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CBS Prepares To Sell Historic Radio Division

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CBS Prepares To Sell Historic Radio Division

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CBS Prepares To Sell Historic Radio Division

CBS Prepares To Sell Historic Radio Division

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks to radio historian Frank Absher about the heyday of CBS Radio, which is now up for sale. CBS was one of the first networks to truly realize the power of news and develop its use.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There was a time, not really so long ago, in fact, when commercial radio news filled the role that Twitter fills today. If you wanted to learn what's happening in the world right now, you tuned in. And CBS was a major player in radio news. It shone especially during World War II when correspondents such as Edward R. Murrow reported live on the German bombing of London.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EDWARD R MURROW: This is Trafalgar Square. I'm standing here just on the steps of St. Martin-in-the-Field. A searchlight just burst into action off in the distance, one single thing sweeping the sky above me now.

SIEGEL: Soon, CBS and its radio division will divorce. Yesterday, CBS Radio said it would take on about $1.5 billion in debt to prepare itself for an IPO - an initial public offering. It's not clear, though, what the future holds for the 117 stations in the radio network. The news gives us a chance to remind ourselves of what CBS Radio News used to mean. Frank Absher has written about the history of the network, and he joins us now from St. Louis. Welcome to the program.

FRANK ABSHER: Thank you for having me, Robert.

SIEGEL: And when CBS started, what was the state of broadcast journalism?

ABSHER: There wasn't any. Broadcast journalism did not exist, not even as a concept. In fact, the early, early radio stations would simply grab a newspaper because a lot of them were owned by newspapers. And they would read stories on the air out of the today's edition.

SIEGEL: CBS network chief William Paley found a man whose voice and delivery were deemed suitable for his network, Lowell Thomas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOWELL THOMAS: From the North Pacific, from The Hague and from Philadelphia comes today's news. Good evening, everybody. This is Lowell Thomas.

SIEGEL: Tell us about Lowell Thomas.

ABSHER: Well, first of all, you hit on the real key here - the fact that Paley and the management wanted the voices. They wanted voices that were authoritative, yet not panicky, soothing, but not something that would put you to sleep. They put a lot of emphasis on those voices, which drove Edward R. Murrow to distraction later when he was trying to hire correspondents. Lowell Thomas was a perfect voice for radio. He was relaxed. He was a wonderful commentator, a wonderful newsman.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS: I'm standing on one of the most unusual corners in the world, I suppose. This is the corner of Victor Avenue and Fourth Street in Victor, Colo. This was said to be the number one gold-mining camp in North America.

SIEGEL: One of the network's most popular shows, the one that Time magazine sponsored, was The March of Time. The program used actors to act out several of the current news stories. And when the show began its run - in those days, no one questioned the ethics of just recreating news events.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE MARCH OF TIME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What are you going to do?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Cover his mouth, boys. This'll teach the dirty red to meddle in Tampa politics.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What are you trying to do to me?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Take his clothes off, fellas. (Unintelligible).

ABSHER: We didn't have the recording techniques or abilities that we later developed in the radio business. And the essence of The March of Time was we'd like you to hear what we think it must have sounded like or must have seemed like to be on the scene.

SIEGEL: As someone who studies media, I'm curious what importance, if any, you attach to this latest step we're going to see. After all, CBS Radio is the junior medium in a company that was bought up by Westinghouse, which was then bought up by Viacom. Is there anything in radio that still has the DNA of Paley and Murrow about it?

ABSHER: The short answer's no.

SIEGEL: And the long answer?

ABSHER: Program consultants say that we as listeners have very short attention spans. So everything has to be short and effectively dumbed down so people will understand what's being said. You cannot do that when you're talking about serious journalism, and that's really not available in too many places.

SIEGEL: Frank Absher, thanks for talking with us.

ABSHER: It was my pleasure.

THOMAS: Frank Absher is a member of the Radio Preservation Task Force and the St. Louis Media History Foundation.

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