Murrow Style - Imagine This With Me

Feb 17, 2020

Murrow's reporting allowed families at home to imagine conditions in London such as this shelter in Trafalgar Square.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

This is PJ Pronger from Amarillo with an HPPR Radio Readers BookByte.

Edward R Murrow was a radio and TV reporter whose on-air style was unmistakable. First reporting from Europe in the 1940s, he had a no-nonsense, factual delivery that was devoid of hyperbole and personal opinion.

The influence that his style and his work had on the emerging field of broadcast journalism is the subject of our second book in this season’s Radio readers book club: Edward R Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism by Bob Edwards.

The book doesn’t rely on scholarly research so much the author’s personal recollections and conversations with those who knew Murrow. It has only one photo, a snapshot of Murrow climbing into a car, which is printed on the cover of the paperback. But this tribute to the early days of radio and tv is an easy read and is most engaging when it describes Murrow’s work from Europe.

The transcriptions of those broadcasts is, for me, easily the best part of the book. He had a way of painting a picture with words that created an atmosphere and transported his listeners to whatever scene he was witnessing. Interestingly, the standard of the day was that live broadcasts should not be recorded, presumably because the broadcasting companies wanted a clear delineation between live broadcasts and recorded programs. The written transcripts were generally preserved and there are some audio recordings of Murrow’s broadcasts still existing.

So imagine this with me: you’re living in 1940s America and someone you love, your brother or your son or your father has been drafted into the Army and deployed to Europe. You are getting practically no information about his situation or his daily life. There is no television, no cable, no internet, no social media – only newspapers and magazines which report news well after the fact. But sitting in a corner of your living room, there is a cabinet-sized radio. You turn on the switch and it takes a few moments for the vacuum tubes which will amplify the radio signal to warm up, but as they come to life, you begin to hear a voice straight out of the theater of war that says, “This is Trafalgar Square.” Edward R Murrow’s voice begins to describe the scene he is witnessing from the steps of St. Martin-in-the Fields church with the                                             

HIs microphone also captures the sound of footsteps on the sidewalk as people walk down the street to a bomb shelter below. Murrow says the footsteps sound “like ghosts shod with steel shoes.”

He sees a red double decker bus driving by. In the darkness, the lights from inside the tall bus remind him of a ship passing in the night. He describes a bright search light beam reaching straight up into the sky.

It was this ability to convey atmosphere, combined with reliable facts, that made him one of the most recognizable voices in America. He had a relatively brief, but spectacular career that brought first radio, and then television, into respectability as providers of serious news. He also helped create a sense of public mission around news delivery and established public trust in commercial news organizations. It hardly needs to be said that his style stands in stark contrast to today’s “screaming heads” that deliver entertainment disguised as news. When you read this book, I think you’ll come away with an appreciation for Murrow’s calm, factual style, his professionalism, and his journalistic integrity.

This has been PJ Pronger with Radio Readers Book Club.