by H.V. Kaltenborn


Reprinted from Kaltenborn Edits the News, Modern Age Books (Gold Seal), NY; 1937


One fine spring morning I sat down to open my morning mail, and though accustomed to expect almost anything from radio listeners, I was struck by the first letter.

It consisted of only a few lines. Somewhat hastily, but with a firm hand, a high school girl in the suburbs had written, Our English teacher has asked us to write an essay. I chose "World Politics Today." Please send me the material on this subject.

Whenever I stop to take stock of radio’s progress or to answer a query as to its still problematical future, I am reminded of this girl’s letter; of the thousand and one different aspects of radio; of the many ways in which it has changed our lives. I can’t forget that letter because it indicates graphically the good and ill radio has brought. What a gap it has created between those, like this girl, for whom it has simplified everything, and myself, for whom radio presents a greater complexity every day.

The marriage of radio and the news has been responsible for many significant changes. The technical facility behind ethereal communication has done much more than bring the peoples of the world together. World politics, to use the young lady’s comprehensive title, has become everyone’s concern. Today, the significant elements of world politics can be assembled from one thousand or ten thousand miles away with the speed of light, related, condensed, interpreted in a few minutes, finally to be broadcast to the tiniest little red schoolhouse, the brightest kitchen, the darkest sick room, the largest mass meeting. The air and the world are literally full of politics, politicians, political incidents and portents. The world awaits them, hour by hour, in home and office and shop and general store, anxious with a new found personal relationship to all these events and personalities, listening, waiting, wondering — sometimes skeptical, sometimes all too credulous, but always stimulated by the intimacy of personal contact with the voice which brings them word — the familiar voice they have come to know from hearing it regularly, which will tell them what lies behind the words, what it all really means.

Immediately we have stumbled across the opposite poles of radio. The wonder of it — and the utterly commonplace thing it has become. The responsibility that weighs upon whoever uses it, the matter of fact way it is taken for granted by those born and bred to it. As a radio commentator whose regular broadcast is heard by millions, accepted by some and challenged by others, I am never able to forget the intricacy and ingenuity behind radio, the backbreaking toil, the mental anguish, the unnerving precision which was mobilized to make it possible.

Radio is a blessing no one can deny or begrudge to those in need, to the invalid, to the family with few opportunities for enlightenment or entertainment. It has become a boon to mankind which makes all that has gone into it well worth while. But we are beginning to realize that its values must be appraised wisely. We can afford to rely on its mechanical efficiency, but we must also see that such an invention finds its best purposes and uses. It is by no means automatically beneficial. Once we have familiarized ourselves with all its possibilities, for good and evil, we will be better equipped to find its true value, to find in it the means to worthier ends, to ensure the great hopes and promises mankind has set for it. We must always be mindful of the difference between promise and achievement in the moving picture. We know today that wrongly exploited it is capable of undoing much of the good the world has accomplished since long before Marconi exhibited his wireless telegraph.

The pitfalls are everywhere, and perhaps they are shown nowhere more clearly than in the interesting relationship between radio and the news. With "news" as the sole weapon, all the forces and advantages of radio could be mobilized to produce confusion, discontent, ignorance, incompatibility, intemperance, and moral and social disintegration —just as easily as they might be concentrated on public enlightenment, intellectual stimulus, social awareness, diplomatic cooperation, greater understanding and economic recovery.

How? Why? As an introduction to this book in which I endeavor to show, by editing recent news, how complicated an interlocking there is among the health, wealth and destiny of the nations, let us explore a few potential factors in this realm of news by radio.

The first essential is, of course, to realize the technical growth of the industry. When I inaugurated my radio editorship in 1923, it was news in itself that I could address a hundred thousand people at once. It was news in any sense, for any one individual to be heard by that many other individuals, regardless of the means by which they were brought together. The invention that made possible the mass audience was bound to make history. Today mere numbers and miles mean nothing. The significance of this personal, instantly audible message is not that it may be heard by millions, but that it can and does influence millions. It was this discovery, radio’s personal appeal as opposed to the anonymous and unfelt impression received by the reader of "cold type," that opened up channels of radio more incisive and influential than any previous media had ever known, wider and deeper than the ether waves themselves. Here indeed was a weapon, the scope of which is still, in all probability, beyond the range of present indications. In half a decade the world discovered that here was a weapon, singularly and gigantically adaptable to use or abuse.

Most Americans have no conception of the misuse of radio abroad. The larger and more progressive groups are beginning to realize that its use even in this country is something more than either the words "commercial" or "utilitarian" imply. If most of our voting population does not seem quite aware of the subtle distinction between news as information and news as propaganda, at least all regular radio listeners are increasingly conscious of the fact that their local station selects the material it uses in keeping with a pre-determined policy, a sometimes indefinable classification most precise in its inclusion or exclusion of certain controversial material.

