Old Time Radio Thursdays – #031: Destination Freedom (1948 – 1950)

The short intro: For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, Old Time Radio is the phrase generally used to refer to the time when radio was (mostly) live, and was full of a variety of different shows, as opposed to simply being a means for record labels to use robots to promote the top records of the day. Old Time Radio Thursdays is my chance to explore some of those old radio shows, their connections (both old and new) to movies, and hopefully to encourage some of the rest of you to take a look at a probably unfamiliar source of entertainment that I truly love. If you want more info on OTR, and some examples of the variety of shows that were made, be sure to check out this introductory post.

Destination FreedomSince February has been designated Black History Month, I thought it might be interesting to take a look today at an OTR show that was dedicated to exploring various people and aspects of African-American History, Destination Freedom. The show ran from 1948 to 1950, and… well, rather than reinvent the wheel, as it were, here’s information on the show from the great Times Past Old Times Radio website:

Richard Durham created Destination Freedom, a groundbreaking radio series that dramatized the struggle for civil rights in America. Destination Freedom aired on WMAQ, a Chicago radio station, on Sunday mornings from 1948 to 1950.

The premier of Destination Freedom on June 27, 1948 signaled a landmark in African American broadcasting history. Drawing on the talents of young intellectuals and entertainers including Oscar Brown Jr., Studs Terkel, Janice Kingslow, Wezlyn Tilden, Fred Pinkard and Vernon Jarrett, Durham developed scripts that captured the lives and struggles of everyday men and women as well as prominent African Americans. Unlike the typical radio fare of its time, Destination Freedom featured social dramas that eloquently appealed for racial justice. As Durham explained, “the real-life story of a single Negro in Alabama walking into a voting booth across a Ku Klux Klan line has more drama and world implications than all the stereotypes Hollywood or radio can turn out in a thousand years.” In striking contrast to the hackneyed images of blacks and as a remedy to the gross underrepresentation of blacks in radio production, Durham cast black actors in leading roles and told the stories of activists and leaders including Frederick Douglass, Toussaint L’Ouverture and Mary Church Terrell; writers and artists including Richard Wright, Katherine Dunham and Gwendolyn Brooks and cultural legends such as Stackalee and John Henry.

Richard Durham, the creator of Destination Freedom

Richard Durham, the creator of Destination Freedom

Hours of careful research at the George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library with Vivian Harsh’s assistance, close readings of autobiographies, monographs and speeches and skilled scriptwriting brought these historical and contemporary figures to life in poignant detail on Destination Freedom. Certain of the redemptive power of black history and education, Durham went beyond recounting the biographies of these figures and focused on the ways that they overcame racial injustice through resistance. Durham challenged network protocols to ensure that the series featured black women as equally important, history-making figures. The series lacked a sponsor for most of the time it aired on WMAQ, but by relying on his earlier connections, Durham persuaded the Chicago Defender to fund the first weeks of the broadcast and the Urban League sponsored several broadcasts in 1950. Despite Durham’s efforts to exercise authorial control over the series, WMAQ edited, controlled final script approval and rejected the more controversial stories of the lives of Nat Turner and Paul Robeson. Despite these conflicts, the station recognized the import and the success of the show when in 1949, it won a prestigious first-place award from the Institute for Education by Radio. On the anniversary of its first episode, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson commended the program for its efforts in increasing racial tolerance and in educating the public on the contributions of African Americans. Despite these accolades, WMAQ canceled Destination Freedom in 1950, just as the rising tide of anti-Communist conservatism began to adversely affect radio and the arts.

There’s really not much to add to that, so I’ll simply leave you today with some episodes of the show to check out for yourselves.

Next time: It’s Good versus Evil all in one man as we look at a fifty-two (yes, fifty-two) episode adaptation of…

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