In death, Norman Corwin is receiving a wave of posthumous attention and acclaim that is well deserved. His dramatic narratives are high points of radio's so-called 'Golden Age.' The highest of all was a tribute to the American effort in World War Two entitled 'On A Note of Triumph.' Unfortunately for Corwin, his career with CBS ended not long afterward on a very sour note.
It's been estimated that 60 million people were tuned in when 'Triumph' aired on May 8, 1945. Billboard magazine called it "the single greatest -- and we use greatest in its full meaning -- radio program we ever heard."
Having established himself as one of broadcasting's most talented writers, you'd think Corwin's bosses would've responded to 'A Note of Triumph' by offering a generous contract that allowed him to create more innovative and intelligent productions for many years into the future. But the man running CBS had a different view of Corwin's role, a view that emphasized profits instead of plaudits.
As often happens in history, Corwin's rise and decline with the network were determined by circumstances beyond his control. When he arrived in 1938 CBS was still trying to catch up with NBC. The older, bigger broadcasting company had a cavalcade of top names hosting popular shows.
One virtual dead zone on the weekly CBS schedule was Sunday night. No sponsor wanted to go up against the likes of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy at 8 P.M. In a very astute move, CBS chief William Paley allowed Sunday night to be used for concerts, experimental dramas and other shows that were aired with no advertisements and could be touted as evidence of the CBS commitment to 'public service' programming.
During the next seven years much of Norman Corwin's work was heard on Sunday nights, commercial-free. But as World War Two ended the attitudes of William Paley, like most of America, began to focus on post-war prosperity and how to grab a piece of it. The era of running shows that didn't have sponsors was over.
Ironically, Corwin learned his career was being derailed while riding a train from the west coast to New York City in 1948. William Paley happened to be on the train as well. On the second evening of the trip, they shared a table in the dining car. A detailed explanation of what happened next can be found in Sally Bedell Smith's brilliant 1990 Paley biography, 'In All His Glory.'
"You've done big things that are appreciated by us," Paley said, "and by a special audience. But couldn't you write for a broader public? That's what we're going to need more and more. We've simply got to face up to the fact that we're in a commercial business, and it's getting tougher all the time. If our programs don't aim to reach as many of the 90 million radio sets in the country as we can possibly get to tune us in, why then we're really not making the best use of our talent, our time, and our equipment."
According to Corwin, "I knew what 'broader public' meant. I knew that to set out with the express aim of 'reaching as many sets as possible' would mean studying to write soap operas, or gags, or programs of towering innocuousness."
Not long after the train ride Corwin was presented with a new contract that called for CBS to get 50 percent of any profits from his programs, up from 10 percent in previous contracts. He declined the offer.
The moment in Paley's dinner conversation that leaps out at me is his reference to the 'special audience' that appreciated Corwin's work. This is the classic euphemism commercial broadcasters like to use instead of just being honest and saying, "Hey, your listeners are economically useless to us. They're a small group and our sponsors don't care about reaching them."
In current terminology, most of Corwin's Sunday night programs didn't "move the needle" on the ratings meter. And the trend toward "programs of towering innocuousness" by all the commercial networks has been steady and unstoppable for the past 60 years.
'On A Note of Triumph' began with some memorable opening lines including "Take a bow, G.I. Take a bow, little guy." And I say, "Take a final bow, Mr. Corwin. You were truly the poet laureate of the airwaves."
I wonder if we'll ever have another one.
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