Monday, March 22, 2010

Farmer Brown's Boy and the Founding of the Radio Nature League

Thornton Burgess was a radio pioneer. His "Radio Nature League," which began in January 1925, was not only one of the first nature-oriented programs in the history of broadcasting, it was one of the first real radio programs period. I have been fortunate to find full scripts of nearly all of the programs in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University and I am nearly done with the basic overview work. HGARC puts some restrictions on the use of their materials, so won't be able to quote as freely in the blog as I might (pending formal approval) in a publication, nevertheless, I can provide some basic factual information here. Marcel LaFollette's Science on the Air and Burgess's autobiography are the only published sources of information about the Radio Nature League of which I am aware.

Burgess was first invited to the studios of WBZ in 1924 to read his stories. In November of that year, he was given extra time to talk directly to his audience about nature. Here's an excerpt from a story in the Syracuse Herald (11/16/1924) announcing this move:
Thornton W. Burgess, nationally-renowned writer of stories for children, Syracuse Herald special writer, and a naturalist of recognition, contends that for the sake of truth, a group of theories about wild animals ought to be exploded...He has already given one talk on wolves in which his experiences in desolate open countries of the far North were recounted and many interesting comments about the wolf, who is supposed to be a treacherous animal, were passed by the naturalist.
Note the very early emphasis on (scientific) truth as well as a sympathy for predators that was yet to emerge in the conservation world generally.

On December 3, 1924, who should show up at the studio but Farmer Brown's Boy himself. Burgess writes about this in his autobiography:
Knowing that a large part of my unseen audience was of children, it occurred to me to try to give them a thrill. The one human character in my stories who was familiar to children everywhere was Farmer Brown's Boy. I had had many letters asking where he lived, what his name was, how old he was, etc. I found a boy of the right age who was not too self-conscious and wrote his part into the script. p. 304
Burgess introduces the show as usual and then pretends to be interrupted.
"I must ask you to excuse me for a moment. Someone wants to talk to me."
"Hello Mr. Burgess!"
"Well, well, well, see who's here! It is Farmer Brown's Boy! What do you want, laddie?"
"I want to know what is the largest animal in the world."p. 304
Burgess provides the answer to this (blue whale), and also the answer to a follow-up question about the smallest animal (common shrew), and then poses a math problem to FBB and his listeners: "How many shrews would it take to equal one whale." Burgess has decided that audience interaction will be as important to his radio program as it had been in his bedtime story and Green Meadow clubs. He invites answers to his math problem and also invites listeners to write with topics of their own. Farmer Brown's Boy is praised, not chided, for his interruption: "I like boys and girls who are full of questions because I know that they are trying to learn."(TWB collection, HGARC)

On December 31, 1924, Farmer Brown's Boy returned with a proposal. Why not start a radio nature league? [Here there is a critical gap in the HGARC collection. I haven't read this script, and only have a short reference to it in the script from the following week. It appears TWB also solicited feedback about the idea from his listeners.]

On January 7, 1925, Burgess reported about the great response to Farmer Brown's Boy's idea and made a formal proposal that laid the foundation for the Radio Nature League (TWB liked the word "league" better than "club" because it suggested people joined together for a common cause.) First, the mission of the club would be:
To do everything possible for the preservation and conservation of our desirable American wild life, including birds, animals, flowers, trees, and other living things and also of the natural beauty spots and scenic wonders of America.
This would become boilerplate, appearing as the heading of a weekly newspaper feature based on the radio program and referenced by Burgess periodically on the radio program itself. (It appears that the word "desirable" was an afterthought, judging by the mark-up on the original script.)

Second, membership would be free (at least initially) and could be secured by sending written agreement with the purposes of the league, along with name, age, and address to WBZ. The first person to join from a state (or Canadian province) outside of Massachusetts would be a "charter" member and would have his/her name announced on the air.

Burgess directly asked for 1000 members by the following week (it would make a nice birthday present for him). He would get twice that many. By the end of the program's first run in 1930, Burgess would claim a membership of 50,000.

Next: Radio Nature League prehistory

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