Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Sidebars of History: Radio, War and a Man of God

 

Modern communication covers the globe so thoroughly these days that Tinder even works in the vast wastland of Antarctica and with the proper amount of internet bandwidth it’s possible for just about anyone to produce a broadcast-acceptable audio feed from just about any place in the world.

Of course that wasn’t always the case. Just 34 years ago when ABC’s Sam Donaldson broke the news of John Hinckley Jr’s attempt on the life of President Reagan, he did it by yanking someone off their call at a phone booth across the street from the Washington Hilton.

But that was technological heaven compared to trying to cover the world in the late 1930s and into the early ’40s.

Then the only solution was shortwave radio. (Up until 1956 even transoceanic phone calls were conducted over shortwave.) And for CBS and NBC, that meant you had to have the cooperation of the state broadcasters in the country you were trying to report from. Easy from London, not so easy from Berlin.

Unless your name was Max Jordan.

Jordan was born in Germany, the son of a chemist. His father found employment with Eastman Kodak and he came to America in his youth and became a U.S. citizen.

His father would return to Europe and help Kodak establish overseas offices and the young Max traveled the world with him. Max became well versed in the politics of the Continent. He studied philosophy at university in his native land and had become fluent in German, English, French and Italian.

His journalism career began as correspondent for the Hearst newspaper chain. In 1931 he was hired by NBC to translate a speech by German President Paul von Hindenburg, a job he would perform for the network periodically as the Weimar Republic gave way to the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler. By 1935 he would leave Hearst and become NBC’s fulltime representative in Europe.

Max Jordan
Max Jordan (left) on the job (Image: NBC/Getty)

Jordan had, as they say, a face for radio. He was gangly, balding and thin. Time magazine described his looks as “cadaverous.” With his deep-set eyes he looked like a cross between Col. Klink from Hogan’s Heroes and Skeletor.

But what he lacked in style and looks he more than made up for in political skill. His ability to negotiate for the use of facilities and shortwave access in their native tongues and his sense of European protocol gave Jordan, and thus NBC, a distinct advantage over rival CBS.

This came to fruition in 1938 as Hitler began his campaign for Anschluss, the uniting of German speaking people into the Reich. When the German army rolled into Vienna in March, Jordan was given access to the city’s Broadcasting House giving an almost immediate report to American audiences while Columbia’s William L. Shirer had to fly to London and the studios of the BBC.

That fall, as France and Great Britain negotiated away Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty, Jordan got another scoop. Obtaining a copy of the paper Chamberlain would use to declare “peace in our time,” Jordan had access to the Munich studios of Deutsche Rundfunk and broadcast the details to the world while Ed Murrow waited in London for word from the Foreign Office.

He took to the air a full 46 minutes before CBS:

 

Back in New York, William Paley, the founder and CEO of CBS steamed. He was determined that his network would never be caught flatfooted again. He knew that war in Europe was inevitable and ordered Murrow to build a real team to cover the coming conflict. These hires – which would become known as “Murrow’s Boys” – included Howard K. Smith, Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood and Richard C. Hottelet and they would cement CBS as America’s news leader right through the early days of television and into the 1970′s.

Despite his Munich triumph, Jordan returned to the US at the end of 1938 and took a new position with the network as Director of Religious Programming. (Yes, Virginia, there was a time when American networks actually catered to the faithful in the audience.) The philosophy major had enough of European intrigue.

Only at the end of the war, with Allied troops driving into the heart of the Third Reich did Jordan return to Europe and to the microphone. Prior to the war he had set up NBC’s shop in Switzerland and Jordan returned there because he knew the Swiss were acting as intermediaries between Washington and Tokyo. Through his Swiss contacts he was the first reporter to learn that Emperor Hirohito had accepted his country’s fate and agreed to complete and unconditional surrender. Jordan announced that fact on NBC at 4:18 Eastern Wartime on August 14, 1945.

Jordan hung around for another two years reporting on the de-Nazification and reconstruction of postwar Germany. But then he walked away from it all and entered Erzabtei Beuron or the Beuron Archabbey, a major house of the Benedictine Order. When the world next heard from him he was Father Placid Jordan.

And the last time he was heard from was 1964. Gordon Zahn, a professor at Loyola University-Chicago wrote a book critical of the German clergy during the war, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars. Father Jordan took to the priesthood’s defense in a letter to National Review.

He died in Illgau, Switzerland on November 28, 1977 at the age of 83. While Murrow would go on to become an almost deified figure in American journalism, Max Jordan faded into obscurity serving the only Deity that mattered.

There are 24 comments.

  1. Snirtler Member

    Very interesting post, thanks!

    • #1
    • April 11, 2015, at 3:02 PM PST
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  2. Al Kennedy Member

    Fascinating story EJ. Thanks very much.

    • #2
    • April 11, 2015, at 5:59 PM PST
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  3. GrannyDude Member

    I loved this, EJ. I’ve read Shirer’s account of these times, but not about Jordan. I loved the part about him becoming a Benedictine at the end. His was a complete life—thank you for telling us about it.

