McCardell in Broadcastland

A month after the program aired, Lee McCardell wrote a story for the Evening Sun detailing the effort that went into the production. (Baltimore Sun file photo / November 20, 2013)

(Originally published January 25, 1944)

Lee McCardell, who is now in Italy covering war activities in that theater for the Sunpapers, is not only an able reporter and writer – he is also one of the world’s greatest worriers.

McCardell was the main “arranger” of details on the British end of the Sunpapers’ Christmas broadcast, which brought the voices of many servicemen and some Red Cross women from Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania across the Atlantic for holiday greetings. 

Just before he left Britain for Algiers, McCardell wrote to his colleagues on this side of the Atlantic about his activities up to and including Christmas Day. His letter, received a few days ago and dated December 29, is offered here as a good description of what a reporter contends with in “arranging” coverage of a specific event in wartime. The letter follows: 

Price Day (Sunpapers war correspondent) is here – arrived Sunday. For the last three days, I’ve been briefing him on the USAAF in Britain, and within the next few days he’ll take over my old beat. Tom (Thomas M. O’Neill, head of The Sun’s London Bureau) is throwing off another of his persistent colds. I saw Bradley (Holbrook Bradley, Sunpapers war correspondent), just up from the country and he seemed to be okay. I’m gradually recovering and, if all goes well, will be filing under a new date line soon.

“That broadcast . . .! Price tells me that even before he left you had had your tough moments. And as the deadline approached I can well imagine you had some more.

“We Sweated – And How”

“But we sweated it out over here, too; AND HOW! If I ever write a book it will be about that broadcast, with several chapters devoted to British Broadcasting Co. Of course, I may have it all wrong – that is, I may have taken the assignment too seriously. And you may not be interested to hear about it, or at least about our end of it. But just in case you are, here’s my part of the story: 

“Without having the slightest idea as to what I was letting myself in for, I suggested some sort of a Christmas radio broadcast back to the States when Mr. Patterson (Paul Patterson, president of the A. S. Abell Co.) was over here last summer. I didn’t hear anything more of it until some time after he had gone home, and the office cabled me about our booking.

“I went round to the radio section of the public relations office at the European Theater of Operations, talked to the section chief and was assured that nothing could be simpler. He also gave me to understand that his office would do that work. Knowing the army, I didn’t believe him, but I did think he might be helpful later on. I also talked to Bob Vining (Commander Robert Vining, then navel press chief in London), the Red Cross and various other people. It didn’t look like a particularly tough assignment.

About the BBC

“Our woes began when we made our first contact with the BBC. Like all British organizations, the BBC likes to write letters. It hates to telephone. It never cables, as far as I know. The BBC never says ‘It can be done’ or ‘It can’t be done.’ Instead, it says, ‘Oh, something terrible has happened! But we might be able to straighten it out.’

“As you know, the hour was booked by The Sun through the A.T. & T. The A.T. & T. contracted with the British General Postoffice for the actual transmission. The British General Postoffice arranged with the BBC for the actual pickup of the program over here. And the BBC is the baby with whom I had most of my misdealings.

“Beginning the first of October, or shortly thereafter, I received weekly telephone calls from the BBC – they did telephone me occasionally – telling me that something had gone wrong with previous arrangements. 

“To begin with, they got the time screwed up, 1649-1749 (12:49 to 1:49 Eastern War Time) instead of 1645-1745. I finally straightened that out through the General Postoffice. 

Change And Change Again

“Then they came through with a plea to have our booking shifted fifteen minutes in deference to considerations of ‘high policy’ involved in a two-way block booking. You heard faint echoes of these troubles in certain plaintive cables which I sent back to the office. Then the BBC changed its mind, withdrew its request. By that time they had the hour screwed up again – back to 1649-1749. And it was not until early in December that we finally got the program nailed down for the proper hour.

“I might say that I had most of my dealings with the BBC through an ‘American division,’ which delegated our particular broadcast problems to a Mr. F--. He was not a man who inspired me with confidence. I suspected he was head doorman at an ice plant before he went into radio work.

“My contacts with the General Postoffice were through a Mr. . . I forget his name. He slipped into the office one day like a bill collector. I remember that he was a little man who carried an umbrella. Once he wrote me a letter. Perhaps I have both of these gentlemen wrong. Perhaps they are highly efficient in their own offices. But they are not what we would call ‘heavy’ men.

“Meanwhile, the army had advised me not to attempt to work up the program until the first of December – sound advice which wasn’t altogether necessary, because we didn’t know where anybody would be on Christmas Day.