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Quin Ryan Describes the Conventions

Station WGN

Quin Ryan Describes the Conventions

June 1928


[From Business Speeches by Business Men, compiled by William Phillips Sandford and Willard Hayes Yaeger (McGraw-Hill, 1930)]



Mr. Ryan, Announcer for WGN, the Chicago Tribune radio station, broadcast oral descriptions from both of the nominating conventions of 1928. Compiled and reduced from his impromptu talks, the following article appeared in the Extension Magazine. It illustrates the narrative-descriptive news broadcast, a form of public speaking which has become of great importance as the radio has grown in popularity.

Kansas City

So this is the hall in which the Democrats nominated Bryan in 1900 for the second time. It was razed by fire and rebuilt in sixty days, they say, just in time for the Fourth of July of that year. Looks smaller than the convening places of both parties the last few decades. And we, here on the speakers' platform, are located on the broad side of the hall. There are three radio announcers here to broadcast for three different radio systems--Graham McNamee and J. Andrew White, one on either end of the platform, and I'm almost in the center. I'm just an arm's length away from the small bridge that juts forward from the platform, on which the speaker of the moment stands behind a silver shelf of microphones.

We announcers are in the front row, at small tables. We have erected tiny glass cages a foot high to prevent our voices from carrying out over the heads of the newspapermen, who sit behind the shelves down in front of us. The lords of the convention, the members of the national committee, are arrayed behind us. This is part of the romance of broadcasting, that the reporter is assigned to a front seat at the great events of the nation.

Burning searchlights, like cannons on the balconies opposite, leer in our eyes. They flash on with the introduction of every new speaker. After the scores of cameramen have snapped their shutters and ground their film, the lights fade for a while. Out there are the thousand delegates, sprawled over yellow camp chairs and crowded in their allotted pens. State placards and "whoopee banners" aloft. Shirt sleeves and loud suspenders. Rust red necks and ice cream suits.

I was just thinking of what an odd figure a radio announcer and his apparatus would have cut in this hall twenty-eight years ago. In those days the farmer heard the news when his metropolitan newspaper was delivered by the rural mailman and his jogging horse two days later; today he sits at his radio horn and is closer to the speaker than the delegates in the convention hall. He hears the shouts and the music and the harangues, and an announcer's voice, like a Greek chorus, identifies them for him. There is another microphone there on the shelf before the speaker which is recording all his words on records while a movie camera simultaneously photographs the scene for the talking moving pictures. Sights and sounds--everything but odor--are being preserved for future generations.

Underneath this platform is a labyrinth of wires. Millions of words are being telegraphed from here this week; even photographs are being transmitted over the wires, that they may be printed in New York and 'Frisco this evening. Verily, the world does move!

Sloping and curved rows of spectators' seats all around the oval auditorium. High above, more galleries where spectators stand. Out in front, the aisles, with the white state standards. The mass of delegates swarms and mills about, and ever and anon the bluish searchlights make side-swipes over their heads. Delegates are peculiar people; they rarely listen to all the proceedings, they converse and move hither and yon; they come to these conventions and pay their own way, because most of them are either major or minor office-holders under the party standards in their own states; and they seem to have little to say about the eventual outcome of it all, or even in the daily business of it, in this hall or in the private conferences. Let's see, what conventions have there been when the delegates really acted on their own--there was Bryan stampeding the convention in 1896 with his Cross of Gold speech, and there was Teddy Roosevelt leading a rebellion in the Chicago conclave, when he started the Bull Moose party.

Party conventions, as they appear to this observer in the front row, have lost the spontaneity that was the essence of them in their origin. It has been indubitably decided even two days before the first whack of the gavel that Herbert Hoover is to be the nominee. This show might be called the fable of the Steamroller and the Elephant. The performance seems to be planned entirely behind closed doors and then acted here in the hall, according to a scenario. Even we announcers are given a schedule at the beginning of each session, stating the wording of the motions to be made and the names of those who will make them. The bargaining of propositions and planks goes on in railroad cars and hotel rooms, and state delegations are swung from one candidate to another, while the majority of the humble delegates are concerned only with finding a good restaurant or extra cots on which to lay their drowsy heads.

