Sunday, January 17, 2010

Radio Memories: Hope for Haiti II

This week we're presenting not just one but two posts in our -- hopefully..! -- weekly feature, Radio Memories, where we pause to listen to echoes of radio's past, from the days when radio drama, and not television, ruled the [air]waves.

[The second old radio drama we offer this week, Ports Of Call, visiting Haiti in 1935, can be heard here. I think it's worth listening to that one first, if you have time to hear both.]

The radio play awaiting below is from one of radio's most empassioned programs: Destination Freedom.

What a series! As I understand its history, it was a locally-produced show for the Chicago radio market from 1949 until 1951, and never broadcast nationally. After its cancellation a number of transcription discs laid, forgotten, in a studio closet for decades until re-discovered in the 1980s. Today the series probably enjoys wider listenership, in our time, than it did when first broadcast...

Radio drama had a tumultuous life in Chicago; many influential and popular shows, as well as influential talents would get their start in that city, but would eventually move on, following the financial siren song of the more lucrative New York and Los Angeles markets. The resulting brain-drain left things always in flux, with the conflict offering opportunity for new people to keep starting in at the bottom, since so many would be leaving at the top.

One such opportunity came to Richard Durham, a longtime freelance radio playwright, and then-editor of the Chicago Defender, an important weekly civil rights newspaper based in Chicago. His unique idea was pitched, and accepted. Begun with the expectation that the series would likely last only a few weeks, Durham went on to write 91 scripts over two years for a true radio rarity: a civil rights dramatic anthology.

Destination Freedom was carried by the same WMAQ radio station that had originated the well-intentioned but resentfully-received Amos and Andy blackface caricature series in the late 1920s, and Durham later expressed his appreciation for being given a chance to have his series idea welcomed by the local station:

"[WMAQ program director Judith Waller] was quite enthusiastic about the new characterizations that we were presenting, so I look back upon [her] now as quite an innovative promoter in the business of radio", Durham remembered in a 1983 interview quoted at length in John Dunning's 800-page reference book, "On The Air: The Encyclopedia Of Old Radio Drama".

"I had to submit the name and a short description of the character that I wanted to depict. These would generally be accepted; now and then there would be a question," he goes on to say, but also mentions that the station never pressured him to soften the show's assertive rhetoric, making each episode filled with raw emotion in a way that most radio drama of the time was not.

Durham credits two sources as literary inspiration: innovative radio writer/director/producer William N. Robson, for a sympathetic program he produced on the 1943 Detroit race riots, and novelist Charles Dickens:

"I had spent a lot of time studying Dickens... I had discovered that a Dickens character made you love him or hate him almost at once, and I used that same approach, of setting the characters as quickly as possible."

The black writer's scripts would be performed primarily by mostly all-black casts, with the occasional white character roles filled in by local white actors, in an upheaval of radio's usual casting procedures for that era. (I was pleasantly surprised to hear one familiar voice book-ending the show as its announcer: Hugh Downs, recognizeable to my generation as the former host of ABC's long-running late-night news program, 20/20.)

I can't help but perceive two contradictory emotions when I listen in to an episode of Destination Freedom: there's a clear, stark anger to be heard in these plays, yet to my ears it comes across not as anger for anger's sake... it's tempered by a hope, by a prayer, for peace, and a lessening of injustice. Maybe in the end, that's the best thing to hope for.

While the series' focus was on American contemporary figures and US history in general, there were occasional exceptions where the show ranged farther afield, and this Radio Memories post features one such episode: the October 3rd, 1948 entry that takes a look at the Haitian Revolution, with a hopeful portrait of Toussaint L'Ouverture.

One wonders what Richard Durham would make of the election of a black President of his United States, had he lived to see it. Would he say we've arrived at the destination he labored so long to push his nation towards?

Age and life experience tend to conspire to bring a cloud of fatalism to our later years, to counter the spark of youthful idealism enflaming our earlier days. A single life often sees such abundant change, in attitude as well as body, it gives us hope that similar change can befall the entirety of humanity, as well. I fear that the laboratory of history suggests otherwise; for all our "progress", people remain people, generation after generation, still just as capable of continuing cruelty as they are of repentance.

The promise of change for the better means different things to us as we occupy each extreme; for the young, change hits their life in sudden, magnificient bursts, so is it any surprise they push for change on a macro level with expectations of equally immediate results? As we age, our experience with change sees it in more gradual form, and with it comes expectations that progress, if it's to come at all, will also come gradually, slowly. Barely perceived at the time, only noticeable when life is laid out in line, like a long string. Hopefully the young can indulge the pessimism of the old long enough to learn such that they may land farther forward than they would have otherwise, bearing the benefits of the other's experience; maybe the old can forgive the young for the folly of their exuberance, for they were young once themselves.

The fire of youthful indignation drives us forward, the wisdom of age reveals how much farther we have to go, and how little we've in fact truly moved. The relation between each extreme is a messy one, but without that conflicted mess how else would we be able to stumble onward, towards the destination that forgiveness, reconciliation, and mercy would bring; a destination... of freedom.

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