Journalists discuss radio history

A group of revered radio journalists gathered at GW Sunday to commemorate the 62nd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and discuss the relationship presidents have had with radio.

More than 200 people attended the event, which featured journalists Richard C. Hottelet, George Herman and Peter Maer. Michael Freedman, the University’s vice president for communications and former CBS general manager, moderated the discussion.

Hottelet was one of legendary radio newsman Edward R. Murrow’s “Murrow Boys,” a group of journalists assigned to Europe during World War II who Freedman said “invented broadcast journalism.”

During the war, Hottelet was the only American journalist jailed by the Nazis. Asked what it was like to be incarcerated by the Germans, he replied, “Boring.”

The panelists commented on radio recordings of several former presidents, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose first Depression-era “Fireside Chat” was played in full during the event.

The voice of the president was not quite booming but loud and very articulate, said Herman, who was a White House correspondent for CBS News during the John F. Kennedy administration.

“In today’s media world, he would sound a little stiff,” he said. “But in 1929, people were scared … (His voice) was electrifying and gave people hope.”

“FDR really knew how to harness the power of the radio,” said Maer, a current CBS News White House correspondent. “He used it to speak directly, in an unfiltered way.”

Dubbed the “first radio president,” Roosevelt contributed to radio’s popularity at its inception. His addresses gave hope to the millions of demoralized people suffering from the effects of the Great Depression and were particularly uplifting during World War II, Hottelet said.

After his first address the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which precipitated America’s entry into the war, “millions of Americans would listen to accounts of battles … the president’s addressing of the matter,” Hottelet said.

“He had a personal connection of a man speaking to you, or to me,” he added.

Since Roosevelt, only President Ronald Reagan has used radio in a similar fashion, panelists said. Known as “The Great Communicator,” Reagan spoke to the nation in weekly radio addresses.

“He did bring back the radio speech,” Maer said.

At the end of the event, prompted by an audience question, panelists gave their thoughts on the current state of radio and discussed the medium’s future.

“(Current administration officials) have missed the mark,” said Maer, noting that they have preferred to appear on cable television rather than radio. “They don’t realize how many people are listening to radio going to work each morning.”

“Hopefully people have had enough (of televised news) … and will return to more thoughtful coverage (that radio can provide),” Maer added.

As for the future of radio, Maer said that it is “still alive and kicking and always evolving.” Radio will continue to be at the forefront of news coverage, he said, because there is “an extra dimension to hearing a human voice.”

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