Saturday, February 11, 2012

Interview with Bob Stepno about Journalism OTR

Bob Stepno  is a former journalist for the Hartford Courant and is now a professor at Radford University in Virginia.

He's practically one the first people ever on the internet and is a computer geek from way back (a compliment!)

OTR BUFFET: Could you tell me a little about your background in journalism and about your earliest memories of old-time radio?

Bob Stepno - I was more a "first TV-generation" kid in the fifties, but I do remember still enjoying The Shadow and Johnny Dollar when I was in junior high, c. 1960.

My even earlier radio memories are of my grandmother's soap operas on the kitchen radio, before I was old enough for school. I only remember the names -- Helen Trent, Guiding Light, Love of Life. I had a 45 rpm record of The Lone Ranger's "How he found Silver" episode, which I played over and over, driving my parents crazy.

In high school, I became a shortwave listener and collected QSL cards. While taking high school Spanish, I translated Radio Madrid program guide articles to run in my high school Spanish club newspaper -- my first byline!

At UConn I wrote for school newspapers and did some newspaper-history research the old-fashioned way: microfilm archives and big dusty volumes of bound papers. After graduation, I went to work for The Hartford Courant ("the nation's oldest continuously published newspaper") as a copy editor, bureau reporter, bureau chief, education editor and feature writer, in about that order. Eleven years went by fast. When the L.A. Times bought The Courant, I took my stock in the company and left for grad school. I wound up with a master's in anthropology and ethnomusicology, and the computer I'd bought to write my thesis. It led to a job with a software company, more graduate courses, another thesis (about hypertext -- in 1988) and a couple of magazine-writing gigs before I went for a Ph.D. at UNC Chapel Hill.

Back to radio: Through the '70s and '80s, one of my local radio stations was WTIC, home of Dick Bertel's Golden Age of Radio programs. In the 1980s, another local station rebroadcast The Shadow and other old-time programs after midnight. While in grad school, I bought a Zenith radio/cassette recorder that had a built-in clock timer so that I could time-shift those already time-shifted programs. (Unfortunately, I recycled the tapes -- I was a "listener," not a "collector.")

OTR BUFFET: Tell me about your various websites?

Bob Stepno - There are too many of them, mostly "demos" of different software systems. :-) My "hub" is and it will fill in the gaps for anyone who really wants to know. At UNC, I took one of the first courses about the Web and worked for one of the first Web newspapers

In my first teaching job (at Emerson College in 1999), I taught journalism and Web production with raw HTML, but also started using Radio Userland, Manila and Blogger, and got to be part of a blogging discussion group, which got me yet another blog address in August 2003,

Answering this question made me so nostalgic that I logged in at the Harvard site for the first time in a year to write some "memory lane" stuff about being on hand for the dawn of podcasting at Harvard. Short version: Having witnessed that early podcast buzz, I started listening to a lot of podcasts, including old time radio podcasts like Jim Widner's Radio Detective Story Hour (, which included some of those detective-reporters you mentioned.

Having been a reporter around the time of "All the President's Men" and "Lou Grant," I had always been fascinated by "newspaper movies" -- but the idea that radio had fictional newspaper reporters too was news to me. The "Freedom of the Press is a flaming sword..." speech at the start of "Big Town" was especially impressive -- even if the series was more crime/detective than newspaper-reporting.

When I found myself teaching in a small town without a lot of big newspapers or Web news sites to visit and interview people for the kind of research I'd done in my dissertation (finished in 2003), I decided to see what I could do with a "Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture -- Radio Dramatic Series" theme. (For research on the image of journalists in pop culture in general, see Joe Saltzman's project at USC's Annenberg School.)

With luck, my blog will evolve into a series of articles and maybe a book. I'm using the blog posts to think about individual episodes and a menu of "Pages" to gradually write longer essays on whole series or topics. I password protect the "Page" items until they're fairly respectable, or when I'm using them for class discussions.

I mostly use Internet Archive/OTRR collections of MP3 files to give readers examples of the shows I'm talking about. I wish I could be Randy Riddle and track down original, long-unheard transcription discs, but I see my role more one of listening to the shows and trying to figure out what those fictional or dramatized journalists were /doing/ there -- being good role models for future journalists? Giving audiences false impressions of journalists as crime-fighters? Helping kids who wanted to be Superman settle for being Clark Kent? Or just helping mild-mannered script writers tell interesting stories?

