(Photo courtesy the Archival Photographic Files, apf3-02381, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago.)

Fighting fair

A look back at a more civil discourse, on a University-broadcast radio forerunner to Sunday morning talk shows.

From 1934 to 1955, the University of Chicago radio program Round Table provided a forum for genteel political discourse. Broadcast live from Mitchell Tower and syndicated nationwide on NBC radio, the weekly program embraced provocative topics—atomic warfare, McCarthyism, civil rights. Yet whether guests were University faculty, politicians, or public figures, cordiality prevailed. "In one way Round Table is the forerunner of Sunday morning TV talk shows," says Harper fellow and collegiate assistant professor in the humanities Neil Verma, AM'04, PhD'08, "but in another way, it's an anomaly: an intellectual program in an anti-intellectual nation; a consensus-based show in a medium known for acrimony." Reading program transcripts housed in the Regenstein Library, Verma, author of Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics and American Radio Drama (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming), was struck by the dearth of "gotcha" moments. Instead of a face-off between two speakers, the show gathered three guests around an omnidirectional microphone to consider issues from multiple dimensions : "This was a deliberate production decision to create an acoustic environment in which no one person is louder than another." In a 1953 broadcast, for example, John Kenneth Galbraith cheerfully sparred with Milton Friedman, AM'33. Although their differences were clear, the economists tried to drive toward consensus, concluding, "We are agreed that [capitalism] has shown a great advance in the economic well-being of the people of America."