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“America’s First Lady of Radio”: Mary Margaret McBride

Throughout 2019, the Library of Congress is inviting visitors to Explore America’s Changemakers through a series of exhibitions, events, and programs. Changemakers are everywhere. Everyday citizens become trailblazers and history makers, shaping America and making life better. Come discover their stories with us, and be inspired to create new stories of your own. In honor of Women’s History Month and to honor a changemaker in the world of radio broadcasting, we’re celebrating the life and work of Mary Margaret McBride (1899-1976) by featuring a significant collection in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division: the Mary Margaret McBride Collection.

Born into a farming family in Missouri in 1899, McBride was a radio sensation whose popular shows spanned over forty years and, at their peak in the 1940s and 1950s, achieved daily listeners numbering in the six to eight millions. Cynthia Lowry, a long-time friend of McBride’s, donated the collection to the Library in 1977. It includes recordings, photographs, correspondence, newspaper clippings, writings, and radio broadcast material. The photographs and recordings reside in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS), and can be accessed in the Recorded Sound Research Center. McBride’s manuscript materials can be found in the Manuscript Division Reading Room.

Portrait of Mary Margaret McBride

NBC. “[Mary Margaret McBride, head-and-shoulders portrait, left hand on cheek].” 1941. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

In her biography of McBride, Susan Ware introduces the popular radio host as the “First Lady of Radio” and one of the best interviewers radio has ever seen. McBride’s easy, friendly style made guests and listeners alike feel welcomed and at ease. McBride interviewed actors and actresses, writers, comedians, journalists, artists, thespians, filmmakers, musicians, politicians, and public figures, and while she researched her guests extensively before their arrival, each show was entirely unscripted. What followed was simply an “interesting and sincere chat between host and guest.” McBride’s background in newspaper journalism contributed greatly to her success on the air: Susan Ware writes that she “proved remarkably creative” at adapting journalistic techniques to the radio. From early in her radio career, McBride understood what her listeners wanted to hear and how they wanted to hear it, successfully presenting information and conversation in ways that were appealing and engaging. The ad-libbed, unscripted interview format that was pioneered by McBride became a popular structure for radio talk shows, and eventually television as well. McBride’s bond with her listeners was especially strong—they showed their intense loyalty in numerous ways, from sending notes and gifts and photographs to naming pets after her, buying the products advertised in the show, and creating active communities of listeners in every part of the US.

McBride’s career in radio began when she was hired by station WOR in New York in 1934 to play Martha Deane, a fictional grandmother with a family so numerous that McBride couldn’t keep track of them all. She was the first of several women to play Martha Deane, who remained popular even after McBride quit the program to start her own show. McBride’s interview programs began in 1937 with a fifteen-minute weekday talk show on CBS, and in 1941 she moved to NBC’s WEAF station for the 45-minute, Monday through Friday interview program for which she is best remembered. McBride interviewed everyone who was anyone in the 1940s and 1950s during her time on the air: Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Martin, Tennessee Williams, James Thurber, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Ed Wynn, Jimmy Durante, Mary Pickford, Billie Burke, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, Pearl Buck, Tallulah Bankhead, Omar Bradley, Dylan Thomas, Helen Hays, and Zora Neale Hurston, to name a few. Throughout her radio career, McBride continued to write articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as a dozen books including travel books and autobiographical works.

McBride’s contributions to radio broadcasting are significant for many reasons. She was one of the most popular radio hosts of the time and one of few women working in radio in that capacity. She was one of the first to create and promote daytime radio programming that went beyond the soap opera, and to prove that it was possible for daytime programming to be profitable. She maintained an extraordinary amount of creative control over the content and format of her program and pioneered the ad-libbed interview format, which went on to be a popular format for radio and television talk shows. Perhaps most significantly, she was able to speak to a generation of women who were limited to the domestic sphere in a way that showed them respect, promoted their agency, and treated them as intelligent human beings who wanted to hear more of the world than recipes and housekeeping tips. Mary Margaret McBride was without a doubt an influential changemaker in the history of American radio.

Mary Margaret McBride’s radio programs can be heard in the Recorded Sound Research Center, and can be searched for in our SONIC catalog. A finding aid for the photographs in the collection can be found here, and a finding aid for the papers in the Manuscript Division can be found here. As always, don’t hesitate to get in touch with Recorded Sound reference librarians if you want to know more about McBride and her materials at the Library.

 

Print sources and further reading on Mary Margaret McBride:

Ware, Susan. It’s One O’Clock and Here is Mary Margaret McBride: A Radio Biography. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

McBride, Mary Margaret. Out of the Air. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1960.

 

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