November 12, 2019

1953. "Korea Lesson: How Not to Cover a War" by George Herman

CBS Radio Correspondent George Herman on Covering the Korean War
"Tokyo, December, 1952: CBS commentator Edward R. Murrow, center, and Washington bureau chief Bill Downs, right, are welcomed to Tokyo by Japan-Korea bureau manager George Herman" (source)
Article by George Herman in Broadcasting magazine, December 7, 1953, pp. 97-100 [PDF]:
Considering the primitiveness of the equipment they had to work with, it is a wonder that radio correspondents who reported the Korean War ever got a broadcast out of that beleaguered country. The author of this article, now CBS Radio's White House correspondent, believes the planning of radio coverage of future combat should begin now. If he sounds somewhat embittered, it is because, as chief of his network's Far Eastern bureau, he learned at first hand the . . .

Korean Lesson: How Not to Cover a War


Now that the Korean War is over, those of us who covered it for radio can look back on our experiences with more objectivity than was possible while we were struggling with the absurdly inadequate radio facilities made available to us. We may be able to manage a weak little laugh at the hay-wire contraptions we had to lash up ourselves because the military flatly refused until the very end to make anything available to us except wire. And we can certainly offer some serious thoughts about what must be done in the event of any future wars or police actions which may, unhappily, erupt elsewhere.

It is my understanding that in World War II in the European Theatre of Operations radio news broadcasts originated largely in the mobile studios and vans of commercial radio outfits such as Press Wireless, RCA, and MacKay Radio. And in the Pacific, I am told, United States military facilities with studios and technicians were made available from island to island.

For some incomprehensible reason, the military ruled flatly against making any such facilities available in the Korean War. Commercial companies, after an abortive attempt by RCA, were deterred from installing facilities by the ephemeral nature of the war, which seemed continually about to end, either in victory, defeat, or Panmunjom.

What is incomprehensible to me is why, during the three years this Korean conflict dragged on, with news of incomparable interest and importance to every American, one of two things was not done. Either the American radio networks should have pointed out forcefully to the military its failure to accord fair and equal consideration to the needs of the radio medium, or the radio companies themselves should have supplied the technicians and equipment needed.

The Army and Air Force gave a good deal of thought to getting out the news, but somehow they always thought in terms of teletypes and never in terms of the faster on-the-spot listener coverage of radio. And the radio networks, content to leave the problem to their newsmen, non-technicians though they were, sent out only the equipment those newsmen requested and never brought the minds of their high-paid technical departments to bear on the problem. Consider our experiences:

When the North Koreans opened their unprovoked attack on South Korea the city of Seoul boasted one of the four really good commercial transmitters in the Far East capable of reaching San Francisco. (The others: Tokyo, Hongkong, Jakarta.) Which was fine for radio newsmen except that we didn't hold Seoul long enough to get much use out of it. And the only way a voice signal could be gotten out of the rest of South Korea was by means of an ancient and rickety telephone system built by the Japanese and maintained in rather desultory fashion by Korean technicians.

During the days of the Pusan Perimeter a sweating, steaming radio correspondent had to start out with an army field phone—and you know what kind of quality they have even for radiomen smart enough to keep a full pocket full of fresh batteries for them. This military phone connected by frayed string into the ancient Mukden cable which snakes its way under the water separating Japan from Korea plugs into the improbable long-distance telephone system of Japan. That brought a precious fraction of the sound into Tokyo where perspiring Japanese technicians under the command of a U.S. Army corporal fed it into the overseas shortwave hookup, and thus eventually to San Francisco.

It's easy to see from all this why such husky-voiced specimens as Edward R. Murrow, Bill Downs, Bill Dunn, and the like huffed and puffed and failed to get through with regularity. It's hard to know how many great classics of radio war reporting we missed during the darkest and most dramatic stages of the Pusan period. It's even more painful to think how needless all this waste of talent was.

We know now that a simple piece of equipment, costing less than $50 at the most, could have reversed the odds and jammed a signal through nine out of ten times. Just a line amplifier and a cheap microphone of any variety, plus a couple of leads with alligator clips to clip onto the phone wire where it comes out of the Army field phone. Any duffer of a hi-fi enthusiast could figure it out. And the first hi-fi fan to arrive in Korea immediately did so.

For two years almost every single broadcast which came out of Korea was punched out by a battered elderly CBS Magnecorder pressed into overtime service as a remote amplifier between recording jobs. From Taegu, from Suwon, from Seoul, all broadcasts after January 1951 until quite recently were made over this single piece of gear or over duplicate models later imported by the Army.

Only for one brief period, from Oct. 12, 1950, to Jan. 2, 1951, did we use anything which might be termed studio facilities. And I hesitate even to describe them. In the center of Seoul during this period was a small studio carefully hung with splendid oriental rugs used as sound proofing. From its control room a set of Army phone wires ran across the street to a tall building atop which a U.S. Army FM radio setup kept us in contact with the short wave receiving station 12 miles north of Seoul and the transmitter in a town called Poo'pyong, 16 miles west of Seoul.

The FM link was unsteady to say the least and the first hour before the broadcast was always entirely occupied by a Korean technician shouting despairingly into the phone "Hello Poo'pyong, Hello Poo'pyong," a sound I still occasionally hear in bad dreams after an overdose of apple strudel.

With Jeep and Carbine

For any really important or lengthy broadcast I usually jeeped out to Poo'pyong, with a GI driver who insisted on arming me with a carbine because of the prevalence of snipers, and did the broadcast from there. There was no studio, merely the Magnecorder set up on an overturned oil drum in the middle of a vast barn-like building. But the equipment, a mixture of RCA and Russian gear abandoned by the North Koreans, worked fine until the Chinese returned for it on Jan. 3, 1951. So, back again to the old Taegu-Pusan telephone line.

