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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

America’s Town Meeting of the Air


America’s Town Meeting of the Air was a public affairs discussion broadcast on radio from 1935 to 1956. One of radio's first talk shows, it began as a six-week experiment, and NBC didn't expect much from it.

Broadcast live from New York City's Town Hall, America's Town Meeting of the Air debuted on Thursday May 30, 1935, and only 18 of NBC's affiliates carried it. ("George V. Denny," 1959) The topic for that first show was "Which Way America: Fascism, Communism, Socialism or Democracy?” (Overstreet, 15) The moderator was George V. Denny Jr., who was the Executive Director of the organization that produced the show, the League for Political Education. He would remain the show's moderator from 1935 to 1952, and play a major role in choosing the weekly topics. Denny and the League wanted to create a program that would replicate the Town Meetings that were held in the early days of the United States. ("Boston Symphony," 1936)tings that were held in the early days of the United States. ("Boston Symphony," 1936)

The show's introduction tried to evoke the old town meetings, as the voice of the mythical town crier announced, “Town meeting tonight! Come to the old Town Hall and talk it over!” Denny and the League believed that a radio town meeting could enhance the public's interest in current events. Denny worried that an uninformed public was bad for democracy (Overstreet, 6); and he believed society had become so polarized that the average person didn't listen to other points of view. (Hilmes, 46-7) His goal was to create a new kind of educational program, one that would be entertaining as well as mentally challenging, while exposing listeners to various perspectives on the issues of the day. Explaining the rationale behind a radio town meeting, Denny wrote that it was "... a device which is designed to attract [the average American's] attention and stimulate his [sic] interest in the complex economic, social and political problems which he must have a hand in solving." (Denny, 377)

Over the years, America's Town Meeting became known for its interesting guests, many of whom were important news makers. Denny did not shy away from controversy: his panelists included Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas, American Communist Party leader Earl Browder, and civil libertarian Morris Ernst. But there were also guests from the world of literature (author Pearl Buck, poets Carl Sandburg and Langston Hughes) and a number of famous scientists, politicians, journalists, and public intellectuals.

The topics were meant to inspire discussion, and Denny tried to select subjects that would get people talking long after the show was over. Among them were discussions about whether America truly had freedom of the press (and whether censorship was sometimes necessary) ; whether the United States should enter World War II or remain neutral; and why the United States public schools weren't doing a better job. ("Schools Are Urged," 1936; Hilmes, 51) But during World War II, Denny repeatedly encountered what he had most sought to avoid: angry audience members who didn't want to listen to other viewpoints and who wanted to criticize, rather than debate. Worse still, some audience members expressed isolationist and anti-Semitic views. Denny struggled to maintain the show's openness and objectivity, but it became increasingly difficult to do so.

America’s Town Meeting of the Air.zip


  1. Hi Robert, I'm looking for a particular America's Town Meeting of the air episode from Apr 15, 1956, "Why the
    Excitement About Bridey Murphy?" I don't see it here...do you have any idea how I could get in touch with Rusty Nail or someone else who could direct me to a larger archive of this program?

    1. That is all I know of in circulation around the OTR community. Perhaps someone else can respond.



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References: Old Time Radio Researchers Group, Wikipedia, Frank Passage & Others OTR Logs, Archive.org, Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio by John Dunning, Australian Old Time Radio Group

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