Sunday, April 26, 2009

Radio Memories: Listening To History

On April 26, 1865, 12 days after the murder of President Abraham Lincoln, his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been discovered and killed in Garret’s Farm, near Bowling Green Virginia.
In an age before today’s 24/7 media, before satellite communication and the other technological marvels that go with it, this important news traveled slowly indeed.

But what would have happened, that fateful day, if CBS had been there..?

Once upon a time radio offered an art form that explored this very idea. Before our current age of television drama there was radio drama, a gone-but-not-forgotten theater for the mind. And for this history buff, few other radio drama series are as fascinating as You Are There, a weekly show produced with the assistance of CBS’ news reporters as well as its stable of contract actors and writers.

For this week’s Radio Memories post, we remember the wonderful brainchild of CBS troubleshooter, Goodman Ace, and his uncredited effort to make history interesting to people who were unfortunately pre-disposed to think otherwise.

The gimmick for the series was to use the radio medium’s greatest strength, the fact that its images existed only in the imagination of the listener, to hold together the delightful fantasy that CBS’ news department could be present at various moments of historical significance, reporting history as “breaking news”. Over its 3-year run from 1947 to 1950, genuine reporters and the network's news analysts mixed with actors for “live coverage” of events as varied as the battle of Hastings, the trial of Socrates, the signing of the Magna Carta, Lincoln’s assassination, and this week’s episode, the attempted capture of Lincoln’s unrepentant assassin, the notorious John Wilkes Booth. What a great way to build a listener's curiosity for finding out more about "the real story"...

This particular episode was originally broadcast June 5th, 1949. You Are There eventually moved to television, where a young Walter Cronkite participated as one of the news reporters. After collecting the radio version over the last twenty years, the idea of putting You Are There on television seems as silly to me as putting a dialog soundtrack onto silent films… each medium has its strengths, why not play to them? Especially the delicate suspension of disbelief best practiced by closing our eyes in order to open our mind to the plausibility that, when CBS is there, YOU are there:

Previous Radio Memories posts:

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

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