Print's Weak Stepsister  | American Journalism Review
From AJR,   June 1998

Print's Weak Stepsister   

From the start, radio news has been a weak stepsister to print.

By Marc Fisher
Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist, is a regular contributor to AJR.     

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From the start, radio news has been a weak stepsister to print. The first newscasts in the 1930s were largely lifted from newspaper stories, according to Marvin Bensman, founder of the Radio Archive at the University of Memphis.

But by the time the United States entered World War II, the great radio networks were bulging with talent, and the golden era of radio news was underway. From the explosion of the Hindenberg and the first play-by-play broadcasts of major league baseball (even if they were initially staged), it was clear that radio offered an immediacy and an emotional connection unlike any previous form of journalism. Between 1940 and 1944, the number of hours network radio devoted to newscasts each week shot up from 11 to 21.

Still, while Edward R. Murrow, William Shirer and the other great war correspondents offered listeners the sounds of battle and bombing, most radio newscasts devoted far more time to commentary than to actual reporting – a tradition that continues to this day.

From Walter Winchell to Paul Harvey, from Heywood Hale Broun to Howard Cosell, radio generated instantly recognizable voices that captured the nation's imagination. Don Imus, Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh are not so different from their predecessors, except in two ways: They go on at far greater length, and they make no claim to be journalists.

Actual news reporting blossomed in local radio in the 1940s, with many stations bringing listeners newscasts, farm reports and community bulletin boards as often as hourly.

But the glory days of network radio proved to be short-lived. By the 1950s, the nets' heyday was over. Resources increasingly were diverted to provide more programming for the nation's new love, television. Radio became largely a jukebox, and news was cut back to a five minute summary at the top of the hour – a headline service.

Since then, the only new trend in radio has been a powerful push toward narrowcasting, the kind of specialization that is now changing the way Americans watch TV. Top 40 radio that broadcast music everyone might listen to gave way to formats designed for demographic slivers of society – oldies, country, rock, alternative, black music, Latin music.

In 1965, Top 40 WINS became the nation's first all-news station. The three decades since then have been a time of minor innovation and major retrenchment. – M.F.

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