Norman Corwin Remembered for Radio Greatness
By CHARLES CANTRELL
MESSAGE TO AMERICA: Norman Corwin during one of many broadcasts to a war-weary nation. Corwin’s striking broadcasts helped him earn the title of American Radio’s Poet Laureate.
Tim Troy loves to talk about his hero, Norman Corwin. Troy is an associate professor of theatre and arts at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. This summer he was Light Opera Oklahoma’s (LOOK) guest director for the company’s first foreign language operetta, The Little Barber of Lavapies. His resume reflects many honors and a wide array of courses. But his great love is exploring the early days of American radio programming, and in particular the historic and social impact of one of America’s greatest wordsmiths.
According to Troy, Corwin is often overlooked for recognition in part because it is hard to understand the significance of his works without some knowledge of the times in which it was created. It was a unique moment in American history when colossal events and the advent of mass communications provided fertile ground for a prolific, creative genius to flourish.
In the late 1930s, although still in its formative years, radio had become ubiquitous in America creating the first mass media opportunity for creative talents and corporate marketers. Three networks, National Broadcasting Company, Columbia Broadcasting Company and Mutual Broadcasting Company were vying for market shares of the growing radio audience.
Because recording technology was still in its infancy, all radio programming was done live from four broadcasting centers located in New York, Detroit, Chicago and Los Angeles. Eventually 95 percent of the 18-hour live broadcast day would be funded by corporate sponsorships. Even the music was orchestrated live in the studios of each center. Sponsors would attach their brand to specific programs such as Johnson Wax’s sponsorship of the popular Fibber McGee and Molly show.
Still there were time slots to fill with experimental programming. Into this mix came Norman Corwin.
Corwin’s rise to radio prominence is the quintessential story of a self-made American. When one reads his eloquent, insightful and far-reaching works of poetry and prose it is hard to believe his formal education ended with a high school degree from a public school located in a typical, ethnically diverse South Boston neighborhood. What is apparent in his writing is a vast knowledge of literature, art, philosophy and history testifying to his absorbing, inquisitive mind and his life long pursuit of learning.
In 1938, CBS invited him to join their efforts to develop innovative programming to compete with bigger rival NBC. Corwin’s first on-air program was Words Without Music. It was well received and as his audience grew he was granted more airtime and created 26 By Corwin.
It was a six-month commitment giving him total freedom to explore all types of issues. And he did so by conceiving, writing, casting, directing and producing new live broadcasts every seven days covering a gambit of topics that included love stories, satire, fantasy, mystery, biographies, travelogues, philosophy, history and more.
“Keep in mind Corwin was doing everything himself and it was all fresh and innovative. He was free to explore whatever worthy topic he chose. He was doing pretty much what it takes a team of today’s writers, directors, technicians and producers to do. His programs caught on across the country and people would tune him in just to see what he had to say,” says Troy.
In 1941, America was debating involvement in the war in Europe. December 15 of that year marked the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt requested Corwin produce a commemorative program celebrating the occasion. This landmark piece was aired simultaneously over all radio stations on the anniversary date and was heard by an estimated 60 million listeners out of a population of around 114 million.
Coming on the heals of the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, the program was well timed. We Hold These Truths was a Corwin masterpiece clearly articulating the fundamental values of American democracy and it served as a vivid reminder of what the country would be fighting to preserve.
The end of the war provided another opportunity for Corwin to earn his title as American Radio’s Poet Laureate. The president commissioned the writer whose voice had become a source of comfort and wisdom in the darkest of times to honor the event with his words. The resulting program titled On a Note of Triumph was broadcast to a war-weary nation on V-E Day, May 8, 1945. Carl Sandburg called it “one of the all-time great American poems.” It remains Corwin’s most famous work and by all accounts captures, as only Corwin could, the sentiment and psychic of an America caught in the conflicting throes of joyful victory and its horrific price.
According to Troy, a survey of Corwin’s works reveals an unfailing respect for the intelligence of his audience. “He believed an informed public was an essential element of democracy. He believed in putting factual truths out there, not dumbing it down. He trusted the audience to figure it out.”
Corwin must have had it right because a war torn nation drawn together for a cause that struck at the heart of liberty repeatedly tuned their radios to hear his messages of faith, hope and courage. It was a stunning moment in American history: the convergence of monumental world events, a collective will reinforced by the emergence of mass communication and a genius mind stepping forth to articulate the times with grace and wisdom.
Again Troy reflects on his hero, “As with all great works, Corwin’s art gains meaning through time. This moment in our history begs us to learn from him. His broadcast on V-E Day so captured the nation with the power of its poetry, the skill with which music interlaced with the spoken word, and the sense of citizenship and civic responsibility he espoused, that we continue to sense his ability to speak through time from his day to ours. Corwin’s unwavering vision of democracy is one based on principle, not partisanship. He is a 20th-century Walt Whitman.”