Keeping up with the news and weather is one of my consuming interests which got its start during my childhood. My maternal grandfather, who was the patriarchal head of household I grew up with, had great interest in politics and he made sure to listen to daily radio news programs. Since Granddaddy was hard of hearing, the volume on his radio was turned up very high, which meant that everyone in our house heard whatever he listened to. In fact we had a couple of neighbors down the road who said they didn’t need to own a radio in order to be well informed.
It was during the late 1940s, as I listened along with my grandfather, that I began to notice one particular newscaster whose oratorical style impressed me. His name was Lowell Thomas, and later I learned that he was known as the “Voice of God” in network newscasting. From a new book entitled “The Voice of America: Lowell Thomas and the Invention of 20th-Century Journalism” by Mitchell Stephens, I learned that Thomas made the first-ever radio newscast, from the World’s Fair in 1939, and the next year he was the host of the first regularly scheduled program, a 15-minute news show. It was other strands of his varied career that made him one of the best known and most respected journalists of his time.
Thomas sold out huge concert halls with his exotic travelogues, which were the first mixed-media shows, dressed up with music, hand-tinted slides and quick snatches of film, some of which he shot himself from airplanes. His nightly radio newscasts often drew more listeners than “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” which was then the most popular show in America. His suave narrator’s voice on newsreels by Fox Movietone News boomed out in theaters before television took over.
In Europe to cover WWI, Thomas heard that the British had captured
Jerusalem and rushed to get there. One day he spotted a diminutive Englishman resplendent in Arab garb walking on the street and stopped to chat. It was Maj. T. E. Lawrence—and before long Thomas turned “Lawrence of Arabia” and himself into international stars.
By the time he published “With Lawrence in Arabia,” (1924) Thomas had already presented a series of sensational mixed-media lectures in London, America and Australia that were seen by 2 million people. It made his reputation and earned him a fortune, although eventually Lawrence became embittered against Thomas for turning him into a celebrity and a legend.
I didn’t know this when I heard Thomas’s version of the news in the 1940s and ’50s, but one reason he appealed to my grandfather was his conservative Republican views. His longtime radio sponsor—in an age when sponsors, not broadcasters, produced the programs—was the Sun Oil Co., ruled by the ultra-conservative Pew family. He was friends with Herbert Hoover and Thomas E. Dewey, Dale Carnegie and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. In 1949 he was making $5 million a year from CBS alone.
The other thing about Thomas as a writer and performer that I didn’t know is that he elaborated and embroidered his stories, even making stuff up on occasion. (This was not true of his newscasts.) Perhaps that is why, after the 1960s, he gradually faded from view.
Thomas died at age 89 in 1981. Two days later, CBS telecast a prime-time tribute to him led by Walter Cronkite. The review of his life showed that Lowell had lived through and borne witness to interesting and exceptional times. But assessing his work and career as a journalist was more difficult. Veteran newsman Eric Sevareid had the last word: “As a journalist, Lowell was kind of a wandering minstrel in prose.”
Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.