But by now we had the Magnecorder system to work with. The Army built me a small phone-booth kind of cubby in a corner of the correspondents' billets. The Army Signal Corps ran in a set of wires, handed over the bare ends and said, "Go ahead, broadcast." Although we held endless consultations with various colonels and even a brigadier general or two in the Signal Corps, the Army never furnished us with any technical equipment at all until the outbreak of the peace talks.

For future reference it should probably be noted that the Army also had strong objections to our doing broadcasts from any place but the correspondents' billets, mostly for censorship reasons. But in time we managed to argue our way out of that, and during the final stages of the retaking of Seoul, we moved our Magnecorder up to a wrecked airplane which served as a temporary correspondents' hangout at Suwon airfield. Turning up the gain jammed a usable signal down the miles of battered cable to Taegu, Pusan and across the straits to Tokyo. It also occasionally jammed the phone communications of irate generals who picked up our signal by induction along their regular command lines. But by keeping our circuit time to the barest minimum, we managed to avoid any restrictive action.

In due time, of course, the Eighth Army retook Seoul and we moved the CBS Radio Magnecorder into a special room in the correspondents' billets there, a room sound-proofed with slabs of compressed seaweed of the most unappetizing appearance. Again the Army ran in some wires, handed us the ends and said "Here you are; go ahead." And in the very next room they set up bank after bank of complex and expensive teletype installations for the newsmen who worked in the printed medium.

Again we queried the Signal Corps on the availability of the kind of radio gear used in the second World War. They said there wasn't any requisition number for any gear, that it would have to be sent from Washington, that it couldn't be authorized, and so forth far into the war. Also that it wasn't their duty to provide us with radio gear, even if they did provide all gear for teletype copy.

Eventually the peace talks developed and then everybody said it would all be over very soon anyhow, so why worry. That was, let me think, July 1951! The Public Information Office (not the Signal Corps) did, however, make available a series of several Magnecorders and a bright young radio hobbyist named Hugo Victor. Single-handed, and with his own money very largely, this enthusiast rescued American radio from its own inertia and that of the Pentagon. He built a studio, soundproofed it with Army blankets, and constructed an ingenious control room out of odds and ends which he scrounged or we bought for him in Tokyo.

But all this came about only after a bitter battle between radio and the press services which is better forgotten about. The Public Information Office of the UN Command under Brig. Gen. William P. Nuckols for a time sided with the press services, but eventually put in the lines which enabled us to do direct broadcasts from the news train at Munsan.

Which was all right until the news broke out at the other extreme of the stretch of Korean peninsula under our control. You may remember the riots at Koje-do when Communist-minded Chinese and Korean prisoners kicked up such a fuss? Quite a news story. And quite a long way to carry the CBS Magnecorder by train, plane and boat.

From Koje Island to the Korean mainland we had only one line of communications, the feeblest, leakiest phone line I have ever used. But once again the simple expedient of high-gain line amplification solved the problem. It even helped soothe relations between press associations and radio. We set up the Magnecorder in the press tent by day and briefed the newspapermen on microphone technique, and they used it to read their copy to Tokyo. It worked fine, but really there ought to be some kind of field amplifier lighter than the maggie. It was a lot of weight to carry back and forth from the press tent to the telephone shack where the commanding officer of signals had allowed us the use of his bedroom as a comparatively soundproof studio.

By this time everybody in the Far East Command had begun to catch on to the idea of line amplifiers. The lone CBS Magnecorder was joined in Korea by a brother job from NBC as the peace talks moved to a climax. Three more were provided by the Public Information Office and the Psychological Warfare division. Everybody in radio news in Korea had acquired packrat habits, and rolls of wire and spare connectors and odds and ends of equipment began to show up. The only thing we never seemed to have enough of was Cannon XL connectors.

By now you must have heard how we made certain connections at Big & Little Switch, the exchanges of prisoners. Enough mention has been made of how we stuck bare ends of mike wire into Cannon female sockets and braced them in with whittled matchsticks. But even as veteran an ad-libber as Ted Church, director of CBS Radio News, was shocked when he actually saw the broken match-ends sticking out of the sockets in the side of the amplifier.

More Makeshift Measures

By then we were using a Gates three-pot job provided by Psychological Warfare, and it took a lot of matches to set it up every day. Ted paled visibly when he first saw the contraption, placed precariously on an Army table in the middle of the prisoner reception center. We didn't tell him about the days during Little Switch, the preliminary exchange of sick and wounded prisoners, when one of us had held a pair of stiff Signal Corps wires tightly twisted together in his hand during an entire 20 minute broadcast, somewhat like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. We didn't get to solder that connection until late that evening. And since the broadcasters were also technicians, there's no telling what we said, it was a triumph just to hear that faint faraway voice in the earphones saying "We hear you loud and clear,—where've ya been—ya go ahead in 20 seconds from woof!"

Better Help for Radio

The point, I think, is this. If the American military is going to have its action in the field covered, it's got to stop thinking in terms of press services alone. The frustrating favoritism accorded to press service reporters is known to every radio newsman. That it should apply to facilities as well is intolerable.

Why there should be an order number and a supply item of teletypes for press men and not for an amplifier for radio men is absolutely beyond me. The cost of the radio gear is fractional.

There is no reason why the Army should make teletypes and teletype operators available to press men and flatly refuse to make radio gear and even one single technician regularly available to radiomen. And the radio industry had damn well better realize this and get on the ball before the next overseas fracas. Both the policy and technical departments of our industry can make better suggestions than this correspondent. Leave them do so PDQ or the next fight will again see the finest, high-priced radio news talent again shouting into unresponsive field phones in a "press" tent filled with other correspondents grinding out copy to go slowly but surely by teletype.