It was only fitting that I learned of Norman Corwin’s death from the CBS Radio World News Roundup, a program younger than Corwin despite its 1938 debut. By that year, Corwin was already entrenched as CBS Radio’s resident poet/playwright/producer, a one-man workhorse who peppered the airwaves with thought-provoking plays at a time when fascism was on the rise. A contemporary of Edward R. Murrow (Murrow was born in 1908; Corwin in 1910), Corwin’s fame actually preceded Murrow’s.
Norman Corwin was 101 when he died in Los Angeles on Oct. 18. Though his name means little today, his work has influenced many broadcasters who came after, including Walter Cronkite.
In the Oscar-winning documentary, A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin, Cronkite recites this line written by Corwin for
an all-networks a CBS radio broadcast celebrating victory in Europe: “Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend.”
“Wow!,” adds Cronkite, with the same tingle of emotion he expressed on the occasion of man landing on the moon.
In the same documentary, TV producer Norman Lear calls Corwin “a statesman writer.”
To those who belonged to the generations of Cronkite and Lear, Corwin’s work represented the benchmark in quality writing for broadcast. The day after Corwin died, Charles Kaye, executive producer for CBS Radio News, declared, “Corwin was one of the great figures in the history of CBS Radio.” He pointed out that in late 1999 Corwin “returned” to CBS to participate in its 20th Century Roundup broadcast.
The Golden Age of Radio ended decades before I happened to get my hands on some twenty boxes of scripts, letters, clippings, and recordings Corwin had donated to Syracuse University just in time for me to find a subject for a senior thesis in American history. I focused on Corwin’s years as a propagandist for the war effort, in which his radio plays were beamed to the home front. In so doing, I came to appreciate his more artistic work that bookended the war. I met Corwin once and exchanged a few letters and e-mails. I phoned to wish him a happy birthday on his centennial, but he didn’t return a stranger’s call. In truth, I jotted down his number upon overhearing him give it to someone else following his participation in a panel at the Museum of Broadcasting (now the Paley Center for Media).
Corwin’s appeal was decidedly non-commercial, a contradiction in commercial radio. Still, Corwin was often used by CBS founder William Paley as the network’s way to meet its public service obligations, especially during time slots deemed unwinnable against popular programs on NBC.
December 7th, 1941, was probably the best thing that happened to Corwin’s career. He was on a train from New York to Hollywood, expecting to direct a live radio program commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Bill of Rights, when word reached him that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Instead of the broadcast being cancelled, it turned into event programming, featuring major movie stars and an address by President Roosevelt. We Hold These Truths was heard by more than sixty million Americans.
With On a Note of Triumph pulling in an even larger audience at the end of the war, Corwin’s role as radio’s foremost impresario was cemented. Still, it also represented the pinnacle of his career just before television replaced radio as the hot new medium.
Corwin had left CBS and moved out to California by the early 1950s. He went on to write award-winning screenplays, like Lust for Life, and several books, including Trivializing America.
In the documentary A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin, Studs Terkel, another Corwin contemporary, reflected on the way Corwin saw today’s media. Terkel explains: “People are basically decent. They have a native intelligence. But day after day, you call upon malevolence. Day after day you call upon smallness. Day after day you call upon trivia and you make that the headline. Something must happen to people. Corwin represented all that was the antithesis of that.”
Terkel continues, “It was not just a question about being American but about being thinking Americans. That was Norman Corwin. The assumption was that we are a thoughtful people.”