OTR BUFFET: Out of all the old-time radio that feature journalists, which one do you feel has the most authenticity and which one is the most ridiculous? Also, do you have a favorite among this "genre?"

Bob Stepno - There are so many that I can't pick one! How about six, each for a slightly different reason? "Night Beat," "Frontier Gentleman," "Rogers of the Gazette," "Soldiers of the Press," "Superman" and "The Green Hornet."

On the "ridiculous" end, I'd put "Bright Star."

I also don't confine myself to whole series -- DuPont Cavalcade and all of the Hollywood anthologies (Lux, Theater Guild, Screen Guild, etc.) -- included plenty of stories about newspaper or magazine journalists. Most of the old "newspaper movies" are there, transformed to fit the half-hour or hour formats, and some of Cavalcade's historical profiles are great fun.

OTR BUFFET: Speaking of genre, there seems to be an element in almost all of the newspaper shows that seems to turn them into sleuths? If these aren't deemed detective show, what exactly should we call them?

Bob Stepno - In real-life, reporters can be sleuths part of the time. But there are plenty of stories where "detecting" or "solving a mystery" isn't really the point. "Night Beat," "Frontier Gentleman" and "Rogers of the Gazette" fit those categories. The best episodes are about capturing the drama of someone's life. The best journalists are observers, witnesses, interpreters and explainers. Having such a "story teller" as a main or secondary character certainly gives a screenplay or script-writer something to work with! The fact that a reporter is "an outsider" also gives the audience a natural point of view. And sometimes, you can't be sure whether that "outsider" is the good guy or not.

OTR BUFFET: I've always felt that Edward G. Robinson's portrayal of editor Steve Wilson (most specifically in the late 1930's as opposed to his portrayal in the early 1940's) on Big Town had an incredible power behind it and is very reminisicent of some power-packed, fast-moving Warner Brothers films of the same era (I believe he even played an editor in one film, much like Steve Wilson.) What is your opinion of those late 1930's episodes I refer to?

Bob Stepno - You're right on the mark. Robinson starred in "Five Star Final," about a guilt-ridden tabloid editor. He lets his circulation-mad publisher push him to do a story that ultimately leads to a double-suicide and brings a third victim into his office gunning for him. (That's what he gets for sending out Boris Karloff as reporter!)

"Big Town" begins with a similar editor doing an expose that hurts a woman (Pittsburgh Lil), who actually does shoot Wilson. He writes his own obituary, but survives -- and reforms. I wish more episodes were available to show his whole transition from scandal-monger to public-servant, which is pretty solidly established by the half-dozen Robinson episodes I've heard. He literally carries the canaries into a coal mine in one episode. The "safe driving" episodes are a good hint that stories about "public service journalism" might not be as dramatic as life-and-death crime shows. That kind of preachiness was probably hard to sell to sponsors.

I get the impression that during the Robinson-to-Pawley transition the producers decided that "crime drama" with the words "fatal" or "death" in almost every title was the way to go. Here's an interesting research question: How many of those Pawley-years episodes mention a newspaper story getting written?

Incidentally, "Five Star Final" was based on a play by a former newspaperman who was (briefly) editor of the New York Evening Graphic, which I've done research on off-and-on for years. (

OTR BUFFET: I've always felt that one of the most underrated shows was "Soldiers of the Press", which takes real stories from the journalists from WWII and made a 15 minute drama out of each one. What are your feeling about the show?

Bob Stepno - I wish someone from United Press had written a history of that program. I've looked at UPI staff autobiographies and searched online sites, but haven't found much. I'd love to spend a month or three shoveling through scripts, business files and correspondence about the show. If anyone can point me to that kind of material, please do.

I've listened to about 40 episodes and some of them are excellent. I've tracked down stories by some of the reporters, as well as biographical information about them, but I haven't posted any of my notes yet. Judging by the sound effects and music, I get the feeling the budget for the series slipped over the years, but some episodes are excellent.

Some of the OTR pages online are under the misconception that the voices heard are the actual reporters, but those were clearly radio actors stateside re-creating episodes from the lives of the wire-service reporters overseas. I talked to J.David Goldin about the show a couple of years ago and he rattled off specific actors' voices that he recognized. Wish I had his ear!

