Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Scopes Monkey trial on WGN

720 WGN-AM went on air for the first time in March of 1925. By mid summer they were a nationally renowned media outlet. It was a decent station with a good coverage area, emanating from Chicago an important urban center. But it was their press coverage of a single event that made them what they are.

They've made a half dozen movies of the Scopes trial because there was no news footage of it. The trial predated television of course, but radio was there. From July 13th to August 21st WGN provided live coverage of the "Scopes Monkey Trial" directly from the courtroom in Dayton, Tennessee.

Quin A. Ryan (pictured) provided some reporting and a sort of play-by-play and engineer Paul Neal set up the microphones. Quin went on to become the general manager of WGN in 1930, and a columnist for the tribune. He was a sports fanatic, doing play-by-play for the Cubs and White Sox from the more traditional setting of a press box for decades. More Here.

The project cost them over $1,000 a day just for the telephone line fees from AT&T. WGN got special permission to arrange the courtroom around the microphones to make the broadcast possible. Listeners across the midwest tuned in and heard their calls; many for the first time. On one hot day the Judge Raulston moved the trial outside to escape the stagnant indoor heat. On the lawn, the jury itself was able to listen to themselves on the radio.

Down the street 22 Western Union telegraph operators distributed the information the old-fashioned way to papers across the country. Two movie companies filmed parts of the trial for news reels. All of them oblivious to the fact that an entirely new dynamic was beginning that day.