The March of Time set an oft-imitated standard for conveying world news, and there's evidence that the public enjoyed the kind of news they delivered. In a July 1939 Kansas State College poll, for example, "95 percent of those surveyed preferred dramatized news in The March of Time style to 'straightforward reporting,'" radio historian Robert K. Brown has reported.1 If the public was so willing to identify dramatized news with The March of Time, and most preferred Time's delivery, it seems likely that the brand strongly influenced those who listened.
"By recasting otherwise complex issues of the day into 'more hearthside drama,' March of Time programs increased public interest and understanding in a way that is difficult to overstate. According to J. Fred MacDonald, by adding 'theatricality and educative value to the reporting of the news, [the program] helped emphasize the importance of matters that needed to be considered by an informed citizenry.'"2
Although the March of Time radio program offered listeners more eclectic content in part because of its shorter segments, its tone was similar to that of the films. The March of Time emphasized what it meant to be American, or often, what Americans weren't: Americans were not Nazis, they were not fascists, and they were not (as they saw it) like the war-mongering Japanese. American values included freedom of speech, individuality, freedom of religion, and freedom to assemble, among others.
But how many listened to the radio show? It seems possible the radio reached a different audience than the films, which were seen widely because they preceded other full-length features. A 1939 Fortune survey showed that 63.8 percent of the population claimed newspapers were their primary source of news, with radio coming in at 25.4 percent.3 In his 1948 study of radio news, Mitchell Charnley suggests that the lower a person's economic or "cultural level," or the younger he is, the more likely he is to depend on radio for news.4 The upper classes or more educated Americans still depended on newspapers. (Between these two time periods, radio news received much more attention because of its speed during the war; by 1945 the numbers had almost reversed from the 1939 poll. Sixty-one percent got most news from radio. By 1947 this number dropped back to 44 percent.5) While the radio audience is hard to quantify, as many as 26 million saw each March of Time film in its heyday during the 1930s. The sheer number of advertisements for the films suggest it was much more influential (at least among a desirable demographic) than the radio show.
The March of Time's ad campaigns for its films in trade magazines emphasized their popularity among viewers:
Continue to Propaganda or News? Censoring Time
1 Brown, Robert J. Manipulating the Ether: The Power of Broadcast Radio in Thirties America. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Company, Inc. 1998: 152.
3 Charnley, Mitchell V. News by Radio. New York: The Macmillan Company. 1948: 50.
4 Charnley, 49.
4 Charnley, 50.