People & Events: WGN Radio Broadcasts the Trial
In July 2000, Dayton, Tennessee celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Scopes trial. The town sponsored a play with actors reading from the actual transcript of the trial. It took place inside the original courthouse, before an audience of people from all over America. In the play, John Williams, a young announcer from WGN radio in Chicago, played the role of his real life predecessor -- radio announcer Quinn Ryan.
Quinn Ryan and WGN radio made history in Dayton. The Scopes trial was the first live broadcast of a trial in American history. It took a lot of money and planning to make it happen. WGN radio, just a year old at the time, spent $1,000 a day to broadcast the trial live. They rented AT&T cables stretching all the way from Chicago to Dayton, Tennessee. Their listeners in Chicago and beyond would have a front row seat at what was already being called "the trial of the century."
When WGN's announcers and engineers first arrived in Dayton, everyone looked at them with awe. In 1925 radio was still new enough that nobody was quite sure how it all worked. "The idea that you could hear a human voice through the airwaves was fantastic," says John Williams. The mayor of Dayton invited the radio team to stay at his house. "We're like moon men here," Quinn Ryan said. "We're the radio guys from outer space!"
WGN radio placed four microphones strategically throughout the courtroom. "The radio station received the rights to rearrange the way the courtroom was set up," says Williams. "And this was the first time this happened where the media manipulates an event literally the way it's played out. Where will the people sit, where will the jury be seated? The relationship of the judge to the prosecution and the defense, all of that changed to accommodate the radio station's microphones."
Announcer Quinn Ryan, famous for creating broadcasts that were "almost as good as being there," did not disappoint his audience. When William Jennings Bryan walked into the courtroom on the first day, Ryan commented, "Here comes William Jennings Bryan. He enters now. His bald pate like a sunrise over Key West." Since Bryan lived in Florida, the audience found it especially amusing.
For most of the trial Ryan sat quietly near a windowsill, allowing his listeners to interpret events for themselves. Sometimes he would clarify a point, or identify a speaker. When he wanted to do a more extended commentary, he would go into a chamber just off of the courtroom speak to the audience without interrupting the trial.
Like so many of the out-of-town reporters, Ryan saw himself as one of "the mods" in an unsophisticated Southern town. But he did his best not to condescend. "He wanted to be the pointer," says Williams, "he wanted to be the illustrator, he tried not to pass along judgment. But he did say that even he was pulling for Scopes as were all of the newspaper people."
On the sixth day of the trial Judge John T. Raulston ruled that the scientists who had been waiting to testify in favor of evolution would not be allowed to speak to the jury. Believing the trial was over, most of the reporters left town. WGN radio stayed in Dayton. On Monday, July 20th, when the judge reconvened court outside under the trees, the microphones were there.
"The radio audience was fortunate," says Williams. "They were able to hear William Jennings Bryan stand up near the microphone and say that he was going to defend the Word of God against the greatest agnostic and atheist in the United States. That was compelling radio. "
Unfortunately for history, technology did not permit any of the Scopes trial to be recorded. Today only the transcripts tell the story. The sounds inside the courtroom, the voices of Bryan and Clarence Darrow and the announcer Quinn Ryan are lost forever.
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