"No question, the 1930s and '40s were wonderful years for American radio," Keith said. "But radio is a hundred times bigger now than it was in the Golden Age. It is the most ubiquitous broadcast medium in the world from dawn to dusk. The most fascinating developments in radio have actually taken place since the advent of TV, yet so little has been written about this period."
Michael Keith: "The most fascinating developments in radio have actually taken place since the advent of TV."
Keith felt the story of post-TV radio should be told by the era's participants. Through interviews with some of radio's most famous personalities, as well as prominent executives, writers and producers, Keith has crafted a collection of narratives and reminiscences titled Talking Radio: An Oral History of American Radio in the Television Age .
Featuring commentary from such luminaries as Walter Cronkite, Art Linkletter, Larry Gelbart, Howard K. Smith, Susan Stamberg, Studs Terkel, Ray Bradbury, Ed McMahon and Casey Kasem, the new book examines the impact of such developments as rock 'n roll, transistor radios, FM and "shock-talk" radio.
"It's something I've had in mind for a number of years," said Keith. "We're on the eve of the year 2000 and some of the great practitioners of radio are still with us. I thought, why not have them on record, in their own voices, answering questions that would have future historians digging through archives?"
Keith wrote the book chronologically, starting at the end of World War II and looking ahead to the 21st century. "I drew up a schematic of some key milestones in radio," he said. "I had to figure out what were the things I should cover, and who I would want to speak to about them."
Cronkite recalled how few of his colleagues in radio journalism had considered TV serious competition. For all his own success as a TV journalist, Cronkite still felt radio emphasized important qualities the newer medium could not duplicate. Among them was "the ability to paint a picture with words," he told Keith, pointing to Edward R. Murrow's war-time London broadcasts. Cronkite said radio also was a better medium in which to communicate ideas, and that TV "virtually surrendered all opportunity" to do in-depth reporting.
In other chapters, Dick Clark describes how 1960s radio enhanced the market for creative performers like the Beatles, and Black Panther Party founder Bobby Seale discusses how non-mainstream groups were able to articulate their views on a wider basis through radio. Separately, National Association of Broadcasters executive Rick Ducey predicts that digital and Internet technology will greatly expand radio's appeal.
"The book is not meant to be a paean or a tribute, necessarily," said Keith. "There are certainly some critical statements about contemporary radio and the directions it's taken. I feel this lends a more complete perspective to the book."
As a coda to the book, Keith invited Norman Corwin, author of classic radio dramas like "We Hold These Truths," to contribute an updated script of his 1939 piece "Seems Radio is Here to Stay." Corwin, he points out, has authored a play that will air on PBS this New Year's Eve; the narrator will be Walter Cronkite.
"There is sweet justice, after all," Keith said.
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