CBS News, National Press Club Celebrate a Century of Radio Broadcasting

June 1, 2020 by Dan McCue
Michael Freedman, president of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON – Radio, it has been said, is both the most intimate of all media and part of the fabric of the American experience.

Whether it was through “Make Believe Ballroom” or presenting harrowing tales from the front lines during times of war or thrilling us to the sounds of The Beatles blasting from a transistor radio, without our even noticing sometimes, it insinuated itself into our lives.

And remarkably, the medium is just as vital today, in this, its centennial year.

To mark the occasion, CBS News has partnered with the National Press Club, the leading professional organization for journalists in the world, to co-produce a 10-part audio series commemorating radio and all the remarkable eras it has spanned.

Entitled “Celebrating a Century of Sound,” and anchored by CBS News correspondent Sam Litzinger, it made its debut on many CBS News stations two weeks ago, featured as one-minute segments on CBS World News Roundup.

It was a fitting debut, given the World News Roundup launched the era of broadcast journalism in 1938.

In addition to the one-minute chapters, which were recently picked up by WTOP radio in Washington, D.C. the program has also been made into an extended mini-documentary to air in conjunction with CBS News Weekend Roundup broadcasts, and will be incorporated into a walking tour exhibit at the National Press Club later this year.

“This is something I wanted to be the cornerstone of my presidency,” said National Press Club President Michael Freedman recently.

A 40-year veteran of the radio industry, Freedman was general manager of the CBS Radio Network, and over the course of his career worked with many of the superstars of its news division including, Walter Cronkite, Marvin Kalb, Robert Trout, Richard C. Hottelet, Dan Rather and Charles Osgood.

As he came into the Press Club presidency this year, Freedman knew he had to mark the centennial of radio, but admits “exactly how we were going to do it was … to be determined.”

A collector of radio history memorabilia himself, he knew an exhibit at the Club on 14th Street NW was a must. Then came the idea of an audio walking tour to guide visitors through it.

The next thing Freedman knew, he was on the phone with his friend and former CBS News colleague Sam Litzinger, talking about how to bring what the club president was now calling “audio capsules” to life.

Despite the long histories of the National Press Club and CBS News, the two had never before partnered on an original program. The only thing that comes close is The Kalb Report public broadcasting series, which Freedman has executive produced for the past 26 years.

Explaining how the pieces of the radio documentary came together, Freedman said humbly that he was the beneficiary of a “strong relationship” with the National Press Club, a “wonderful” continuing relationship with his former employer CBS, and having good friends and supporters like Craig Swagler, the current vice president and general manager of CBS News Radio, and the management of Entercom, which merged with CBS in November 2017.

“I had helped hire Sam Litzinger at CBS News and he agreed to do it, so we went to talk with Craig Swagler, who loved the idea from the start,” Freedman said.

For Freedman and Litzinger, who’d worked on scores of projects together over the years, diving into radio history was like getting on a bicycle again after a layoff.

“I guess you could say it was a bicycle built for two and just a matter of us gearing up,” Freedman said.

The first thing decided was that each capsule had to be one minute long. The next question was what each capsule should contain.

“So we started with the beginnings of radio as a commercial entity with the founding of WWJ in Detroit, Mich., in August 1920 and KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pa., the following November,” Freedman said. “From there we covered the vital importance of radio during the Great Depression; the use of radio by political leaders of the time, first and foremost, President Franklin Roosevelt; and then went on through the golden age of radio and the creation of all the formats we know today … to the creation of broadcast journalism by Edward R. Murrow and his team of correspondents in Europe during World War II … to how radio reinvented itself as a result of the invention of the transistor and the rise of rock and roll … to the migration to the suburb, which created the notion of drive times. when people began commuting to and from work.”

“Sam is an incredibly talented, creative, wonderful writer and broadcaster and he has a keen ear for sound,” Freedman said. “He put together the first drafts of the capsules and then we listened to all of them, making modifications.”

Almost before he knew it, the series, in its component parts and the longer, mini-documentary form, was done.

“One of the thrills I feel about this is that we’re going to be hearing this series played on a number of different stations throughout the year,” Freedman said. “It certainly has a long shelf life and I’m really pleased that we were able to work this out. So far, it has been incredibly well received.”

Asked why participating in the series was important from the National Press Club’s perspective, Freedman said there’s been no more important time for the club to have a high profile than the present.

Each installment of the history ends with Litzinger saying, “For CBS News and the National Press Club, I’m Sam Litzinger.”

“At this particular time … when journalists are under fire, not just in other countries, but in our own country … and when they are under siege by no less than the president of the United States … it is so important for us to be out there vocally, supporting our journalists and supporting press freedom,” Freedman said.

“So, with that in mind, this is another way to have the Press Club name on the minds of Americans across the country … to have them know we’re here and a force within our profession,” he said.

With that, the conversation broadened. Freedman was asked why he believes news radio is still an important source of information for the majority of Americans.

“I think one reason is that it is vital that Americans stay in touch with what is going on around them and radio is a great way to do it,” he said. “I often say, ‘radio covers all platforms,’ and it really does. Whether you’re listening in your car, or to a podcast, or at home on the stereo system, or through your alarm clock that wakes you to the all-news station in your community, it’s there for you, fulfilling that goal of providing you with information.

“While radio to some extent has become something you listen to while you are doing something else, it is still one of the great conveyors of information in our lives,” he said.

Freedman said though he enjoys listening to public radio, citing “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” he can “hardly imagine what my life would be like if there was not an all-news station in Washington, D.C. like WTOP.”

That said, he added, “as a broadcaster and a broadcast journalist, I’ve also maintained that an all-news radio station should not be your sole source of information. And Walter Cronkite said the same thing about television.

“It’s a little known story that when Walter Cronkite first became anchor of CBS Evening News in 1962 and was asked to come up with a catchphrase to close the broadcast, he wanted to say, ‘That’s some of the news; for more, read a newspaper,'” Freedman said.

“And he was told, ‘No, Walter, that won’t work.’ So he came up with, ‘And that’s the way it is.’ But I subscribe to what Walter’s original intent was … I still think that The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and any number of newspapers are your best source of substantive stories. The Associated Press is the great unsung hero of journalism.

“Radio plays a vital role in the flow of information. Our understanding, our education, about what’s going on in our communities, in our states, across the nation and around the world, is all grounded by what we first hear on the radio,” Freedman said.

“As long as radio continues to inform and to educate us, it doesn’t matter what the platform is that we use to convey the signal. That’s why it’s really vital for us to continue to have this thing, broadcast journalism, that Edward R. Murrow invented and which has been advanced and perfected over the decades. That’s why we still need all-news radio as it is practiced at the finest radio stations across this country,” he concluded.

The entire “Celebrating a Century of Sound” series can be heard here.

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