“America’s Town Meeting of the Air” Once Came to Memorial Gym

A 1952 Buccaneer, East Tennessee State University’s annual, contains a photo showing “America’s Town Meeting of the Air,” a remote radio broadcast from the college’s Memorial Gymnasium.

The show was broadcast live first on NBC then ABC radio from May 30, 1935 until 1956. It originated from New York City's Town Hall. When the program debuted for a six-week trial run, there were only 18 NBC affiliates carrying it. That soon changed and the show ran another 21 years.

The subject of the first show was: “Which Way America: Fascism, Communism, Socialism or Democracy?” George Denny Jr., Executive Director of the organization that produced the show, served as moderator for 17 years.

The producers desired to create a series that would replicate the successful town meetings from the early days of the country. Denny believed the program would attract the public’s attention, stimulate their interest and involve them in complex issues of the day.

By broadcasting at remote locations across the country, the program made it possible for listeners to attend and participate in the discussions. Interesting invited guests, both controversial and incontrovertiblebecame regular guests on the show. People outwardly expressed their feelings on heated subjects by applauding and cheering when they agreed and hissing and booing when they were in disagreement. The offering proved very successful.

The gym photo of the one-time event in Johnson City shows eight people on the stage with one person positioned behind a podium displaying a sign that declares, “WJHL – America’s Town Meeting.” Two additional signs with the letters “WJHL” hang on the side of the stage.

The floor is crammed with an equal mix of men and women sitting in folding metal chairs with not an empty seat to be found. Also filled are the side bleachers plus a few people overflowing into the seats above them. The crowd is well attired with men in suits and ladies in dresses.

Two elevated speakers are positioned on the floor at each side of the stage, which is adorned with seven large bouquets of flowers. A “Press” sign can also be seen on the floor at the far right.

A massive banner hanging at the rear of the stage reads, “Tolerance, Reason, Justice; America’s Town Meeting of the Air, Presented by Town Hall and the American Broadcasting Company, Dedicated to the Advancement of an Honestly Informed Public Opinion.

I contacted Herb Howard, early WJHL radio and television announcer whose senior picture was also in the annual, to see if he recalled the program. He responded, “I do remember very well ‘America's Town Meeting of the Air,’ which was a weekly public affairs program produced and broadcast by ABC Radio.

“The government forced NBC to sell its Blue Network in 1943. It became known simply as ‘The Blue Network’ until it acquired the name ABC. WJHL invited the American Broadcasting Company to do one of its weekly debate-like programs in Johnson City, becoming the first performance of any kind in the “new” gymnasium on ETSC's campus. WJHL provided the announcers.

“Ed Cowell opened the program by ringing a hand-held bell and shouting out, ‘Town Meeting Tonight, Town Meeting Tonight.’  I was asked to do the straight intros and two or three public service announcements. This was my first experience on a national radio network. They sent me a $25 check for services.”

In its waning days, Denny struggled to keep the program’s focus on openness and objectivity after it became a heated grievance session. The show was dropped in 1956.