Radio Readers BookByte: Murrow's Life & Influence

Feb 10, 2020

Hi, I’m PJ Pronger here with another Radio Readers BookByte. Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism, one of our current selections, is a book by the NPR radio personality, Bob Edwards. If you have an affinity for the great broadcast personalities of the past, you’ll enjoy this read.

It’s not a biography so much as a tribute to the idea of journalistic integrity and a review of past journalistic styles and practices.

Edwards’ writing style has a lot more in common with radio patter than scholarly research, but when I read it, it connected with me on three levels: first, as a historical narrative of the subject’s time and place, the second on what Edwards terms, “the descent from Murrow’s principals” by the broadcast journalism industry, and third as a kind of personal parallel to the author’s own broadcast career.

The author’s admiration for Murrow comes through clearly, even as he points out some of the contradictions in his character: As a journalist, Murrow championed the truth, yet he falsified his own resume to get jobs. As a reporter, he exuded confidence on the air, but was a nervous wreck before broadcasts, often having a shot of whisky to calm his nerves at airtime.

Chapter one opens with a description of the life of one Egbert Murrow without informing us that the subject’s name subsequently changed from Egbert to Edward. It isn’t long before the author is referring to his subject familiarly as “Ed”, although it isn’t clear that he ever met Murrow. But never mind, he soon gets to the business of describing Murrow’s life and broadcast career, which is the most interesting part of the book.

Murrow is best known for delivering live radio reports from Europe for the news division of CBS during World War II. He put together a team of reporters and in some sense created an industry, as radio had never been used for serious reporting before. One enabler for the change was the development of the technology necessary to do live, transcontinental broadcasts. But the change to news was also significant because, prior to Murrow, radio had been used primarily for entertainment, while newspapers and magazines were the accepted media for serious news.

Murrow met with great success as a news reporter, but he had much more to his character than being a broadcast personality. Before his radio career, he was a champion of racial integration and as a young man he was in charge of an “integrating convention” in Atlanta where he encouraged traditionally black schools to send delegates. At the convention banquet, the hotel wouldn’t serve food to blacks so his solution was to ask all the white candidates to pass their plates over to black attendees, circumventing the problem.

For his entire career, he was a person who did not shy away from confronting major issues. After his radio career one of his activities was to help displaced German scholars relocate to America, bringing some of Europe’s greatest minds to this country through the Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars. He later considered this the most satisfying thing he ever did.

The paths he chose to follow and the contacts that he made through those choices,   ong with his talent, enabled his success, but both the author and the subject eventually had falls from favor in the broadcast news business. Murrow ended up at odds with CBS resulting in his leaving his broadcast career and the author, Bob Edwards, was removed as the first host of NPR’s most popular news program, Morning Edition. It’s easy to see why Edwards identifies with Murrow, and he makes his subject an interesting, if somewhat enigmatic character.

This has been PJ Pronger with Radio Readers Book Club.