Remembering Radio's Mary Margaret McBride

Mary Margaret McBride at the microphone

Mary Margaret McBride at the microphone, from the cover of Susan Ware's biography. hide caption

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Starting in the 1930s, Mary Margaret McBride was a pioneering presence on radio. She interviewed the biggest political and cultural figures of the day. Ahead of her times in an earlier age, she is know largely forgotten. Biographer Susan Ware and Jacki Lyden reflect on McBride's career.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

If you've ever tuned in, even once, to "Oprah," listened to Terry Gross or Diane Rehm, wondered where Sally Jessy Raphael gets her moxie, we'd like to introduce you to the woman who blazed the trail before them: Mary Margaret McBride.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Unidentified Woman #1: It's 1:00 and here's Mary Margaret McBride and...

Ms. MARY MARGARET McBRIDE (Radio Host): Our guest today is a great American legend. You've heard her voice, maybe you even read her before now but you're going to be reading her because Harper, her publishers, tell me that they put out a great big edition of her books and before...

LYDEN: From 1934 to 1954, listeners heard that signature sign-on every afternoon during the week. McBride was based in New York City for NBC Radio. She had millions of listeners. No one knows exactly how many, but she was a household name. And if you were a general, a writer, a celebrity, a gourmet chef or simply had your 15 minutes of fame, you were on her show. Susan Ware has written a biography of her called "It's One O'Clock And Here is Mary Margaret McBride," and Susan Ware joins us now.

Welcome to the show.

Ms. SUSAN WARE (Biographer, "It's One O'Clock And Here is Mary Margaret McBride"): Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: You know, tell me a little bit more about her. I had never heard of her, remarkably enough. How'd she come to radio?

Ms. WARE: Well, she came to radio by a rather serendipitous route. She was a journalist in New York, a very, very successful one in the 1920s and, unfortunately, the world dropped out of that market with the Great Depression and she found herself in her mid-30s, unemployed and with no career. And her agent told her about a possible edition for a radio show and she sat down in front of the microphone and she felt totally at home and she really didn't leave for the next 20 years.

LYDEN: She had on just a Who's Who of mid-century people. I mean, the notes you have on that, you know, run to many pages: Pearl Buck, the writer; Margaret Bourke-White, the Life photographer; Fiorello La Guardia, we all know, the mayor of New York; Mary Pickford. It was really astonishing.

Ms. WARE: I think people were quite willing to come on to her show because they knew that she would have really prepared. She was a wonderful interviewer. She really put people at ease and, especially for authors, she always--she'd stay up the night before reading their book and she had a phenomenal memory, so that when she started in on these interviews, people just felt they were really in the hands of a master.

LYDEN: And it still didn't explain, I think, the effect she had. Is it the effect that she had the field to herself? Is it that she connected to the ordinary person and certainly the ordinary housewife?

Ms. WARE: Well, I think there is something very special about the bond that she forged with her listeners. And I think if you think historically back to the '30s, '40s and '50s, when there is so much less information coming into people's home, especially if you're, let's say, a housewife with small children, you're very isolated. And the radio is really your line to the outside world.

LYDEN: She did have her detractors, though. Collier's Weekly, which published other female journalists like Martha Gellhorn, referred to McBride's listeners as `McBride's Dustpan Army.' She certainly was dismissed by New York's, perhaps, intellectual crowd. How did she respond to criticism?

Ms. WARE: She didn't like being criticized, there's no question about that. But much of the criticism, I think, was rather unfair. It dismissed her in part because she was on daytime radio and that was very low priority. You know, the big stars were on at night and she was on during the day. She was a woman and she was talking to a presumably predominantly female audience. That puts her way down the totem pole. And there are elements to her style. There's a certain gushiness. She has a very pronounced Missouri--or she would say it, Missouri (pronounced Missoura)--accent. And it takes a little getting used to.

LYDEN: Why has she been so utterly forgotten? I mean, I've done radio for decades now and never have I heard of this woman.

Ms. WARE: I really return to the issue of gender and daytime radio. And the fact that she was a woman and she was on during the day meant that she really didn't rank very high in the radio histories when they get written.

LYDEN: Let's listen to her style once more.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Ms. McBRIDE: Walter Winchell said when he met Tallulah Bankhead for the first time, `I've heard a lot about you.' And Tallulah replied, `It's all true.' But my favorite story that Tallulah tells on herself I think is about the time when she was in Boston at a party...

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, yes.

Ms. McBRIDE: ...that you'd had opening night.

Unidentified Woman #2: Well, it was in--I think you're referring to when Charles Backett(ph) gave me a party. Elka Chase was a friend of his and a lot of Boston-backed Bay people. That was in Providence, Rhode Island. Is that the one you mean?

Ms. McBRIDE: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Woman #2: One of the very grand, old ladies, blue blood to the nth degree and delightful, I'm sure, said, `When is Ms. Bankhead going to (unintelligible).' Sawyer said, `Well, she's behaving much to--as she usually does.' And she said, `Oh, well, if that's the case'--I can't say `hell' on the radio, can I?

Ms. McBRIDE: No.

Unidentified Woman #2: Well, excuse me. She said, `Well, to so-and-so with it. If she's going to behave like everybody else, then I'm going home.'

LYDEN: Well, at about this point, I think, Terry Gross would be cutting her off. You know, there's kind of a sense of time that these people had and I'm just wondering if you think that Mary Margaret McBride would fit in the public radio world of today.

Ms. WARE: I think she would, except I think the biggest adjustment for her, if she were on public radio, is that she wouldn't be expected to do commercials and, hard as it is for modern listeners to realize, doing the commercials--or as she said, doing the products--was a very stimulating and fun part of her show.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Ms. McBRIDE: I brought a few of the comments that my Middle Western listeners have sent in. A woman named Mabel Colberg(ph) in Chicago who's written to me often, she says--she thought to herself she'd try as many of my products as she could because she liked the program but she said I won't try her canned soup. `There is no such thing as a canned soup fit for consumption,' she said. `But,' she adds--and this is handsome of her, I think--`that was before last Friday when I bravely brought home a can of Habetante Onion Soup(ph). You definitely win. It was delicious. So I went back to the other two kinds and now I shall keep all of them stocked.'

LYDEN: You know, that's longer than any fund-raising pitch we've ever been asked to make around here.

Ms. WARE: Doesn't it make you want to go out and buy that soup? It sure does for me.

LYDEN: Well, you have brought to life an absolutely remarkable character and she wasn't just presiding over this big radio table. She also did get active--Didn't she?--in the civil rights movement.

Ms. WARE: Well, I think one of the things--one of the influences of Eleanor Roosevelt on the career of Mary Margaret McBride was to really enhance her social conscience. And so starting during World War II, you find Mary Margaret McBride and her guests grappling with the major issues of the day, including civil rights, and she is in the forefront of public discussion of the rights of African-Americans long before it really entered popular consciousness in the 1950s. And I think that the beauty of it is if you've got a slightly prejudiced audience or an audience that might otherwise have turned away if they knew the guest was going to--was a black person, her guests were never announced in advance. And they could also start talking before it became clear what color they were. And I think of it as a very subversive yet effective way of making the point that black Americans were Americans just like everybody else. And she made that point starting in the 1940s.

LYDEN: Susan Ware is the author of "It's One O'Clock And Here is Mary Margaret McBride," a radio biography. Thanks very much for joining us.

Ms. WARE: Thanks for having me.

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