This is certainly a business-like procedure. An ideal chairman, Senator Moses, of New Hampshire--witty, quick, alert, and forceful. His predecessor, the temporary chairman, Senator Fess, of Ohio, was not so successful; he has not the voice, nor the manner, nor the figure for the job. The art of oratory seems to be on the decline in the conventions. Robust voices are no longer needed, for loud-speaking horns carry the voice to the far ends of the hall. In the past, the party's most sensational spell-binders have been called into action in the national conventions. Several times in these sessions the chairman has rapped for order because delegates on the floor were calling, "Louder." The gentleman who read the Republican platform, Senator Smoot, of Utah, could not be heard at all; even the radio listeners telegraphed to request him to step closer to the microphone. Very soon the political leaders are going to recognize the need of presenting in convention the orators who make the best radio speakers. The ears of the nation are cocked to this hall in Kansas City. President Coolidge, for instance, makes a fine radio talk, although he is not a good orator to the naked ear. The best speeches of the Republican convention were the fiery plea of young Senator LaFollette, presenting the report of the minority, and the mellow oration by the veteran Senator Borah, of Idaho, in opposition.

I know it is not merely the fact that I am in this profession that makes me realize what a powerful factor this radio is going to be in politics and in these conventions. Methinks they ought to hold their most important sessions at night--when they deliver the keynote speech, the reading of the party platform, and the nominating addresses. It is a medium greater than the press for getting over their messages to the voters--and at no cost. Months later, when they are campaigning, it will cost them thousands of dollars to link up a radio chain to catch the ears of the populace. But all the sessions, except this current one, have been scheduled for the daylight hours, when most of the voters are engaged in their offices or shops or on their farms. We predict that by the time 1932 rolls around both parties will have arranged their rules of procedure to hold all sessions at night.

Famous faces all around us, surprisingly like the cartoons we have seen of them. Here on the platform sits William M. Butler, chairman of the national committee, and "the man behind Coolidge," immobile as a sphinx through all the sessions. Postmaster General New, with a wide black hat. Secretary of Labor Davis and Secretary of War Davis. The mayor of Chicago and the mayor of San Francisco. Out in one of the boxes I spy, through my field glasses, Senator James A. Reed of Missouri, a Democrat; this is his home and he has been invited to a seat in the camp of the rival chieftains. But the person who claims the most attention through every session is Mrs. Alice Roosevelt Longworth, wife of the Speaker of the House--a bit mellower in her poise and beauty than when she was the toast of the White House, as the young daughter of "T. R."

Out there, forever bobbing up and down the aisles, I see the sunburned face of her brother, Col. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., a member of the New York delegation. The celebrities down there in the press section are as many and as interesting as those among the delegations. H. L. Mencken, with the round, wide-eyed face of a boy, is hurrying to and fro, stopping occasionally to look blandly up at a speaker. The white-haired and smiling Kansas editor, William Allen White, sits sometimes in his delegate seat. O. O. McIntyre, the chronicler of daily New York doings in the newspapers, with that long, slender, and lined face, looking bored and wistful.

But right down here in the front row of the delegates' seats is the sight that most fascinates me. There, through all the hours, sits Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury, as though he were in church. A delicately carved, "poker" face; meek-eyed, white-haired, and white-mustached. He looks as quietly and intently at every speaker as a schoolboy listening to his first Fourth of July oration. Beside him is the governor of Pennsylvania, and next to him William S. Vare, of Philadelphia, who has been denied his seat in the Senate. Vare and Mellon are political enemies, but they enter the hall together every time. It is rumored that the conference between them, shortly after their arrival in Kansas City, brought about the swing of the deciding Pennsylvania votes to Hoover.

Chairman Moses rushes the business along. There is little pageantry. Even the city has only plain bunting, nothing garish. There are campaign headquarters everywhere--Lowden, Curtis, Hoover--and religious propagandists, seeking to inject theories and planks into the party platform, have open headquarters in the busiest hotels.

Now, in the evening, the nominating is to start. The clerk is reading the roll call of the states. The fuse is smoldering; the mob is straining at the leash. Very soon pandemonium is to break loose. Arizona yields to California. John McNabb, a fellow townsman of Herbert Hoover, in Palo Alto, is being introduced. McNabb mentions Hoover's name in the first paragraph of his nominating speech, and the ensuing demonstration lasts twenty-three minutes. The mention of Hoover's name again at the end of the nominating speech brings forth a din which lasts twenty-five minutes. Herbert Hoover is nominated on the first ballot.


Here we are again, at another Democratic session. The Democrats have heeded the enormous audience that the radio offers them after dark, and they are holding night sessions for the workaday millions to listen in. This was officially decided after a debate in the national committee meeting, in which Senator Glass, of Virginia, holding out against the night sessions, declared that radio is "mostly static," anyway.

An astounding town, Houston. A clean, rich city of skyscrapers and fine shops and boulevards. Intensely blue sky and white sunlight. But the heat of the day is like the fierce glow of brick ovens. This is the first Democratic convention held in the South since 1860; so they are staging a great carnival for the visitors. The quantity of streamers and bunting and flags is dazzling. There was a hurry and rush of business in Kansas City, but down here it's like a lark. The same hubbub and milling crowds, but gayer. Gay clothes, and bright. Men all in white. Linen suits. Women in festive summer garb. Hawkers galore, selling canes, pennants, buttons, miniature donkeys. State delegations here dress in character—western delegates in eight-gallon hats—every delegation seems to have brought a band—there is music on the air day and night. The Democrats seem to make more of a show of it.