Apart from the constitutional rights and limitations of freedom of speech, any given broadcasting station’s "editorial" viewpoint is supposed to be its own business. Most stations would deny that they have an editorial viewpoint, which merely proves that they don’t know what these two words mean. In that sense radio in the United States is "commercial." It is operated for profit, and its policies are determined by the station management, with no fixed obligation to minority voices except during a political campaign. The fact that it is strictly "utilitarian" is the general contention of broadcasters in the same sense that it is asserted by newspaper publishers. Both talk a lot about public service but admit they are in business to make money. Only the endowed stations operated by colleges, churches, societies or political units would deny that their programs are devised solely to give the public what it wants, in so far as possible.

While the average radio listener is aware that all broadcasting stations in the United States are operating under licenses, awarded (and revocable) by the Federal Communications Commission, many of them would hesitate to regard this as a form of government censorship. Yet there are groups which maintain that the entire broadcasting facilities of the nation are an outlet for government propaganda, that there is no true freedom of speech, that unfair censorship is constantly applied. Different American groups insist variously that our government is Capitalist, Socialist, Fascist and Counter-revolutionary! On the face of it, such attitudes are ridiculous. There is radio censorship of course. Minorities are not on a par with the majorities. But to ask radio to wipe out these distinctions is like asking government to wipe out all distinctions between rich and poor. Minorities and majorities have equal opportunities on the air in much the same sense and with the same limitations in which rich and poor are equal before the law.

Most critics of the American system fail to consider the saving grace of having three powerful rival broadcasting systems, Columbia, Mutual and National. This is extremely healthy in itself, and though it does not rid the air channels of evils or errors of administration, it does provide for a balance of views, a variety of policy and a stimulus of competition which is in every way superior to a monopoly, whether commercial or governmental. This suggests a logical comparison with the British system, where the British Broadcasting System is a government monopoly, operated under the jurisdiction of the Postmaster General, with plenty of discreet attention from the Government. But since both countries have a democratic tradition, and since considerable freedom of speech prevails except on controversial political topics, the difference between the two which receives most attention, is that in Great Britain broadcasting is supported by direct taxation of receiving set owners whereas in the United States it is supported by advertisers who pay for the time their commercial programs occupy. The British are always grousing against the B. B. C. for one reason or another. Its chief defect from the American point of view is its ultra-conservatism on program material and the almost complete exclusion of real political debate. Both countries have considerable free air as compared with other nations although the United States has infinitely more than England.

From any standpoint, the collection and dissemination of news —I assume that political speeches are news — are the most important functions of radio today. In our own country, except for a few star performers, the news programs are by far the most popular broadcasts. The actual weight of news in radio’s balance cannot be measured, however, simply by the headline summaries broadcast over your local station at stated and fixed hours during the day. Though this particular part played by radio in informative news service was sufficient to cause an open break between the industry and the newspapers themselves, it by no means represents the entire field of news to which the radio networks are largely and faithfully devoted. News is, in its broader sense, far more than a timely recording of the world’s events. There are as many, if not more, steps in the process of maintaining outstanding radio news service as there are in the course of newspaper publication. Sound coverage, verification from authoritative sources, reliable reporting, spot broadcasting of important events as they occur, comprehensive wire and wireless connections, careful editing, intelligent interpretation, and — above all — the time element, are only the barest essentials in the smooth functioning of such an elaborate mechanism.

This complexity is but one of the reasons for my description of radio as The Fifth Estate. Its unique position in relation to the other four, and to the public, had been impressed upon me as a result of my earliest experience with a microphone. It was not entirely in jest that I described the draped factory studio out in Newark where I made my first broadcast as the torture chamber. More than anything else I can remember, I was conscious of the gap I was bridging between my position as a veteran newspaper writer and editor and my debut in this new, somewhat fantastic medium as a radio commentator. I mention this aspect of the ordeal now, rather than any or all of the accompanying sensations which we early broadcasters experienced when the microphone was an imperfect instrument, because from that very first broadcast I received a complete surprise in my discovery of the actual, or at least potential, relationship between these two allegedly opposite media. I realized then and I am more convinced than ever today, that they are by no means rivals and as I had occasion to insist many times during the press-radio controversy, they can and must complement each other to their reciprocal advantage.

