Sunday, May 17, 2009

Radio Memories: The Sound Of Evil

We can see evil, but can it be said that human beings also possess an ability to sense evil? Does evil exude a stench, an aura, a feeling, detectable to a sixth sense seemingly combining many of the other five?

Roger L. Simon eloquently discussed how he felt he was in the presence of pure evil in his provocative “Talking Through My Hat” piece for PJTV last week, which I listened to this morning courtesy of the re-broadcast through Pajamas Media’s PJM Political podcast.

Roger’s piece reminded me of an occasion where I felt I was listening to evil, as I heard for the first and only time the cold, clinical voice of Stalin’s apologist, the nefarious New York Times Columnist Walter Duranty.

Every Sunday we take a break from current events in order to pull up a chair, dim the lights and partake of some Radio Memories, lingering echoes from a time before television, when radio was king.

In previous Radio Memories posts we’ve listened to many forms of radio drama, from situation comedy to western adventure, even news dramatizations. This week’s offering slides into game shows, as we feature the unique quiz program Information Please.

Panelist John Kieran, a sports columnist for several New York newspapers at the time, reviewed his long participation as the highly-rated program's resident sports expert in his 1964 memoir, “Not Under Oath”:

“Until [producer] Dan Golenpaul came along with his format for Information Please, the popular quiz shows on radio featured a glib master of ceremonies directing questions at volunteer victims on stage or persons picked at random from a studio audience. Anyone who answered correctly was suitably rewarded… But too often the exposure of the utter ignorance of the persons to whom comparatively simple questions were put was embarrassing. The Golenpaul scheme was to reverse that process. Have the public direct questions at persons who might be reasonably expected to give a good answer.” [chapter V, pgs 63-64]
There were two regular panelists on the quiz show: the aforementioned John Kieran, able to field questions on subjects as varied as Shakespeare, flowers, baseball, birds, and poetry; and literary giant Franklin P. Adams, to help fill in the gaps on theater, literature and songs. Infrequent panelist Oscar Levant handled musical questions, and was often requested to play his answer on his medium of choice, the piano.

The fourth seat on the panel was to be filled by a series of guests. Among the experts who made an appearance were Cabinet officials ("[W]e had Postmaster General James Farley who directed that his fee for appearing on the program be divided into three parts and turned over to Catholic, Protestant and Jewish charities and Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes who did not", as Kieran puts it in his autobiography), state governors, US Senators and Congressmen (including future Vice President Alben Barkley); theatrical, literary and sports figures; novelists, columnists and famous-for-being-famous types such as energy spokesman Wendell Wilkie, who parlayed his memorable appearances on this and other radio programs of the period into an eventual (and unsuccessful) candidacy for US President on the Republican ticket in 1940.

It took a lot of perseverance for listeners to send in questions that could outwit the regulars in their areas of expertise. Clever fans took to low blows such as asking the panelists the names of their Congressional representatives (only Kieran got his right), quotes from poems or books the panelists themselves had written (often forgotten by their authors), even the date of a wife's birthday (which was answered incorrectly!). Every once in a while the listeners would get their facts wrong; they were expected to provide the correct answers to their questions as well as the difficult questions themselves, and producer Golenpaul's screening process let in an occasional mistake, much to the consternation of the frustrated panel, and to the embarrassment of host Clifton Fadiman.

Coincidentally, one such error produces some genuine tension and hurt feelings in this week’s episode, which was originally broadcast July 4th, 1941… two short weeks after Hitler launched the Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia on June 22.

Regulars Kieran and Adams are joined by noted world traveling journalist John Gunther, famous for his “Inside...” series of books chronicling global affairs continent by continent (my personal collection of them helpfully provides the "cover" for this week's embed); and the notorious Walter Duranty, at that time a well-respected foreign affairs columnist. It remained for later writers to expose Duranty’s perfidious dance with the truth in his reporting on Stalin’s embrace of mass starvation as government policy, and other malevolence enacted for "progressive" reasons.

The unscripted nature of the show gives us a rare oral history of the time period; not many discussion programs of that era have survived..! Sometimes guests would be asked for impromptu comments on current events, whether it was baiting baseball coach Leo Durocher to go on the record with his World Series predictions, or, as happens after the question at the 12:50 mark in this program, Walter Duranty's insider's opinion on the outcome of Operation Barbarossa.

If you’ve ever read about the fate of the kulaks, if you've heard about the ongoing controversy surrounding Duranty's reporting on it in the pages of the New York Times, you will probably be amazed to listen to the sound of Duranty's voice throughout this broadcast. It answers many of the questions you may have had, about what kind of a man could see all that he saw, know all that he knew, and yet still say what he did in his articles as a foreign correspondant writing about the "advances" of the Soviet system.

You can sense it in his voice: it is the sound of evil.

Previous Radio Memories posts:

The Aldrich Family: Cleaning The Furnace
Tom Mix, Terry and the Pirates VE Day broadcasts from May 8 1945
You Are There: The Capture Of John Wilkes Booth
Fort Laramie: War Correspondent
CBS Radio Workshop: Son Of Man
Great Gildersleeve: Easter Rabbits
Dimension X: Time And Time Again
An American In England: Women Of Britain
Cavalcade Of America: Bob Hope Reports
The March Of Time: Feb 10 1938 broadcast
Hear It Now: Coming Home From The Korean War
Escape: Vanishing Lady
Rogers Of The Gazette: Rewinding The Town Clock


truepeers said...

His voice reminds me a bit of Mr. Burns from the Simpsons. But I'm thinking he sounds like a smart aleck schoolboy, who is also the teacher's pet, who has never really been humbled by adult realities. It is the teachers who kept rewarding him for his sycophancy and correct ideas that spoiled him, I'll wager.

There is a small problem with the sound: it repeats several times just after the 21 minute mark.

Dag said...

I'm as impressed by your introduction as I have been by anything in a long time, Charles. Happily for me, I'm familiar with the broadcast already-- thanks to you.

I look forward to this feature every week. Always good.

Maybe Duranty was a sycophant because he was rewarded for that behavior in some Skinneresque fashion; but one sees the same behaviour in Ward Churchill and any number of minor academics posing for photos with guns and tweeds. They come across as weaklings sucking up to bullies against those a little stronger than the weakling himself, those the weakling resents and would be like if only. As a cheerleader for the thugs the weakling can bully too, with permission. The masochist get to please his sadist by mimicry, by tormenting another for the amusement of the sadist. The sadist can look at his masochist and see that the masochist now realizes the pleasure the sadist gets from torturing others, knowing the torture will turn on the masochist who knows how much fun it is, giving both the satisfaction of knowing the delight. A taste of evil so the masochist knows what it's like but can't have much of and can only ever have any of by being the masochist.