NPR interviewed Walter Cronkite, who mentioned how strange it was to hear an actor saying "This is Walter Cronkite..." in the Soldiers of the Press episodes about him. He had been a "print" reporter for United Press; the broadcasting came later.

The syndicate, which became UPI, was in serious competition with the Associated Press, and I assume having a dramatic series about U.P. reporters was partly an attempt to promote the wire service to new customers -- newspaper publishers and radio stations, as both UPI and AP got into the radio-news business. (I remember reading about AP having a series dramatizing reporters' stories, but I haven't heard it.)

Did stations pay for "Soldiers of the Press" or was it entirely "sponsored" by United Press? Did it have any government support as a wartime public service? Did U.P. bundle it with news services? I have more questions than answers about the series. I hope to get back to it this summer... or after I retire.

Similarly, I'm fascinated by the dramatized biographies of reporters, editors or publishers on "The Big Story," "Cavalcade of America," "Captains of Industry" and series like that. Even "You Are There" and "March of Time" fit this "dramatizing the news" model. I've gone looking for the actual newspaper stories behind some of the "March of Time" episodes after I noticed that Time magazine didn't just use the series to promote its own reporters.

OTR BUFFET: One thing you don't seem to cover on your web site that deals with old-time radio are the newscasters of the Golden Age. How important do you think they were in molding the journalists of the time since then? Do the modern day news journalists even know who these pioneers were?

Bob Stepno - Yes, that was a conscious decision. My "project" has to do mostly with the dramatic portrayals of newspaper, magazine and wire-service journalists. I started with fictional ones, then decided to add "dramatized" lives of non-fictional journalists.

I'm not going to get into the actual working radio journalists like Kaltenborn, Murrow, Shirer, Sevareid and everyone between. (Well, I do mention Douglas Edwards when I get to "Wendy Warren" -- strange concept, combining a real newscast with the intro to a soap opera about a fictional reporter.)

I figured the real-life broadcast journalists already had a secure place in the "media history" textbooks and research journals. Also, many of them went on to write books, do TV, and anchor their reputations as journalists in forms than their radio broadcasts.

However, the fact that radio told the big stories *first* influenced many print journalists to think more about telling the "why?" stories or going into more depth -- at least to be aware of the differences. And maybe radio inspired newspapers to take a more personal approach to reporting; I don't know for sure. Did the practice of running photos next to columnists' opinion pieces start because radio had made news reporting more personal? Or was it just because of improvements in photography and layout? And of course radio also beat print on capturing the immediacy of news. Newspapers moved away from the many-editions-per-day "Extra!" model that they'd followed for decades. (Interesting that the Web and Twitter are putting us all in the "Extra!" business again.) Some also went into more visual elements -- photos and charts -- and more "depth" or "interpretive" reporting, to give you something radio couldn't do.

As for remembering the pioneers... My guess is that the folks at NPR have their antennas out for the history of their own profession the way I do for newspaper history. For instance, long-time NPR host Bob Edwards wrote book a few years ago about Murrow and the history radio news.

I suspect that most TV news folks only look back as far as Murrow and Cronkite, but I could be wrong. Maybe some of them trace their roots to "March of Time" newsreels and radio news.

OTR BUFFET: When I first discovered old-time radio in the mid-1970's, I found that Nightbeat was my favorite show. I found it had a feel about it that the other shows didn't have. I've kind of lost my love for the show these days. Tell me what you like or don't like about Randy Stone and Nightbeat?

Bob Stepno - It's definitely a different kind of series, and some episodes are better than others. It reminds me of the TV shows "The Fugitive" or "Route 66" -- the same central character thrown into "someone else's life" each week. In some episodes Stone's process of "getting material for the column" is more realistic than others. Sometimes the "noir" writing style sounds dated or cute. Sometimes the coincidences are too contrived, or the characters a bit schmaltzy for my taste.

In a few, he's just a stand-in for a "man of action" detective, but that doesn't happen to him regularly -- he's not "Crime Photographer" or Steve Wilson.

The episodes I like best are the one where he's more realistically a reporter looking for "human interest" stories and getting lucky at least once in a while (I wonder if that's why "Lucky Stone" was his name for one episode?) On the best episodes, I really can imagine him banging out his copy before deadline, then heading over to Billy Goat's for a beer with Mike Royko.