I found, specifically, that the spoken editorial supplemented the written editorial in every respect. With interpretive aims running in parallel grooves, each enables the other to perform its task that much more efficiently. The editor, whether he is a writer or speaker, will find his objective more speedily obtained by the approach of the listener-reader, the man and woman who are his public. If his aim is honestly to enlighten his audience through analysis and emphasis on the interpretation of facts, he is dealing with much more fertile ground. He is assured of an additional response, and a more understanding reaction, as a result of the very cooperation of these two methods in making a given point. Where the first relies upon the color of language and style employed in making a visible and lasting impression upon the reader’s mind, the other provides that other "color" peculiar to the audible warmth and dramatic impact of a "person-to-person" conversation.

I do not address myself exclusively to men or to women in my radio audience for the particular reason that among radio’s undisputed benefits its mechanical facility has enabled every news writer, editor and commentator to count, for the first time, as many women as men in every audience. The way radio has brought news literally into the home, even the busiest, where the domestic routine is so arduous that newspapers would go unread, has meant a doubling in the numerical strength of the news public and in the importance of reaching it.

With both men and women I have always felt, and I have never known it to be disproved, that to talk news, interests people in reading news. Both the interest in and dependence on news today receive vitality from the cumulative effect it has on people. News, then, is inescapably educational as well as informative. The more we know the more we want to know. The rise of the radio commentator —fifteen years ago I was the first and practically the only one — has derived from the growing realization that the more one knows, the more one realizes how little of it one understands, and how important it is to understand.

Another circumstance that has widened the radio commentator’s sphere of influence is his valued independence. He, as an acknowledged individual, neither speaking for nor representing the interests of other individuals, has achieved an independence and an opportunity for courageous singlemindedness that no organization can ever afford. This should give him a peculiar sort of integrity which none can challenge, over which his own conscience and personal reputation are the only censors, and which his public will come to respect, bringing to his forthright rostrum a greater degree of confidence.

The commentator naturally pays for this admittedly estimable position. Not only are his responsibilities greater but his work is harder. I have found, since I left the somewhat sedentary editorial desk — which never kept me completely chained — for the highly stimulating job of chasing (and many times carrying!) a microphone around, that as a radio editor I had to be my own reporter. I have returned again and again, not only because it was imperative, but with a new excitement in the thorough-going mechanism of which I was a part, to do my own "leg work," as the reporters on the city desk call it. To keep abreast of the news and to keep a public decently and fairly informed, I have had to go where the news was breaking, sometimes thousands of miles away, to find out what was what, report on it, and finally, explain its significance in relation to other current events.

My own attitude toward this exacting procedure has been neither altruistic nor over-conscientious. It is all part of a great adventure, which began with my early conviction that America could well afford to take a greater interest in world affairs. I deplored at the outset, and I am still deeply concerned over the undeniable, unimpressionable provincialism of a great part of our continental nation. I came from the mid-West and I have seen this indifference to horizons beyond our own immediate political interests far too clearly to pretend that it is anything but a dangerous provincialism. It is dangerous because in such soil the political and social backwardness that underlies most of our national and international enmity thrives best. The large, unwieldy, unsocial ambitions that can develop in small minds are legion. This determination to try to open up some of these narrower corners of our social and worldly consciousness, has given direction and motive to my newspaper, radio and platform career. With radio I have had a new weapon with which to drive home my belief in world integration and world understanding.

And yet radio, which has served me so well in this endeavor, has also been revealed to me as a weapon used just as efficiently by the common enemies of that ideal.

From the thought of radio as a personal weapon of influence, we have watched it grow inescapably into a social weapon — again, to be used or abused. It has taken its place among those means by which great social movements, mass movements in their most graphic sense, have been contrived. This may well be the era of radio, and a more complete history of our day may see radio playing the decisive r6le in the social upheaval which is the stuff of today’s chapters. Hamilton Fish Armstrong has reduced it to the simplest of all terms in his recent pamphlet titled "We Or They." Anyone who has looked to the horizon has seen the words written there. Although we are in the middle of it, few of us are blind today to the real consequence of this elemental struggle between nations of free individuals working together in the communal enterprise we call society and those which are ruled by the manifold stamp of a single, adventurous, aggressive, dictatorial personality. "Between the two doctrines," he said, "there is no compromise. Our society or theirs. We or they."

That is the issue. That is consistently the news of today. Where, then, does radio stand? We do not need to wait for television to show us any more candidly and more realistically how wide the divergence is between these two irrepressible programs. Radio is in the thick of it right now, and radio’s part is already clearly defined.

