Murrow at CBS, Europe, 1935/37-1946

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Radio News Broadcasting and CBS in the Twenties and Thirties

Edward R. Murrow at the microphone, before December 1938In the 1920s and 1930s, newspapers and news agencies in the United States and Europe perceived a threat to come from a brand new medium: radio, and they attempted to protect their industry by restricting radio news broadcasting both at home and from abroad. Still, the BBC began to do some radio news broadcasting as early as 1927, and by the mid 1930s, BBC radio news had come into its own.

On the American side, it took a few years longer. Starting in 1936, the American veteran reporter and broadcaster Raymond Gram Swing (1887-1968) offered news analysis in his program World Events, which were five weekly broadcasts explaining the rise of Hitler for Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS). Max Jordan (1895-1977), working for NBC, did an onsite news broadcast in 1934 about the assassination of chancellor Engelbert Dolfuss in Austria and continued to do international onsite news broadcasts in the following years. News roundups from several national or international locations, although not frequent, were organized repeatedly in the 1930s, and the National Socialist government in Germany effectively incorporated recordings for their news broadcasts.1

Yet, at CBS the world of radio news was different and more limited. When Murrow was sent to Europe as CBS Director of Talks in April of 1937, CBS neither allowed news broadcasts nor news roundups, let alone recordings. Without recording sounds or interviews, the kinds of broadcasting that could be done during a war were severely restricted. In its stead, CBS chose to organize lectures and speeches given by famous individuals roughout the thirties and had staff read newspaper headlines and stories over the air.

Murrow and his team of correspondents changed all of this. Instead of organizing cultural talks or choir performances, as they had largely done until fall of 1938, Murrow and his 'Murrow Boys' came to make regular news broadcasts, albeit still hobbled by the ban on actual recorded sounds or interviews. Here, the breakthrough was their news roundup of March 1938 after the Anschluss of Austria, a broadcast done to counter Max Jordan's scoop of that story for NBC. Then, with the Sudetenland crisis in the fall of 1938, Murrow got the green light to create a daily news feature, the CBS World News Roundup. It was not until late in the war, however, that Murrow and others managed to persuade CBS to allow them to use recordings for their broadcasts.

In the meantime, CBS's publicity machinery won the publicity war against its competitors NBC and MBS back home.2 To cover up for the fact that Max Jordan from NBC first reported about the Anschluss in Austria, just as Jordan later was the first to broadcast the text of the Munich Pact Agreement, CBS published a handsome and well-written booklet right after the Anschluss called Vienna, March 1938: A Footnote to History, creating the impression that CBS alone had done and dominated the story. Other strategies included CBS organizing dinners and large receptions for its correspondents, interviews, photo opportunities, publications of scripts and recordings, and CBS encouraged and facilitated the Murrow Boys to write books about their experiences as war correspondents. In hindsight, after the war, all this made it appear as if CBS had done it alone and done it best. Ratings had been won as well as sponsors.

Collage of various publicity efforts regarding Edward R. Murrow's 'This is London' book, from 1941-1945 Display for Edward R. Murrow's 'This is London' at Fowler Bros. book store (Los Angeles, CA) Display for Edward R. Murrow's 'This is London' at Fowler Bros. book store (Los Angeles, CA) Display for Edward R. Murrow's 'This is London' at KMOX CBS Display for Edward R. Murrow's 'This is London' on Newsreel marquee Display for Edward R. Murrow's 'This is London' at WJSV's window

Murrow at CBS, USA, Fall 1935 - Spring 1937

Before leaving for London, Murrow spent a year and a half as CBS Director of Talks to Coordinate Broadcasts on Current Issues in New York organizing political, educational, and religious speakers for the radio. Although this was a purely administrative position, it was during this time that he did his first news broadcast. He was tutored by Robert Trout, an established radio broadcaster at CBS, and read the news for the first time on Christmas Eve 1936, using Trout's script. A couple of months later, in February 1937, Edward Klauber, then vice-president of CBS and Murrow's new mentor, acted on Fred Willis' suggestion and offered Murrow the position as European Director of Talks. Cesar Searchinger, CBS's previous European director, was about to resign, and Klauber had been dissatisfied with NBC's better coverage from the continent. Murrow accepted.