This vast hall seats 25,000, twice as many as the auditorium at Kansas City. There are no side walls--all open to the breezes which have been blowing accomodatingly every day. All afternoon the cruel Texas sun has been boring its burning blasts through the flimsy wooden roof of this open air tabernacle, and we have sat here on the platform drenched and gasping. In a country where siestas and leisure periods are in order on such blistering days, the delegates on the wooden seats and the gaily dressed ladies in the boxes have continued to fan themselves and dry their brows. Now it is evening, but it is still warm in here. The boxes, all around the square building, make it look like a summer evening dress ball or a midsummer opera performance.

Same searchlights, same newspapermen, same cameras--but here the delegates are steaming in white suits or shirtsleeves. New figures on the platform around us. And slower procedure. Here, on this platform, all eyes are focused through every session on Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, sitting just behind me. An unending line of visitors files past her, to greet her and receive a smile from her round, pleasant face. She changes her costume with every session. This is the seventh change she has made. Current celebrities and "has-beens" move around the platform. Senator Pat Harrison, of Mississippi, with the face of an actor and the good nature of a clown; Josephus Daniels, resembling a caricature of himself when he was Secretary of the Navy; John W. Davis, who was the nominee four years ago; youthful-looking Jimmy Walker, Mayor of New York; Dan Moody, of Texas, the youngest governor in the States.

The 1,100 delegates are spread over the main floor, and the spectators bank the slopes. The other end of the hall, massed with people, is a city block distant.

There has been one demonstration this evening, by four state delegations, at the nomination of Senator George, of Georgia. The radio is going to be a lure to favorite sons. There will be many nominated merely for the publicity that the nation-wide radio chains will give them. Ah, well. Here is another cut-and-dried story--the nomination of Governor Al Smith has been assured long before his name will be put to the convention. Half way down the hall, far over in one of the side boxes, his buxom wife is watching these proceedings. There are three bands competing with one another in this hall. One is a most blatant, but stirring outfit, called the Old Gray Mare band, in cowboy attire. There have been good speakers here, too, and bad. The perennial figure of Bryan is noticeably absent for the first time. The chairman, a quiet man--kindly and strong featured--Senator Robinson, of Arkansas, is introducing Franklin D. Roosevelt, of New York. Roosevelt was once a vice-presidential nominee. In the convention four years ago he was wheeled in, in a chair. He suffers from infantile paralysis. Now he hobbles on a cane. He has the finest face in the hall. He starts to speak. The great clusters of horns hung like chandeliers down the length of the hall are carrying his voice to those listeners two hundred yards away.

Now he mentions the Governor of New York, and the lid is off!

Now the floor of the convention hall looks like the Kansas City floor at the first mention of Secretary Hoover's name, or like an enlarged photo of the famous wheat pit on one of its most rampant days. The enormous searchlights sweep over the hall, blinding us with their blue shafts. The thousands have leaped to their feet as though the building were on fire. The delegations snatch up their white standards and wave them like flagstaffs. Now they're starting to romp like college boys after a football victory. They are shouting and howling as they parade past us--Illinois, Iowa, Utah, Maine, California, Hawaii, Michigan, Connecticut, Ohio, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Oregon, Nevada, and so on.

Cowbells and sirens and three bands playing. Here on the platform the folks are standing on their chairs. Some of the delegations remain coldly in their seats--Georgia, Missouri, Texas. The din surges louder and the procession is augmented. Somebody is toting a huge pasteboard replica of the Capitol dome, bearing the letters, "Al Smith." And the searchlights of the cameramen weave their way and sweep and sway around this noisy cauldron. Down the long, low, arched roof of this hall, the flags of all the states in the Union hang droopily and limply in the sweltering heat, while the thousand human jumping beans work themselves into a frenzy of excitement. All around the sides of the building the sweating hillsides of humanity are standing on tiptoe on their bare plank seats. The big lights glare impudently in our eyes. Down there they are waving hats and fans and state standards. They shout and whoop and strike one another on the back. Snake-dance lines of delegates are jostling forward through the aisles, flaunting over their heads the banners with the strange devices: North Dakota, Minnesota, Porto Rico, Arizona, District of Columbia, Washington, Indiana, and West Virginia. And the tumult of this demonstration is probably reverberating back over the plains to the north, and through the lonely swamp-lands and forests to the east and west, along the gulf.