This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio and Freedom,
by Sonja D. Williams, Univ of Illinois Press (2015)
Reviewed by Ryan Ellett © 2016
(From Radio Recall, August 2016)
Sonja Williams' 2015 biography of African-American writer Richard Durham (christened Isadore Durham at birth) is a must-read for any radio enthusiast interested not just in Durham's programs (notably Destination Freedom) but in the political and racial dynamics of his work in an industry that was, at best, indifferent to the lives of its black listeners.
Williams gained unprecedented access to Durham's family members and personal photos and documents that provide a rare look at Durham's personal and professional relationships and how they influenced his writing. Combined with documents from over two-dozen archives and special collections, this is surely the most in depth work of Durham's life that will ever be published.
While the overall scope of Durham's radio work has been summarized before, including by this reviewer, Word Warrior unearths behind-the-scenes discussions, arguments, and concessions that went in to bringing his three series to the air. Both Durham's first and third series, Democracy USA and Destination Freedom respectively, required considerable maneuvering by NBC and those pushing to bring the programs to the air. Corporate executives continually strove to minimize the political fallout of stories featuring strong and outspoken African-Americans in an era of formal and informal segregation.
Durham, his cast, and his advocates within NBC's Chicago studios just as continually pushed to make the series reflect the history of black oppression and the ongoing harsh realities of black life. His middle series, the black soap opera Here Comes Tomorrow, proved less controversial.
My one reservation about this thoroughly researched volume is a couple statements of radio authorship that are dubious. Williams credits Durham with selling some freelance scripts to the producers of The Lone Ranger in 1943 and later providing scripts for Ma Perkins and Suspense. All of these claims are derived from interviews Durham gave over the years but in the case of The Lone Ranger and Suspense don't line up with evidence uncovered by other researchers on those specific series. While a lack of documentary evidence does not disprove authorship, it leaves these authorship statements - of supreme interest to old time radio enthusiasts - up for debate.
With the caveat that some of the smaller radio history statements are not backed by solid documentary evidence, any fan of black radio drama will definitely want to take a look at this scholarly yet very readable volume. Fans of the genre should welcome any such detailed biography of the era's creators and performers.
Ryan Ellett is the author of "Encyclopedia of Black Radio in the United States, 1921-1955" (McFarland Publishing, 2012)