TO LEARNING: Radio’s Obscure Intellectual Panel Program
Martin Grams, Jr.
In 1940, a new invitation to learning was on the air.
Dr. Stringfellow Barr, president of St. John’s College at
Annapolis, Maryland, extended the bid to those who would listen to
learn on Sunday afternoons. Pointing
out that for more than 2,000 years Western civilization had drawn
sustenance from liberal education, he took to the wave-lengths on a
coast-to-coast network of more than eighty stations. By exploring classic literature, which gave “cultural
background to the nation’s founders,” as Dr. Barr explained, he
aimed to strike a new keynote in liberal education by radio.
Good books were his forte in expediting the transformation of
intellectual powers into intellectual habits.
“This is a broadcast to provoke good reading and thinking,” said
Dr. Barr. “We believe
that the best way to encourage a listener to read a book is to let him
hear other people, who have read it, discuss it.
Through their divergent opinions the radio listener may be
stirred to read and see for himself with whom he agrees.”
First, confessing that he never was so scared as during the opening
broadcast in May of 1940, Dr. Barr turned from his diagnosis of
microphone fright to explain his formula of broadcasting.
It was vital, he contended, that conversation be sharp and
witty, but not superficially so.
To maintain a fast, fresh and spontaneous pace, no script was
prepared in advance. Comment
was born at the moment, and arguments were followed like a football as
Dr. Barr and his ethereal team pounced upon ideas and opinions that
kindled debate. The
program was not rehearsed; only the aspects of the book upon which the
program hinged were reviewed at luncheon, prior to the broadcast.
“We guard against speechmaking,” continued Dr. Barr.
“Our discussion is sharp-edged by short sentences; its
Platonio dialogue, light but interesting.
Books are selected because they are good, not because they are
old or new. Nevertheless,
we find that many an aged book applies to the present.
For example, Plato’s Republic
brings up the questions of censorship and war.
Every best seller that has survived as such for a hundred years
or more possesses contemporary relevance.
That’s why they live on.”
Dr. Barr revealed that he was one broadcaster among the many who did
not worry about the size of his unseen audience.
Six or six hundred, six thousand or six million, it didn’t
matter, as long as some who listen “get light on things when they
reflect; that the flash of inward light they get is intellectual
light.” He believed
that much was to be gained by setting a standard for a broadcast, and
then holding to it for the benefit of the few or the many who may
listen to learn.
As founding chairman of the program, Dr. Barr sought to make the
“show” entertaining as well as informative through an exchange of
ideas among three or four guests he invited to join him around the
microphone; they were lawyers, Senators, professors, industrialists,
financiers, preachers, Army officers, poets or sailors.
Their rereading of classic literature and the contagion they
passed on through the air to others to reread, it was believed, would
help modern man better to understand the power behind America’s
basic traditions and how they could be kept alive.
By inviting an open exchange of opinion, fashioned on the radio, in
accordance with the method adopted to foster liberal education at St.
John’s, Dr. Barr also based his ethereal curriculum on one hundred
great books from Homer to the present.
It was his belief that study of the masterpieces of literature,
plus languages, science and mathematics, made for better equipped
citizens than the average college curriculum.
That was the plan he followed at St. John’s; that was the
plan he attempted to adapt to broadcast teaching.
A great book, he asserted, was one read by the greatest number of
people from age to age; it was one with the largest number of possible
interpretations and significances; it raised questions about the great
themes in human thought, and it must be a masterpiece of the liberal
arts. Such was Dr.
His idea for Invitation to
Learning was born from the belief that in the dark hour when the
American philosophy of life was seriously being challenged
(America’s present involvement in WWII was knocking closer to our
back door), it would be well to read or reread the books that formed
the ideas of the founding fathers.
The program, therefore, intended to examine the intellectual
sources of freedom, to offer to Americans a guide to the libraries of
the architects of destiny.
Dr. Barr went on to point out that it was estimated that in 3,000
years Homer’s Iliad had
been read by more than 25,000,000 people.
How many radio listeners might listen to an Iliad broadcast? Wouldn’t
it be too classic, too high brow for the multitudes? Again he answered that he didn’t care how many listened.
His chief concern was that, among those who did listen,
thinking was provoked, discipline and intellectual powers awakened.
It was obvious, he added, that “true learning cannot go on in
through the broadcast of books, he hoped listeners would “hear great
The variety and scope of the “classics” discussed ranged from
religion, philosophy, history, ethics, poetry – and so on.
The July 7, 1940 broadcast introduced listeners to The
Federalist Papers, a series of eighty-five essays in which James
Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton explained and recommended the
adoption of the Constitution. The
August 12, 1940 broadcast described The
Confessions of St. Augustine, a great saint, biographer and
psychologist who recorded the subtle transformation involved in a
conversation from paganism to Christianity.
The prospectus pointed out that these programs, for the latter part,
were organized primarily on the individual’s tragic necessity to
come to terms both with society and with himself.
The time slot changed constantly during the first season.
Although best remembered as a Sunday morning/afternoon program,
the Invitation was heard for
about six months on Tuesday evenings, during the first half of 1941.
