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John Hersey’s ‘Hiroshima’ On the Air: The Story of the 1946 Radio Production

The following is a guest post by David Jackson, Archivist, Bob Hope Collection, and Matt Barton, Curator, Recorded Sound.

“This chronicle of suffering and destruction is not presented in defense of an enemy. It is broadcast as a warning that what happened to the people of Hiroshima, a year ago, could next happen anywhere.” So began one of radio’s most unusual and powerful broadcasts: a series of four thirty minute commercial-free programs heard on consecutive weeknights in September of 1946 that serialized journalist John Hersey’s 31,000 word account of the experiences of six survivors of the Hiroshima atom bomb, published only two weeks earlier in the New Yorker magazine.

Portrait of John Hersey, 1958. Carl Van Vechten Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/van.5a52104

Portrait of John Hersey, 1958. Carl Van Vechten Collection. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/van.5a52104

Hersey’s report ran the length of the entire issue. Though the cover featured a bright summer scene and the usual advertisements ran, none of the magazine’s trademark cartoons appeared, and Hersey’s text began directly under the New Yorker’s cheerfully iconic “The Talk of the Town” logo on the opening page.

It hit newsstands on Wednesday, August 28th, and became a national sensation. Within days, thirty American and five British newspapers were serializing the work. When published in book form that Fall, it became a Book-Of-The-Month selection. The ABC Radio Network’s director of public service, Robert Saudek, approached the New Yorker about a radio adaptation almost as soon as he finished the issue, pledging that it would be “done straight,” and with Hersey’s approval, set about editing the text into four half-hour scripts, cutting approximately 9,000 words from his original 31,000 over the Labor Day weekend.

ABC Hiroshima disc, 1946. Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress.

ABC Hiroshima disc, 1946. Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress.

Six actors were hired to read the four chapters, with each actor telling the story of one of the survivors. No additional production in the form of music or effects was added, and even the names of the cast were left unmentioned until the close of the last broadcast, so that the listening audience would devote its attention entirely to the seriousness of the subject without distraction. Journalist George Hicks, well known for his dramatic D-Day broadcasts, served as announcer.

One of the actors, Joseph Julian, had actually been to Hiroshima as part of a special Red Cross radio unit, a job that Saudek had helped him secure. There he interviewed Japanese-born, US-educated Methodist minister Kiyoshi Tanimoto, later one of Hersey’s subjects. Appropriately, Julian was given Tanimoto’s story to read.

The programs aired for four nights at 9:30 pm starting on Monday, September 9th. Reaction was strong and positive, and the straightforward, non-theatrical approach was singled out for praise, with Saudek and ABC eventually receiving a Peabody Award. “[The cast] rose to the demands of the script,” declared Variety. “They read—they did not act. They let Hersey’s fine sense of the dramatic in prose come through in purity. And by so doing, they show how great radio can be when it’s understood and handled with intelligence.” Similar radio readings soon followed on the BBC and Canada’s CBC.

After leaving ABC, Saudek collaborated with the Ford Foundation to produce the landmark cultural program Omnibus for network television, and was involved in the early years of PBS. In 1974 he became the founding head of the Museum of Broadcasting, now the Paley Center for Media, and later became chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound (MBRS) Division at the Library of Congress.  Saudek’s collection now resides at the Library of Congress, where a copy of this program recorded on a dozen 12-inch lacquer discs has been digitally preserved by the Recording Laboratory and can be listened to in the Recorded Sound Research Center.

Hiroshima Report, September 9-12, 1946 (9:30 pm)

  • Director: Charles Harrell
  • Announcer: George Hicks
  • Cast: Joan Alexander, Raymond Edward Johnson, Joseph Julian, Anne Seymour, Everett Sloane, Karl Swenson

The full text of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” as first published in the New Yorker magazine, can be read here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1946/08/31/hiroshima.

 

SOURCES:

Julian, Joseph (1975). This Was Radio: A Personal Memoir. New York, the Viking Press, 1975

Broadcasting/Telecasting; “ABC Airs Hersey Hiroshima Story,” September 16, 1946

Variety: “ABC’s Sock But Humble Airing Of ‘Hiroshima’ Gives Radio New Stature,” September 11, 1946

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