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  • Writer's pictureBill Fischer

Revolution In News Broadcasting: Invention And Leadership

Bill Fischer

The piece first appeared on Forbes.com ,updated on May 17, 2024


Radio as revolution. Hard to imagine? In fact, radio has been an agent of both industry and social revolution since its invention. The passing, this week, of Bob Edwards, who was a frequent visitor into many American homes as the host of National Public Radio’s (NPR) “All Things Considered,” and then “Morning Edition,” brings to mind an adventure story he told of the revolutionary founding of his industry, radio broadcast journalism. It is a story of how an entire industry was put into upheaval by the daring leadership choices of a young, inexperienced, mid-level executive, at a second-tier competitor. Given the large role that broadcast journalism will play in our lives over the next few months of an election year, this story remains particularly relevant; especially as it reminds us of what we have lost as broadcast journalism, in all of its present incarnations of: radio, television, micro-blogging, and even TikTok, continues to slip more and more into entertainment, disinformation and irrelevance.


The story that Bob Edwards wrote was Edward R. Murrow and The Birth of Broadcast Journalismwhich chronicles the creation of a new way of reporting the news, a new way of assembling a team of talented people to gather and analyze the news, and new locations, and technologies, to do all of this, during World War II. Of course, a telecommunications technology revolution was also involved, but this is essentially a people story. It could, in fact, be claimed that this new version of broadcast journalism saved the world from fascism, by shaking Americans out of their long-held isolationism, and precipitating a willingness to come of the aid of their European allies.


The changes in the industry were profound and comprehensive, placing nearly every aspect of the industry into upheaval, and, as a result, providing an upstart radio network, CBS (Columbia Broadcasting Service), with a chance to disrupt the then existing incumbent market leader. None of this was predictable at the time, and would not have happened without the central figure in this story, the late radio and television news reporter, Edward R. Murrow; who is much better known for standing-up to the Congressional bullying, and fear-mongering, of Senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI), which was captured so well in the movie Good Night And Good Luck, and which occurred well-after the story which will be discussed here.


Close to the Action

Murrow’s story presents a microcosm of the power of innovation, and why the role of leadership is so important to it. It begins with the good fortune of CBS, an emerging, second-tier player in the radio broadcasting field, having had, by chance, a few reporters in Europe, at the onset of of the Second World War, to cover “human interest” stories. Murrow was the first of these, and he was astute enough to realize that Nazi Germany’s illegitimate accession of Austria was soon to become the biggest story of the times; far bigger than the childrens’ choir broadcasts he was originally charged with making. This was the virtue of being close to the action, zero-distance, if you will, and Morrow moved fast, to make the most of it, despite being at a low level of a large, complex, bureaucratic organization.

The impact was huge, and immediate. In December 1941, at a dinner held in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria, and attended by eleven hundred VIPs, poet Archibald MacLeish invoked Murrow’s broadcasts: “You laid the dead of London at our doors and we knew that the dead were our dead…. You have destroyed the superstition that what is done beyond three thousand miles of water is not really done at all.”


Air Cover

Without any prior production experience, Murrow arranged for his colleague, William Shirer, whom he had just hired, to fly to London, to escape German censorship and broadcast his first-hand experiences of the takeover, and its aftermath, to North America. The action resonated with CBS president, William S. Paley, in New York, who heard the broadcast, recognized its commercial value, and wanted more; and wanted it “now;” ordering an unprecedented news roundup, from all over Europe; something that had never been done before, and which pushed the technical frontiers of what was deemed possible. The equation for success, at this point, was: being close to the action, fast response, a willingness to place some big, daring, bets on doing what had not been done before, and the air-cover, if not active sponsorship, of the executive at the very top of the organization.


The Business Model

There is also a business model angle here, and it was not technology innovation. What Murrow and Paley both saw was the value of putting the listener right into the action, especially at a time when that action was existential. They realized that they could change the “listener journey,” from informative, but non-engaging, event-based, news; to live, as it happened, unedited, continuous reporting and analysis, from the front-lines. Suddenly, news became a constant companion of the listener, and the battles and debates of war were being brought right into the listeners’ living rooms. Murrow and Paley both saw the attraction of making news easier to access, and more compelling to listen to, for their audience. At the same time, Prime Minister Winston Churchill quickly realized that if he could make the war personal to the American public, he had a better chance of enlisting American aid to a United Kingdom fighting for its life, and he did all he could to facilitate such activity. As Bob Edwards put it, this was the invention of breakthrough journalism.

Unlike so many other aspects of this story, changing the radio-news listener journey, although a big-deal, was not unprecedented. In 1936, CBS’s much larger rival, market-leading NBC (the National Broadcasting Company), had broadcast King Edward VIII’s abdication, live and direct from London, to considerable acclaim, but failed to see this type of news broadcasting a sustainable type of programming for the long-run. As a result, Murrow, and CBS, had NBC’s experience as a pretotype of how the wartime broadcasts might work, and the audience that they could draw, and ironically, NBC, who had pioneered the idea, and authored the pretotype, failed to see its potential.