The reasons for moving the series back to Sundays in June of
1941 is not known, but the program was never heard on any other day of
the week. It could be
that the largest listening audience possible could be gained on Sunday
afternoons, when many businesses were closed (and it’s historically
known that many of the highest-rated programs on the major networks
are Sunday vehicles).
Invitations to learning became an everyday affair with the ancient
Greeks, who held banquets and parties as an excuse for dissertations
on literature, philosophy and the arts.
Of the 67 broadcasts aired during the first season, one third
of the discussions was routed in Greek literature (of Roman history).
One third were of historical documentation (i.e. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) and a dozen
autobiographies, again of historical significance, were topics of the
By late 1941, Invitation was
the only network sustaining program that successfully brought out the
drama that existed in the disinterested play of ideas.
It has done so by getting articulate thinkers to talk
spontaneously about a great work of literature.
The principle of the thing, as expressed by a CBS adviser:
“While we are planning to defend our civilization we should not fail
to keep it alive . . .” A
great feat accomplished when most considered the program generally as
a hazardous and impractical experiment.
But when the first season ended, over two million people were
members of the unseen audience, and it was estimated – according to The New York Times – that the sale of the books discussed, had
gone up as much as 50 or 60 per cent in the leading bookstores of the
Telephone and door-to-door surveys conducted in late 1941
revealed that the series was gaining listeners slowly but
broadcasters know that a steady, slow climb upward in program
popularity is far more valuable than an irregular graph revealing
peaks and valleys. And the fan mail – considered a thing of the past in radio,
except where a free premium offer was used as the bait – was quite a
heavy. Best of all, every
letter was further proof of the important part of the series was
playing in making people read and reread the great books of the past.
Discussing a book on the air is merely the first objective in
the network’s program plan. More
important is the fact that such programs made the listener think for
This unusual program had an unusual studio – the famous Blue Room
of CBS in New York – and it differed from usual studios not only in
that it had windows, but it was furnished and decorated as an elegant
living room – usually used for mass press interviews and receptions
for famous guests. However,
when Invitation to Learning took to the air from this party room, there
was very little of the party about it.
An hour before the program went on the air, the three speakers
/ guests, gathered in any convenient nearby studio for an advance
warm-up period. Here,
they told each other what they liked and disliked about the book and
author up for discussion. There
were no scripts in this series; hence it is essential to capture the
right atmosphere for the actual broadcast.
The moderator, (who had no exact title but who may be called
referee, umpire, chairman, or interlocutor), helped to chart a course
for debate and discussion for the ensuing air session.
No attempt was made to tell each speaker what to say, but
rather to outline topical approach to the discussions.
Each participant was pledged to read the featured book during the
week before each broadcast. Regardless
of his knowledge of the work or the number of times he may have
re-read it, he was asked to read it again. How well this worked out may be judged from their comments on
each work, the author, and the book’s acceptance through the years
or ages. Participants
were permitted to bring notes and even the books themselves for
quotation purposes, but these are rarely referred to, most of the
remarks being drawn from their mental thesauri.
Every program was supposed to end with a quotation.
Hence, each of the three men was required to select what he
thought was the most representative passage.
The moderator decided on the best one during the preliminary
warming up period; the speaker suggesting it, was asked to read it at
the specified time. This
was the only portion of the program that might be called
“prepared.” In such
script forms are these episodes in existence at the University of
Maryland, spanning the years of 1951 to 1953.
The series caught the public’s fancy after almost a year during
which CBS executives good-naturedly commented, “We’re broadcasting
thirty minutes of silence” or “Yours is the only program that uses
a lorgnette instead of a microphone.”
But they found it difficult since to conceal their
satisfaction. Sex and
love in the broadcaster’s book are topics generally calling for
sotto voce discussion – if discussed at Vanity
Fair, Madame Bovary, Francois Villon,
and Oedipus Rex showed that
a technique exists in which hitherto tabooed topics can be dealt with
frankly and honestly – and without stepping on anyone’s toes.
Since its start in 1940, the low-rated program (CBS Radio once
labeled it “our 69th most popular show”) ranged over
most of the world’s significant literature – as far back as Homer
(The Iliad and The Odyssey)
and as recent as Dwight Eisenhower (Crusade
in Europe). It has
had on board as talkers everyone from A to Z – poet W.H. Auden to
psychiatrist Gregory Zilboorg. On
the unsponsored show, Herbert Hoover discussed Walton’s The
Compleat Angler and Communist Earl Browder, Marx’s Communist Manifesto; sportswriter Red Smith talked about De Quincey,
and sportscaster Red Barber about the Psalms.
There was even one show in which Clifton Fadiman spent a
half-hour with Mother Goose.
Sadly, there has been, all along, a curious lack of cross reference
in literary reviews and magazines, as if this on-the-spot attempt to
keep alive the best of earlier cultures, the earmarks of them let us
say, was not quite valid or respectable since it was done through a
popular medium that is one of the essential earmarks of our own
century. Invitation to Learning
was not by any means a perfect instrument, but it was an illuminating
adventure and an attempt to give value to human reality in “real
towns and on real land under weather and time.”
Martin Grams, Jr. is the
author of numerous OTR books, including the documentary Invitation
to Learning, (which has recently been published under a limited
material and excerpts from the book was reprinted courtesy of the