Some endings are darker than others, and some "morals" at the end fall a little flat. I've gotten a little distracted playing a game of "Who is Bill Conrad going to be this week?" He's Stone's editor in a Christmas episode, a dying reporter in another, a punch-drunk boxer in another, an old gangster in one -- and probably more. As I write about these, I'll mostly focus on the ones with more "journalism process" involved.

I'm especially intrigued by a couple of episodes in which real reporters are either guests at the end of the show or are mentioned in tribute. Did journalism students or working reporters in the 1950s tune-in to "Night Beat" the way my generation tuned in to "Lou Grant" looking for role models -- or something to criticize? I suspect so. But I haven't seen anyone mention it in a memoir the way they do Lois Lane and Clark Kent.

OTR BUFFET: What show that features reporters should we be listening to that we probably aren't and why?

Bob Stepno - I wish there were more episodes of "Shorty Bell," "San Francisco Final," "Deadline Mystery," "Jane Endicott" and "Douglas of the World" to listen to.

If I had more time, health and research-travel money, I'd go to some university archives that have the personal papers of script writers on some of these programs. I've found a couple of them, but for some reason none are in my neighborhood in rural western Virginia, alas.

Since your readers are already OTR fans, what I really wish they'd do is keep their ears open for reporters and editors in /other/ kinds of series -- and drop me a line!

For instance, I've already found the Lone Ranger rescuing Horace Greeley in one episode. The Cisco Kid helped some folk defrauded by a printer's fake land-deal newspaper. A friendly local editor took an interest in Little Orphan Annie (was his headline "Orphan Gets Valuable Birthstone Ring as Gift," and did he include Ovaltine coupons?).

A student newspaper makes waves in "Halls of Ivy." Matt Dillon is faced with a woman journalist, a scandal-seeking male reporter and a visiting photographer in various Gunsmoke episodes. Indian-war correspondents come to cover the frontier in other Western series. "Vic & Sade" entertain themselves by riffing off the local news in their paper. "Lum & Abner" get their names in the paper, if not spelled right. "Our Miss Brooks," "Blondie" and some other family-comedy series had school-newspaper or similar episodes. And there are episodes of Suspense and other anthology series where the reporter is hero, victim or villain. (Trent's Last Case, The Hands of Mr. Ottermole, etc.)

And I've barely started on the soaps with some newspaper themes or subplots. Randy Riddle turned me on to the newspaper as anti-Roosevelt propaganda tool in "American Family Robinson," and I have episodes of Front Page Farrell, Betty & Bob (I'm podcasting it on Wednesdays), Big Sister, Mary Foster and Wendy Warren -- even corresponded with a real-life journalist by that name who had never heard of her esteemed predecessor.

But there are huge gaps in my listening. For example, I've seen posters for a Henry Aldritch movie in which he's a school paper editor, but I don't know if that was a theme in the radio series.

But you asked what to listen to. If anyone has missed it, I'd recommend "Frontier Gentleman" for some fun stories, historical connections and good writing and production. Andy Griffith fans shouldn't miss "Rogers of the Gazette." Other folks might also be amused to give Superman or The Green Hornet another listen, paying attention to just how much "reporting" the reporters do, how the "public service journalism" sometimes shapes the plot -- and whether the reporters and editors make ethical decisions or fake stuff.

In the "dramatized non-fiction" zone, I also want to spend more time with "The Big Story," especially because its tobacco sponsorship means that plenty of scripts are in the tobacco-papers archive at UCLA.

OTR BUFFET: Thank you, Professor, so much for your time in doing this with me!

Bob Stepno - You're welcome. Writing this has reminded me of a lot of things I've wanted to get to.... "Eventually" seems to be stretching out before me like a promised land...

©Jimbo 2010/2011


  1. Very interesting and a very interesting point of view! I enjoyed this interview and it gave me some new shows to try out.

  2. Thanks, Jimbo and bmj2k... It was fun answering your questions. As for time spent on the Internet, I'll have to check some yellowing clip files, but I think the first articles I wrote about the Net were around 1989 in Soundings magazine, about Usenet, CompuServe, Prodigy and PC-based computer bulletin boards as a way for folks to communicate about, of all things, boats! Speaking of radio, when I started my own computer BBS c.'92, it was called "Ship to Shore, Newport," but it barely made it down the launch ramp before it sank.


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