    • #3
    • April 11, 2015, at 7:08 PM PST
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  4. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Post author

    Kate – One of the reasons that Jordan was forgotten is that CBS had an excellent PR staff. Beyond broadcasting they published books and magazine articles trumpeting their news department and its personalities. NBC was horrible at that kind of stuff. When historians and academics started writing about those times they leaned heavily on those CBS materials.

    • #4
    • April 11, 2015, at 7:30 PM PST
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  5. Percival Thatcher

    I’ve been listening to Ray Harris Jr.’s World War II podcast lately, and have just finished this period a few days ago. Thanks for the post, EJ.

    I still can’t believe how cavalier the Powers were with the fate of Czechoslovakia.

    You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.

    – Winston Churchill

    • #5
    • April 11, 2015, at 11:04 PM PST
    • 1 like
  6. Profile Photo Member

    Inspiring, EJ…Happy Divine Mercy Sunday!

    • #6
    • April 11, 2015, at 11:22 PM PST
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  7. Gary McVey Contributor

    This is a terrific post, EJ and it touches on so many things: patriotism, American history, media history, and a seemingly vanished world of solid character and hard work. It is no insult to the “talent”–on mike in the radio days, on camera now–to point out the obvious: without someone who knows how to get the signal out, you’ve got nothing. Setting up a single shortwave remote involved guesswork about, for example, tonight’s ionospheric conditions in the 20 meter band, booking phone lines to a central switching station, and coordinating all this with New York, London, and the field correspondent, all for what might be a gripping minute or two from Paris or Aachen. And all under wartime conditions, of course.

    Reuven Frank addressed NBC’s chronic inability to get the credit it deserved, in contrast to CBS’s ability to claim more credit than it deserved. His broadcast history, available cheap and full of details about the development of TV news infrastructure, reinforces EJ’s post: getting the picture from the correspondent to you is a vastly more difficult job than some guy somewhere yawning and throwing a switch.

    • #7
    • April 12, 2015, at 12:42 AM PST
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  8. Gary McVey Contributor

    Done via 35mm newsreel film, since no live video connection between the US and Japan was possible before Early Bird I brought us the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—

    WNBT September 9, 1945

    • #8
    • April 12, 2015, at 12:44 AM PST
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  9. Tom Meyer, Common Citizen Contributor

    That was great, E.J. Thanks!

    • #9
    • April 12, 2015, at 7:17 AM PST
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  10. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Post author

    Love that ad, Gary, on so many levels. “Television Channel One” Now that could be revived, as digital TV no longer requires actual channel indentification. It’s all “virtual” assignments so local broadcasters didn’t have to give up their analog identities.

    • #10
    • April 12, 2015, at 8:20 AM PST
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  11. Nick Stuart Inactive

    EJHill:Kate – One of the reasons that Jordan was forgotten is that CBS had an excellent PR staff. Beyond broadcasting they published books and magazine articles trumpeting their news department and its personalities. NBC was horrible at that kind of stuff. When historians and academics started writing about those times they leaned heavily on those CBS materials.

    A reading of Shirer’s The Rise And Fall of the Third Reich shows one of the ways the Nazi=right wing=conservative meme took root in the public consciousness.

    Seems more to me like Left vs. Left with the National German Socialist Worker’s Party (the Nazis) beating out the Communists.

    • #11
    • April 12, 2015, at 10:35 AM PST
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  12. Gary McVey Contributor

    I saw a muddy-looking obscure kinescope of a few minutes of NBC’s 1948 election night coverage, and the anchor is semi-apologizing that they are unable to bring us live images of Dewey’s concession speech because of technical limitations. He says something to the effect that by the next national election, they’ll be able to get those pictures, maybe from anywhere and everywhere by then. In the background. off camera crew jokingly chants “Fifty Two! Fifty Two!” It would take a little longer than that, but they had the right idea.

    Here’s a picture of Edward R. Murrow broadcasting “See It My Way Now”.

    Murrow Control room

    • #12
    • April 12, 2015, at 10:52 AM PST
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  13. Red Feline Inactive

    Thanks, EJ! Always so interesting to learn more of American history. What a clear picture you have created!

    • #13
    • April 12, 2015, at 11:32 AM PST
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  14. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Post author

    How overrated was Murrow? To get his job at CBS he submitted a résumé filled with lies. He claimed he was five years older than he was and claimed to have a Masters from Stanford (he held a BA in Speech from Washington State). He was not an objective journalist, he was a partisan, having coached Adlai Stevenson in 1952.

    He was also not above outright deceiving an audience. His albums, made with his TV producer Fred Friendly, (“Hear It Now”) are chock full of recreations and pieces and parts of broadcasts recorded years apart to give the impression of events happening in a way they did not.

    • #14
    • April 12, 2015, at 11:53 AM PST
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  15. Gary McVey Contributor

    Right on that. To this day radio history is made more difficult by the many, varied recreations that are now old enough to be accepted as real.

