The March Toward War: The <em>March of Time</em> as Document and Propaganda
Introduction The Time Empire MOT as Document Marching into War Voice of Conscience Timeline/Index
March of Time as Document
Defining the Radio Show
Form and Function: Radio
Defining the Films
Form and Function: Films
Public Opinion
Censoring Time
Quiz: Spot the Fake!
 Westbrook Van Voorhis

Defining the Radio Show

With its pedigree of drama and journalism, what exactly, was the March of Time?

"Listeners say it is the most vivid, the most real, the most significant program on the air. Radio experts call it the finest piece of out-and-out radio production on the air today. In addition to its great audience popularity, it is a 'showman's show' if there ever was one."1

—Tom Carskadon, Tower Radio, January 1935; Read the entire article...

Von Zell
Above, film staff work on last-minute script changes.

The March of Time radio show created dramatic retellings or re-imaginings of true events, much in the way Depression-era photographers sometimes posed their subjects—a poor family, or their pointedly meager belongings, for example—but managed to convey some human truth nonetheless. William Stott offers a definition for a "human document": "A document, when human, is the opposite of the official kind; it is not objective but thoroughly personal. Far from being dispassionate, it may be 'a document that is shattering in its impact and infinitely moving.'"2 The radio show, more than the newsreel, was able to convey the human, the personal, although not usually using an objective means. One March 24, 1938 radio show describing the effects of bombing civilians in Spain offers a potent example. A fictional witness describes a bus driver blown from his seat by the bomb's impact, although his dismembered hands are still clutched to the wheel. In recovering casualties, a "witness" describes, workers pick up the injured first, then tag corpses and dismembered parts. There was so much blood they had to hose down the streets. The segment begins with a mother and child on their way home from shopping. The mother orders her wandering child closer, an actor playing her later recounts, but it was too late: "My Juanita just disappeared before my eyes." Play audio

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Even as it could dramatize the frailest human moment, The March of Time radio show also gave weight to the silliest, including Mussolini's eight-year-old son's demands to go to war; Mussolini holding a party for mothers who have born the most Italian babies; and Hitler's desire for a female American tap dancer. Yet even the silliest, least factual elements of March of Time may reveal more than at first glance. In the case of Mussolini's son, The March of Time may be implying that Italy in general is war-hungry, and Il Duce egotistical in his taste for conquest; rewarding mothers for having many babies is also a way to build a future army; and Hitler's failure to fulfill his crush with a wholesome American shows he is human and defeatable, not noble or god-like as he had claimed. Americans could conquer him in that regard, the clip suggests. (see Humanizing Dictators)

But how do we know what is real and what isn't in The March of Time's radio show? Historian Raymond Fielding notes that "great care was taken to secure transcripts of authentic statements and comments of the celebrities who were impersonated on the program. In those cases in which these could not be obtained, writers were given the dramatic license to contrive and 're-create' such dialogue as seemed appropriate to the characters and situation." It's likely that the man on the street stories of Spain were created by March of Time writers, but also likely based in factual reporting. March of Time broadcasts were taken so seriously by some that the White House regularly complained about its imitations of President Roosevelt, who was annoyed because he "was getting calls and notes from political advisers regarding statements and remarks [made by the impersonator]. These statements reflected Roosevelt 's policies, but, in fact, had never been uttered by the President."3 (The fact that Roosevelt or his handlers had banned imitation of himself was reported by trade magazines.)

The radio show may be more closely related to the radio soap operas or dramas in its style of delivery, but its format may have made news more palatable and understandable to its audience. Robert J. Brown noted that a July 1939 Kansas State College poll found that 95 percent of those surveyed preferred "dramatized news in the March of Time style" to straight-forward reporting.4 The March of Time's radio format offered flexibility in reporting news, and that flexibility meant in some cases that reports would have a point of view. Listeners could agree or disagree with it, but it likely made the news more accessible to those less interested in "straight" news.

1 Carskadon, Tom. "Time Marches On." Tower Radio. January 1935: 24.

2 Stott, William. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. London: Oxford U. Press, 1973. 7.

3 Fielding, Raymond. The March of Time, 1935-1951. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. 15.

4 Brown, Robert J. Manipulating the Ether: The Power of Broadcast Radio in Thirties America. Jefferson, North Carolina, and London: 1998. 152.