The uses and misuses of radio over the face of the earth are pretty evenly divided. Although radio has been accorded considerable liberalism in the United States, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, France, and in a different way and under direct government supervision in Great Britain, such use is certainly- counterbalanced by its provocative abuse in Russia, Germany and Italy. In most European countries radio is government controlled, of course, but in those three countries the entire national radio facilities are used frankly for propaganda purposes. We hardly need dwell on the fact that their word for it is "political education." This particular kind of education is obviously the best available means to organize and direct mass opinion. This term, and such others as "public enlightenment" have little significance until we examine them in actual practice. An important part of Soviet Russia’s government owned and operated broadcasting is devoted to highpowered transmission by short wave of special foreign language programs aimed at and adapted to special groups of foreign listeners. Propaganda by radio is rarely confined to "domestic culture." That, from any dictator’s standpoint, would be uneconomic, for he must constantly spread his gospel to all groups of potential nationals, foreign sympathizers and agents, and all manner of susceptible minorities within range of his transmitter. This development of propaganda broadcasting across frontiers has produced odd ramifications, and has caused the dictators real worry. German broadcasts into Austria, Russian broadcasts into Germany, Italian broadcasts to the Arab lands have all caused international incidents. Soviet broadcasts in German were so effective that Hitler ordered his subjects not to hear Russian stations. Verboten proclamations were not effective and now the secret police has a special division devoted to radio snooping which makes frequent arrests.

The virulent radio competition and reprisals between these dictatored countries are significant in that the administrators fully appreciate the weapon they have in radio. They use it carefully and efficiently as a highly prized organ of government (or, better, an organ of persuasion) and it receives appropriate attention from the highest authorities. Radio, they know, is too valuable to be toyed with. Every propaganda department has a well organized radio section. Their acute awareness of radio’s potentialities should be a positive lesson to democratic countries. Every uncolored presentation of American news and American events that is made accessible to radio listeners in other lands diminishes by just so much the effectiveness of the unending flood of Fascist propaganda.

The fact that American radio facilities are used in concert with the given administration and the democratic tradition is no guarantee that the ether waves, here and elsewhere, will not become charged, as time goes along, with an increasing preponderance of Fascist or Nazi or Soviet programs. It is going to be too late if we simply maintain an academic interest in the improprieties of European radio perversion. It is all right to admire their professional and technical competence, to stand aghast at the insolence of their political pretensions, and to condemn the intimidation of the system’s victims, but none of these reactions is positive. It is the duty of democracy to stand forth as its own champion. If, as we all hope, a free administration of the ether waves, national and international, is an ideal, then all the democratic forces of both government and radio must be marshaled behind the technical, political and cultural tenets of our society.

Our participation in this crisis should include a positive program. I think one of the most effective ways of making our stand felt, and of setting forth the ideals to which we are irrevocably committed, would be consciously and frequently to stimulate the European air channels with our news. That is the most varied and the liveliest aspect of America we can exhibit to the rest of the world. Since there must be choice I should eliminate material that might give offense abroad and include material that speaks well for our civilization.

Our present broadcasting organizations are admirably equipped for such short wave broadcasts. I only suggest that the most judicious use of such equipment would include more international broadcasts intended for foreign countries and in foreign languages. We must give steadily increasing attention to overseas audiences in general and special groups in particular. Such programs invite no new revenues, it is true, but they certainly represent one of the most tangible responsibilities incumbent upon an industry which is, by its very nature, a public service enterprise. They are already an enormous factor in so far as they reflect good will or bad will. In South America last winter I was greatly disappointed to learn that radio listeners in many countries, even Americans, relied on European short wave programs for news and entertainment. Partly as a result of the contacts established by American radio executives during the Pan-American Conference at Buenos Aires new efforts are being made to reach Latin America. The Columbia Broadcasting System is now using its short wave transmitter, with newly increased power, and a directional antenna to send programs from local studios to Europe

and South America for a total of approximately fifteen hours daily. But as yet only a very small part of this material is in any way adapted to foreign tastes or needs.

Of course we cannot dismiss the challenging concept of radio and the news without a pause, even at this date, for due consideration of those literally breathtaking possibilities inherent in television. One need no longer toy with predictions. It was used successfully to bring George the Sixth’s coronation procession to 50,000 lookers-in. Television is so near it is high time to give it a little thought in connection with news.

Our imagination is not running away with us for once. It will soon be possible to broadcast something even more startling than the sound of shells and machine gunfire such as played around me as I sat huddled in a haystack midway between Rebel and Loyalist armies during the Battle of Irun in the north of Spain. I found it extremely disconcerting to try to convey a word picture of that desperately bloody battle between brothers and cousins which tore gaping holes into the farmlands of their common soil, all because they could not agree on a satisfactory form of government. As I hugged my portable microphone tighter and kicked at the spent bullets lying about my feet, I did not have time to think of television. Yet in only a few years my successors in battle broadcasting will carry a television camera, and you will see and hear the bullets fly and the shells burst as you sit at home quietly waiting for news.