    • #15
    • April 12, 2015, at 12:13 PM PST
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  16. SkipSul Moderator

    The deification of Murrow lives on. On my daughter’s recent trip to DC and the Newseum (yes, it’s as self glorifying as it sounds), Murrow’s visage and voice were everywhere. They even reenacted one of his WWII broadcasts for their self-grandifying intro film on groundbreaking reporting. A few times the museum addressed bias, but only in a half hearted way.

    • #16
    • April 12, 2015, at 12:13 PM PST
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  17. Jim Kearney Contributor

    Fascinating history, thanks EJ. Back to the present and Tinder in Antarctica. We’ve seen pix of the big singles scene there. Just never realized they carried smartphones in their dinner jackets …

    PenguinsAntar

    • #17
    • April 12, 2015, at 12:19 PM PST
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  18. Jim Kearney Contributor

    Gary McVey:… To this day radio history is made more difficult by the many, varied recreations that are now old enough to be accepted as real.

    Ah yes, radio recreations, an art form unto itself, and not just for record albums.

    Before my dad became a time salesman, he worked in radio, including for Bill Stern. Recreations of “live” sports events from wire service reports were commonly accepted. There were whole kits of equipment used to recreate suitable background sounds. Stern, a master embellisher, did them with relish. Ronald Reagan did them. Even in the late 1950’s, Les Keiter recreated the baseball Giants games for New York diehards after the team moved to San Francisco. As stated above, live radio feeds were complex and expensive back in the radio days, so you made do.

    My dad told me a classic story about Bill Stern and recreations, much as it now appears on Stern’s Wikipedia page:

    • One day, while doing radio play-by-play for a football game, as a player broke away towards a long run for a touchdown, Stern misidentified the runner several times as he ran toward the goal. Noticing the error just before he crossed the goal line, Stern “corrected” himself by saying that the misidentified runner had lateraled the ball to the player who actually made the run and scored. Sometime later, Clem McCarthy, that era’s most prominent horse-racing announcer, described the wrong horse as having won a race. When the verbose and egotistical Stern chided him for this error, McCarthy replied, “You can’t lateral a horse, Bill.”

    And that’s the way it was. No, really!

    • #18
    • April 12, 2015, at 1:24 PM PST
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  19. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill Post author

    Jim Kearney:When the verbose and egotistical Stern chided him for this error, McCarthy replied, “You can’t lateral a horse, Bill.”

    That was the 1947 Preakness and I believe you left a word out of that quote. In most tellings of the story there’s a colorful epithet right before the word “horse.” It was McCarthy’s last year at NBC.

    A widower, McCarthy died in 1962. He had been in a bad auto accident in 1956 and spent his last few years in a nursing home.

    • #19
    • April 12, 2015, at 4:33 PM PST
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  20. Gary McVey Contributor

    Before the War, when DuMont broadcast wrestling out of Jamaica (near today’s JFK airport), announcer Dennis James used to add simple sound effects like snapping celery stalks to imitate a bone-snapping hold. As the spring of 1941 progressed, the radio relay signal to Manhattan kept slowly dropping. Finally DuMont engineers determined that a thick clump of trees near the Jamaica arena was directly in the line of sight, and as the leaves came back the HF faded. They mounted a metal sheet as a reflector; it worked.

    • #20
    • April 12, 2015, at 4:50 PM PST
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  21. GrannyDude Member

    Nick Stuart:

    EJHill:Kate – One of the reasons that Jordan was forgotten is that CBS had an excellent PR staff. Beyond broadcasting they published books and magazine articles trumpeting their news department and its personalities. NBC was horrible at that kind of stuff. When historians and academics started writing about those times they leaned heavily on those CBS materials.

    A reading of Shirer’s The Rise And Fall of the Third Reich shows one of the ways the Nazi=right wing=conservative meme took root in the public consciousness.

    Seems more to me like Left vs. Left with the National German Socialist Worker’s Party (the Nazis) beating out the Communists.

    I’ve been reading a lot about the era—Hitler hated the communists (killed the communists, and thought the Jews were behind communism, also Free Masonry) but he definitely wasn’t a free market capitalist. The conservatives of his day backed him because he wasn’t a communist, not because he was one of them. I think you’re right—he wasn’t a “right winger” but he wasn’t really “left” in a way we would recognize either. Right from the beginning, his political ideas were so taken up with aggression and war, and once in power, he put the economy on what amounted to a war footing so quickly and, of course, kept it there once the war began. It’s hard to even imagine Hitler governing Germany as peaceful country, with normal ideas about the relationship between taxes and services, say. I think he was beyond the ordinary political categories available to Shirer at the time, and even to us today.

    • #21
    • April 12, 2015, at 6:37 PM PST
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  22. George Savage Contributor

    EJ, many thanks for the history lesson. Great post.

    • #22
    • April 12, 2015, at 8:18 PM PST
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  23. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    Murrow is certainly deified at WSU. They still have a very fine Broadcasting program there.

    • #23
    • April 12, 2015, at 9:38 PM PST
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  24. commonsensei Inactive

    Fantastic post – great read!

    • #24
    • April 13, 2015, at 8:11 AM PST
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