The March of Time

Early radio news was usually nothing more than dramatized documentary of events. Live recordings were unheard of and technologically difficult if not impossible. Rather than simply report events, radio producers felt dramatizing the events would bring the news home more effectively.

By 1928, Roy Edward Larsen was the General Manager of Time Magazine. It was Larsen who, as Circulation Manager, increased sales of the magazine from 25,000 to 200,000 in a few short years. Media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, referred to Larsen as an "electric man," sensitive to the latest modes of communication and its impact on society. Larsen involved Time in radio as early as 1924 with a sustaining quiz program called Pop Question. Then in 1928 in cooperation with Time's radio executive, Fred Smith, he began issuing throughout the country over 33 stations daily releases of ten minute news briefs drawn from the pages of Time, Larsen called NewsCasts. The following year they supplemented these NewsCasts with electrical transcription dramas, ten minutes in length, called NewsActing which featured professional actors and sound effects of current news. The two were combined into a fifteen minute show (read releases and acted news)in 1929 and offered free of charge to radio stations in exchange for advertising for Time Magazine. Though successful, the Smith/Larsen team proposed to Henry Luce a more robust program financed by Time. Larsen was aware of new competition on NBC in the form of the Lowell Thomas vehicle sponsored by Literary Digest. For their new production, Larsen and Smith pulled their title and theme music from the Harold Arlen song, "The March of Time."

One of the earliest of this type of drama, the Newsacting became the March of Time with narrator and dramatized news events produced by Roy Larsen, who later became president of Time, Inc. First heard on CBS on March 6, 1931, the show was broadcast on Friday nights and sounded very much like the movie newsreels. Like the newsreels, the show was built around a narrator who lead listeners into the dramatized events. Of narrators, there were three during the shows run: Ted Husing, Harry Von Zell and one of the longest "voice of Time" was Westbrook Van Voorhis (pictured left).

Because the events were dramatized, an attempt was made to use actors imitating the actual voices. Many listeners thought the actual voices were being heard. During those early years, we heard "Adolph Hitler" "Edward VIII" and "Bruno Hauptmann" among others. The actors were chosen for these roles based on their ability to closely duplicate the actual person. Sometimes an actor was required to listen from a library of records with 30-second soundbites of the actual personality, or view the March of Time's newsreels and listen to the voice. Many of the actors went on to other fame including Agnes Moorhead, Nancy Kelly, Jeannette Nolan, Art Carney, Orson Welles, Peter Donald, Edwin Jerome, Maurice Tarplin, Kenny Delmar, John McIntire and many more.

To prepare each show required 1,000 man-hours of labor, 33 hours for each minute of broadcast time; 500 hours for news research, writing, and re-writing by Editor Willam D. Geer and his seven assistants; 40 hours of clerical work; 60 hours for music rehearsal; 400 hours for rehearsal of cast and sound crew. The musical director was at different times, Howard Barlow and Donald Voorhees; Ora Nichols provided the sound effects. Even historical accuracy and pronunciation was checked by Harry Levin. The program was brought together by director Arthur Pryor, Jr. (and also Don Stauffer). An example can be seen in this copy of a script on the Munich Crisis of 1938.

In 1932, Time Magazine announced they were discontinuing the series due to its high cost of production. Apparently, Time was not aware of the impact it was making on its listeners. Some even demanded the show remain on the air as in this letter to Time Editors in 1932:

UNDER NO CONDITION DEPRIVE THE AMERICAN PUBLIC OF THE EDUCATION AND PLEASURE DERIVED FROM YOUR FRIDAY NIGHT BROADCAST.

Time was overwhelmed by the quality of the letters it received. "the letters were distinguished by their uniform literacy" wrote the editors. And so in an editorial in its June 13th, 1932 issue, Time announced they had signed a contract to continue the program with CBS Radio. Several years later, one of the biggest news stories of the decade occurred when Charles Lindbergh's baby was kidnapped and subsequently killed. The March of Time produced their dramatized version of the events on October 5, 1934.

By 1939 the show was still not making money. In fact it was sustained partially with the help of William Paley's Columbia Broadcasting System. Because of the loss of money, Luce decided to suspend the series. But in 1941 it returned with a new format (you can hear the new format in the Pearl Harbor clip), one that sounded much more like the newsreels that were popular with movie fans.

This was how radio listeners got their news at the time. The idea of simply broadcasting the news was too new, and for many, boring. Following the development of this series one gets a sense of the changes taking place in radio news at the time. By 1940, the dramatized versions were being phased out and news actualities broadcast from other countries were beginning to be heard. The "news reporter" was more and more becoming prominent. Partly due to the change in technology, the events of the time, and the idea that an eyewitness could best tell listeners what was happening, radio news was forming itself into the media broadcasting with which we are all familiar.