Murrow at CBS, Europe

Edward R. Murrow, Mary Marvin Breckinridge, and William L. Shirer putting on ice skates in Amsterdam, 1940CBS's European office in the spring of 1937 was a small London office outfit consisting of Murrow, a secretary, and an office boy responsible for organizing radio programs to be broadcasts to the United States via the BBC. Both Murrow and William L. Shirer, hired by CBS for continental Europe in summer of 1937, were increasingly frustrated at being ordered to solely organize cultural broadcasts when Germany, in their opinion, was in fact preparing for war.

The Anschluss of Austria in March 1938 became the turning point for Murrow's radio career. For the first time, he himself broadcast the news directly from Vienna, Austria. The New York office liked his voice, his presentation, and his marketability, and gave its approval. From then on, Murrow was also a correspondent.

The Anschluss and the ensuing rivalry between NBC and CBS in covering it, also helped Shirer and Murrow to persuade CBS administrators that they had to do more in order to compete with NBC and to cover the situation evolving in Europe. It took the Sudetenland crisis in fall 1938 and Murrow's and Shirer's extensive coverage of it to finally convince CBS of the logic of their argument. It took another ten months for the man in charge of CBS's news operation, director of special events Paul White, to give the permission to hire more staff.

Over the next few years, Edward R. Murrow became a household name for the American radio public. Broadcasts by his team of correspondents, the 'Murrow Boys', and his own programs about a war unfolding and enduring for seemingly endless seven years, made Murrow into an icon - fueled by CBS's intense publicity efforts to beat out its competitors.

Most of Murrow's broadcasts originated from London. As CBS director for European broadcasts, Murrow usually was forced to stay in the capital or in the UK, from where he coordinated programs and did his daily broadcasts to the U.S. He relied on his correspondents to report from throughout Europe and the various Allied fronts, as well as to feed him information he needed for his own analysis.

Rarely did he get a chance to do a radio broadcast from elsewhere, a constraint he detested. There were only a few days of broadcasting from Austria after the Anschluss (March 13-18 1938); a couple of weeks reporting from Tunesia in March 1943; a stint as combat correspondent accompanying British and U.S. bombing flights from England; and reporting from General George Patton's Third Army in Germany, as well as from the concentration camp in Buchenwald in April 1945.

A Day's Work

Monsieur Andre Gerard ('Pertinax') speaks to America with Edward R. Murrow (left), as the European Representative of the Columbia Broadcasting System, March 3, 1939The pace of work was frantic. The workload often overwhelming. Still, even during moments of crises, broadcasts from across Europe were smoothly orchestrated by Murrow in London. But what aired as seamless and effortless programs in radio sets back in the U. S. belied the tremendous amount of labor that went into setting up those broadcasts technically, topically, and analytically. (For more information on these challenges and censorship restrictions, please go to 'Murrow Boys'). During the Sudetenland crisis in September 1938, a typical day for Murrow ran as follows:

"Murrow participated personally in thirty-five transmissions and arranged or was directly concerned with a total of 151 short-wave programs from other European points. The tempo reached a dizzy pace on September 28, when he began his day at 7:00 A. M. with a personal broadcast. He then put on a monologue from Frank Grandin in Paris, a commentator introduced from the House of Commons, a pickup from Prague, an interpolation by Pierre Bedard of Premier Daladier's speech. Then Murrow connected CBS with Berlin to hear William Shirer, went back to Prague for Vincent Sheean. Presently Murrow introduced the Archbishop of Canterbury, later Stephen King-Hall. He ended his day around 6:00 A.M. London time with final summaries from Paris and Czechoslovakia."3

Paying for that kind of coverage was expensive for American broadcasting companies. For NBC and CBS, the cost of covering the ten days of the Czechoslovakian crisis ran to about $190,000 to pay for "cables, oceanic telephone tolls, speakers' fees, rebates to advertisers for time diverted to news programs" as Scribner's Magazine reported at the time. To put this into perspective: a well paid factory worker in the Midwest earned about $125 a week and the first federal minimum wage was $.25/hour in 1938.

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1 Max Jordan took part "in the first-ever simultaneous multiple-remote-pickup broadcast, a stunt which brought together an array of European broadcasting officials in separate airplanes over the Atlantic coast." In: Max Jordan -- NBC's Forgotten Pioneer, by Elizabeth McLeod, http://www.midcoast.com/~lizmcl/jordan.html.
2 Landry, Robert J., "Edward R. Murrow," Scribner's Magazine, vol. 104, no. 6, Dec. 1938.
3 Landry, Robert J., "Edward R. Murrow," Scribner's Magazine, vol. 104, no. 6, Dec. 1938.