Norman Corwin, auteur of radio’s golden years, 101

By Mike Janssen

Norman Corwin, a radio writer and producer whose pioneering programs made him one of the most renowned creators of shows during radio’s Golden Age, died Oct. 18 [2011] of natural causes. He was 101.

Norman CorwinCorwin’s name may be unfamiliar to most people today, but during the 1940s his productions for CBS drew huge audiences and influenced a generation of writers and directors in all media. He wrote on a wide range of subjects in a ringing, poetic tone that had few parallels in its time and would be almost unheard of on today’s airwaves, even in public radio.

His most admired works for CBS included On a Note of Triumph, which commemorated the end of World War II in Europe, and We Hold These Truths, a celebration of the Bill of Rights on the document’s 150th anniversary. The latter featured an all-star cast of Hollywood greats, including Orson Welles, Lionel Barrymore and Jimmy Stewart, with an epilogue by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Public radio shed new light on Corwin’s accomplishments in the ’90s when NPR repackaged and rebroadcast 13 of the master’s old CBS shows. Corwin also wrote and produced new programs for NPR in 2001. In 2005, the Third Coast International Audio Festival recognized Corwin with its Audio Luminary Award.

“He reminds us of our potential to be grand, to be lofty,” says independent producer Jay Allison, who recorded a contribution from Corwin as the first essay for This I Believe, public radio’s revival of another CBS institution from the network’s past. “He elevates language so we’re reminded of the best in ourselves.”

“He wrote like an angel, and he was a true patriot,” says Tony Kahn, formerly a producer for WGBH in Boston, who worked with Corwin on a documentary about the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s. “He always believed in his principles, and he never stopped working for what he believed was quality radio.”

Corwin was born on May 3, 1910, and grew up in Boston. He began his career at 17 as a newspaper reporter and got into radio in 1930 at a station in Springfield, Mass.

In 1941 he joined CBS, where he enjoyed the freedom to write and produce a series of programs entirely on his own. Titled Twenty-Six by Corwin, the series established his poetic style and featured a variety of innovative dramas. One titled “The Undecided Molecule” dramatized the trial of a molecule that refused to join one of the elements. Written in rhyme, it starred Groucho Marx and Vincent Price.

“I guess I’m an autodidact,” Corwin said of his career in a 2006 interview with journalist Bryce Nelson. “Nobody taught me anything about radio, and that may have been a good break, because I came along at a time when a writer was given freedom. Nobody looked over my shoulder; I could choose my own subjects and treatment.”

Corwin said executives at CBS didn’t even hear one of his masterworks, On a Note of Triumph, until it was broadcast. Carl Sandburg called the program “ a vast announcement, a terrific interrogatory, one of the all-time great American poems.”

It concluded with a stirring prayer written by Corwin in cadences evocative of the Bible, which along with Shakespeare and Sandburg ranked among his greatest literary influences. “Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer for his father’s color or the credo of his choice,” Corwin wrote. “Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend.”

The film director Robert Altman, who claimed Corwin as an influence, once said he could recite almost half of On a Note of Triumph by heart.

We Hold These Truths, Corwin’s celebration of the Bill of Rights, aired simultaneously on all four radio networks on Dec. 15, 1941 — eight days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. More than 60 million people listened to the broadcast, at the time the largest audience ever gathered for a radio show.

After his work for CBS, Corwin went on to write for film and television. His screenplay for Lust for Life, a 1956 biopic of Vincent van Gogh, was nominated for an Academy Award.
In 1979 he joined the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California as a teacher and a writer in residence.

“There were only two major voices in the golden age of radio, and they were Orson Welles and Norman Corwin,” says Joe Saltzman, the Annenberg professor who brought Corwin onto the faculty.

Corwin was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1993.

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