One of radio’s great artistic voices was silenced today, October 18, 2011 at the age of 101. Norman Corwin is widely regarded as the “Poet Laureate” of Radio. Perhaps no writer since Shakespeare used as much skill crafting the spoken word.
Corwin had worked as a newspaper reporter and in independent radio before coming to CBS in 1936. An early success was Norman Corwin’s Words Without Music. This was the first time a writer’s name had been featured in the title of a radio program. The program gave us “the Plot to Overthrow Christmas”, a fanciful piece done in rhyme which became a CBS Christmas tradition.
Recognizing the value of their rising star, CBS turned over the resources of the Columbia Workshop to Corwin for a period of 6 months. The Columbia Workshop was conceived to expand the possibilities of the radio medium. The “26 by Corwin” were broadcast without sponsorship and no creative interference from the network. Given his journalistic interest in events, it must have been hard for Corwin to move on other projects less than a month before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
However it was to be a marvelous project; Corwin’s “We Hold These Truths”. The US government commissioned a program to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Norman Corwin would write and produce the program which would be broadcast simultaneously on the four major radio networks. Major Hollywood movie and radio talent would be featured along with the national anthem conducted by Leopold Stokowski. President Franklin D. Roosevelt would be be call upon to provide the closing remarks.
While Corwin was engrossed in writing while traveling on a cross country train when he remembered there was to be a rebroadcast of one of his shows. In those days it was common to rent radios on trains. When he asked the porter to get him one, the porter stared aghast. “Ain’t you heard? You can’t get a radio today, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor!” Corwin was no longer sure that “We Hold These Truths” would still go on as planned, but the word came down from the President himself. With less than a week to handle rewrites, the program was now thought to be more important than ever.
CBS sent Corwin to London soon afterwards to gave Americans the view of the British people who were already facing the horrors of war An American in England. When he returned Stateside he continued to write both light and serious feature for Columbia Presents Corwin as well as 13 of the scripts for the multi-network broadcast This is War. His wartime masterpiece would be On a Note of Triumph. Intended as a moral booster to the troops as the war seemed to be winding down, Corwin was told to hurry the project because victory in Europe could come at any time. The program was heard by an estimated 60 million listeners.
After the war Corwin was the first to receive the One World Award. As part of the prize he was given a flight around the world, and he took with him a sound technician and 225 pounds of recording equipment. His recordings were transcribed into 3700 pages and used for a thirteen part documentary series, One World Flight.
During the 90’s he returned to radio, producing a number of plays for NPR, and was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1993. He lectured at the USC school of Journalism as a guest professor. He celebrated his 101st birthday on May 4, 2011.
Good Night Norman. And thank you.