew. Happy 75th Birthday, CBS World News Roundup, The Atlantic, 12 Mar. 2013.
Edward R. Murrow: The Next Generation
Fang, Irving E. Those Radio Commentators. Iowa University Press, 1977.
Kendrick, Alexander. Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969.
Murrow, Edward R. This Is London. New York: Schocken Books, 1989.
Nachman, Gerald. Raised on Radio. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Persico, Joseph E. Edward R. Murrow: An American Original. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.
Porter, Jeff. Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
Sperber, A.M. Murrow: His Life and Times. New York: Freundlich Books, 1986.
Special thanks to Maureen Keller, Syliva Lindman, and Brenda Alling for promoting this episode of Re-Imagined Radio.
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Name: Proximity Effect
Tagline: Edward R. Murrow's radio storytelling
Description: Re-Imagined Radio explores Edward R. Murrow’s efforts to help American listeners understand "The Blitz," fifty-seven consecutive days of German air force bombing of London during World War II. With his broadcasts, Murrow sought to bring listeners in America closer to the war in London than reports read by other news commentators from their studios. Radio historian Jeff Porter calls the unmatched immediacy Murrow provided listeners, "the proximity effect," and says it prompted a new form of radio storytelling.
Program type: Episodic
Media type: Radio broadcast, live stream. podcast
Premier broadcast and live stream: 17 April 2023, KXRW-FM (Vancouver, WA), KXRY-FM (Portland, OR)
Recording availability: Podcast
Recording specs: Audio, MP3, stereo, 44.1Hz, 320kbps
Recording name: rir-proximity-effect.mp3
Categories: Radio storytelling, Documentary, Radio performance, non-fictional
Keywords: radio drama, storytelling, documentary, Edward Murrow, London, World War II, Blitz
Script: Original scripts adapted, research, commentary by John F. Barber
Producer/Host: John F. Barber
Sound Design/Music Composition: Marc Rose