ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Now, the story of a mayor who was a pretty creative problem solver. It's July of 1945. World War II is drawing to a close. Then a newspaper strike pulls papers from the streets of New York. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia can't bear the thought of the city's children denied their regular dose of the Sunday comics, so he decides to read the funnies on the radio. The recordings of that moment are at the Library of Congress in the National Recording Registry.
Independent producer Ben Manila is exploring that registry, and he's unearthed some of the great sounds of American history. For today's installment in Ben's series, we travel back to the Golden Age of radio with three guides.
(Soundbite of marching band)
Dr. THOMAS KESSNER (Department of History, City University New York): My name is Thomas Kessner. I wrote the biography of Fiorello LaGuardia called "Fiorello H. LaGuardia and the Making of Modern New York."
Former Mayor ED KOCH (New York): My name is Ed Koch, and like LaGuardia, who served for three terms as mayor, I too served three terms as mayor.
Mr. ANDY LANSET (Archivist, WNYC): My name is Andy Lanset, and I am the archivist at WNYC, New York Public Radio.
(Soundbite of radio show)
Unidentified Man: On this 1,309th day of American democracy at war against the foes of freedom, we bring you our mayor, the honorable F. H. LaGuardia, speaking to you from his desk in City Hall in another talk to the people. Ladies and gentlemen, his honor, the mayor.
Former Mayor FIORELLO LAGUARDIA (Republican, New York): Patience and fortitude. The last half of the Timberwolf division arrived in our port today. Say, that's one great fighting division.
Mr. LANSET: Radio in 1945 was the dominant electronic media of the day. The time before the Internet. Television was in its - very much in its infancy, and the two dominant daily forms of media were radio and newspapers.
Former Mayor LAGUARDIA: Now, talking about newspapers. Well, I had a good story today in the newspapers, but with boys of the delivery union now on strike, you spoiled my story for me.
Dr. KESSNER: These two particular recordings where he's reading the comics, he's reading the comics at the very end of his regular scheduled talk to the people, which is composed of a whole potpourri of things happening in the city, the progress of the war. He would talk about the best prices on vegetables.
(Soundbite of radio show)
Former Mayor LAGUARDIA: Now, we have a strange situation on cantaloupes. Our cantaloupes are very nutritious, or otherwise I wouldn't mention it.
Former Mayor KOCH: I remember in 1939, I think it probably was, when he alerted the people of New York that there would be shoe rationing.
Dr. KESSNER: Throughout his youth, LaGuardia paid a lot of attention to what was going on around him. He was very sensitive to the needs of workers. He talked about the needs of Indians, but particularly he was - he himself grew up being picked on. He was short. He had a strange name. He was foreign-born. His mother was Jewish. His father was a lapsed Catholic who turned Episcopalian.
He was an outsider on a broad range. He was marginal. And he felt that marginality. He felt vulnerable, and he felt the pains of others who were vulnerable.
Former Mayor KOCH: Fiorello LaGuardia's legacy really was the spirit of good citizenship and particularly an honest administration and one that took place during very difficult economic times, and what LaGuardia was able to do was to establish a direct link with the citizenry of New York by his contact on radio.
Former Mayor LAGUARDIA: We just have about time to read "Little Orphan Annie." Now, you know, poor little Annie the orphan is on trial for murder, and what a trial it is. All the nice society people, you know, all the nice society people that know so much about juvenile delinquency...
Mr. LANSET: These readings are what have become aural icons. I mean, aural in the sense of a-u-r-a-l. I mean, they're just the one thing that people unfailingly remember about LaGuardia.
Former Mayor LAGUARDIA: What about justice? Ha-ha, says the smug district attorney who was selected by politicians…
Dr. KESSNER: He's very animated. In fact, at one point, I did an oral history interview with one of the engineers, and he remembers, you know, when LaGuardia pounded the table, and his needles, of course, jumped, and he had to really, you know, attend to the equipment or else he'd be - the whole thing would be over-modulated because he didn't really expect the mayor to be so animated.
Former Mayor LAGUARDIA: Fearless, spigs spots(ph) and he pats himself. He says, that's me, quick just as fat. And he pats himself on the shoulder, and he says, that's me when I run for mayor.
Former Mayor KOCH: I don't even know if they have comics in newspapers anymore. I mean, they have cartoons, but I don't think they have comics to - at least certainly not to the same extent as in those earlier days. But they were very important, and the children certainly followed them. But so did adults.
Dr. KESSNER: The mayor actually, in that period, felt that he could get on the radio and serve as a kind of father to the people of the city.
Mr. LANSET: It's a remarkable record of a mayor at a time in government when it was still possible to conceive of this city, of its people, of its millions of people as part of your family and to speak to them in a - it's true that it's a patronizing voice, but it's a tender, fatherly voice. This fatherly tone is something that we don't have today. It's not something I think that most politicians could even get away with.
Former Mayor LAGUARDIA: Annie is helpless. She is just their meat. What's the moral, children? The moral is that sometimes, prejudice and hatred get into the hearts of men who have sworn to almighty God to uphold the law and to give fair and just trial to people, all people alike. Get what I mean? That's why one must have patience and fortitude.
(Soundbite of marching band)
SEABROOK: New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia reading the comics in July of 1945. That moment is preserved for all in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. Our series is produced by Ben Manila of Media Mechanics.