The Team

It was this business model change that profoundly altered the trajectory of the industry’s S-shaped growth curve; not the technology. To make it work, it also required a new sort of broadcasting talent, which was suited to this change in broadcasting format. The listener in their living room, required expertise to help them process the torrent of information that would be streaming into their radio receivers; this would be a departure from the “master of ceremonies” role that the rich-voiced radio hosts of the time were best suited for. The team that Murrow assembled, was: young, ambitious, smart, energetic, and knowledgeable about Europe and the times. It was as close as you could get to being a Virtuoso Teamwhere each member was relied upon for their local expertise, and judgement, regarding deployment and reporting. It was a team assembled around the talent, rather than the other way around, and continually worked to make each member a star.


It also required a reworking of the existing broadcasting technologies; microphones, batteries, and other paraphernalia, all needed to be redesigned so as to be truly portable, as did the ability to connect with distant broadcasting networks, and to facilitate real-time, multiple points of origin, conversations among remotely distributed reporters. On May 10, 1940, alone, the German Lufthansa bombed Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg; while, on the same day, Churchill replaced Chamberlain as U.K. Prime Minister; to cover the news effectively, all had to be included, at the same time, in any meaningful portrayal of what was taking place.


Organizational Transformation

Murrow’s team, and the changes necessary to accommodate this new way of working, were at the heart of major organizational changes that changed the way the broadcast industry would function in the future, involving profound alterations in work, workplace and workers:

1. changing the nature of work in an industry: from announcing the news in pre-scheduled, event-like, formats, to reporting the news, live and as it happened, on-the-scene, first-hand and in the moment; and moving the industry from simply sharing the news, to being an original source of the news;

2. changing the location and style of the workplace: from radio studios, in capital cities, appearing on schedule, with big-named personalities doing the hosting; to on-the-scene reporting, wherever that might be; capturing the sounds, and impressions of the action, as they occurred; and analyzing the action in real-time, using teams of geographically-dispersed experts;

3. changing the types of workers required; from commentators with great voices, to analysts with great insights; from generalists to specialists; professionalizing the industry and raising its public influence.

Such bold changes, taken simultaneously, are few and far between, but this was certainly called for, and strong, bold and empathetic leadership is absolutely necessary in such situations. Edward R. Murrow rose to the occasion.


Leadership

With any organizational change, leadership matters, and, with big change, leadership matters more. Eric Sevareid, one of the original “Murrow Boys,” and later an accomplished reporting star on his own, said of Murrow, on his death: “He was a shooting star and we shall not see his like again.” What, exactly, does this mean from a leadership perspective? Murrow clearly was a source of good ideas, and had the energy to catalyze an organization around those good ideas, but Bob Edwards cites several other leadership characteristics as being important:


  • · Murrow knew who he was, was characterized by his integrity, and had “a personal code rooted in populism and justice, continually taking the side of the underdog:” Murrow is repeatedly cited for his thoughtfulness and clarity of purpose. He produced a television show, and coauthored two books, all entitled “This I Believe,” which shared the beliefs of more than a hundred different people, from all walks of life. He, himself, wrote that “I have never yet heard a man express what he believed in a fashion that failed to interest me.”


  • · He led by example, and shared the leadership role: The autonomy of remote reporting in the field provided an easy opportunity to share leadership responsibilities among his team, and he took full advantage of it. He also felt that it worked for him, as well, and that he reported directly to Mr. Paley; a belief that was a never-ending irritant, for those between Murrow and Paley, in the CBS hierarchy.


  • · He was a good judge of talent: What is just as important as spotting talent, was Murrow’s willingness to put that talent into positions where they could grow and be recognized. It is not surprising that the Murrow Boys went on to become some of the biggest names in the next generation of the industry’s leadership. The success of his “boys” is vivid testament to Murrow’s leadership generosity.


  • · He was absolutely fearless: In the midst of the London Blitz, Murrow reported, live from rooftops; forsaking the security of the London Tube, because he didn’t want to get used to it. He was among the first reporters to enter Buchenwald, and he was just as fearless in the offices of CBS’s bureaucracy. Late in his career, when William Paley complained of criticism he was receiving, because of Murrow’s outspoken positions in defense of the vulnerable, Murrow responded with “it comes with the job.”


Murrow was the consummate professional. He believed in what he did, and how it was done. He demanded nothing less from those who worked with him, and, in return, he gave them his full support. He was the exemplar for the leaders we hope for in so many industries. Nowhere as bombastic as a Musk, as technical as a Steve Jobs, nor as analytical as Tim Cook, Murrow was, nonetheless, able to completely change nearly every facet of the broadcasting industry; completely reinventing it . This is why his leadership story continues to shine as an example of what is possible.


The material in this article comes almost entirely, except where noted with a link, from Bob Edwards, Edward R. Murrow and The Birth of Broadcast Journalism(Hoboken, NJ, John Wiley, 2004).

In addition, I would recommend Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud, The Murrow Boys, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996).

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