Obituary: Fred Friendly

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The Independent Online
FRED FRIENDLY was a founding father of American electronic journalism. He produced the famous Edgar R. Murrow See It Now broadcast which helped to topple Senator Joseph McCarthy. Later he abruptly resigned as President of the News Division of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) when the network chose to broadcast a repeat of an ancient I Love Lucy programme rather than to relay an important hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the Vietnam war.

He was a huge, heavy, six-foot-four bundle of energy, described by the poet Carl Sandburg as looking like "a man who has just got off a foam- flecked horse". In 1937, aged 22, he reported for his first day's work at a radio station in Providence, Rhode Island, and gave his name as Ferdinand Friendly Wachenheimer. The station manager said, "OK, from here on in, you're Fred W. Friendly" - and so he remained, producing five-minute radio dramatised biographies entitled Footprints in the Sands of Time. They provided him with a financial windfall in 1942 when a musicians' strike left the American recording companies desperate for material. The Footprints were re-issued as gramophone records, to an appreciative public.

At that time Friendly was a sergeant on service in the Far East, acting as a correspondent for an American army newspaper. He flew low over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a reconnaissance plane shortly after the first atomic bombs were dropped and witnessed their awesome destructive power.

After the Second World War he returned to radio production. In 1947 another musicians' strike enabled him to realise a long-cherished dream: to make an album of what he called "aural history" compiled from the spoken words of the recent past. As narrator he was able to enlist Ed Murrow, the outstanding CBS war correspondent, whose radio reports from the London blitz had been avidly followed in the United States, and whose farewell BBC broadcast to the people of Britain at the end of the war had said, "You lived a life instead of an apology."

The classical music division of CBS Records had just installed new machinery to produce the recently invented long-playing records. This expensive equipment was lying idle. Although talk records had not sold well, Friendly's idea was thought worth trying and he was offered an advance of $1,000. Within a month of the release of I Can Hear It Now, 1933-1945 he had earned $25,000 in royalties, and the Murrow-Friendly partnership was launched. A quarter of a million albums were sold in the first year, providing college education fees for Friendly's three children.

Other albums followed. Friendly made a deal with Sir Winston Churchill to reproduce a selection of his wartime speeches. In 1950 CBS started a weekly one-hour radio news documentary, Hear It Now, produced by the Murrow-Friendly partnership, which after one season was transferred to television as See It Now.

I remember watching, in Washington, that first edition, broadcast on a Sunday afternoon in November 1951. Murrow was placed in the control room of Studio 41 in the old CBS headquarters in Madison Avenue, New York. Behind him in shot were the monitors and two cameras. For most of his audience, he was a well-known voice, but an unknown face. His opening words were: "This is an old team, trying to learn a new trade."

Neither he nor Friendly had worked in television before. But Friendly had a shrewd feel for what the new medium could do and he bubbled with ideas. The first shot was of Murrow looking at two television monitors. One carried a live transmission from New York harbour, and the other was showing the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It was the first time the two coasts of the American continent had been able to see each other simultaneously, "from sea to shining sea".

Other ingredients included Churchill's speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet and remarkable film footage from Korea. Friendly had sent a camera team to spend a day and a night with an infantry company. They had filmed not the standard combat shots of the evening news programmes but the voices and the faces of individual soldiers, eating, sleeping, joking and grousing: the drudgery of war.

Murrow was still broadcasting a daily radio news programme and it was left to Friendly to organise See It Now and to fight for the budget he felt it needed. He was exuberant and given to overstatement, where Murrow was pensive and inclined to understatement. "Fred had the chutzpah," said a CBS colleague. "Ed had the prestige."

See It Now became the benchmark for current affairs producers everywhere. When I returned from Washington at the end of 1953 to take charge of BBC current affairs programmes I made an arrangement with Friendly that we should have first call on all editions of See It Now. Thus British viewers in the spring of 1954 were able to see the famous programme in which Murrow and Friendly took on Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Friendly later rejected the view that See It Now was the decisive blow against the Wisconsin senator's power. McCarthyism, with its harassment of all unorthodox opinion under the guise of anti-Communism, its blacklists and its exploitation of self-appointed denouncers, became a widespread American disease in the early 1950s. The only antidote for it was courage, and this the Friendly-Murrow partnership provided. Offering McCarthy equal time to reply, they caught the senator out in his own contradictions. It was the beginning of the end for McCarthy. Murrow was honoured at a Freedom House dinner later that year with the words, "Free men were heartened by his courage in exposing those who would divide us by exploiting our fears."

There were many other memorable See It Now programmes but neither sponsors nor the management of CBS liked the controversy they engendered. After a stormy scene in the office of William Paley, the Chairman of CBS, in 1958, Friendly and Murrow were told that the programme was closing. After seven years and nearly 200 broadcasts America's most brilliant, imaginative and courageous television series was silenced.

Murrow and Friendly continued to produce current affairs programmes, such as CBS Reports which won three Peabody Awards. But Murrow was becoming more and more frustrated. He was planning a year's sabbatical from broadcasting when the newly elected President Kennedy appointed him Director of the United States Information Agency.

Hitherto CBS had held pride of place among the American network news services. But after Murrow's departure the National Broadcasting Company established itself itself as the news leader, partly because of the appeal of new anchormen, partly because of a generous budget, and partly because NBC did not hesitate to break into the scheduled programmes to carry important events as they happened. Friendly was appointed president of the CBS news division to restore the ratings.

In February 1966, when America was deeply embroiled in the escalating Vietnam war, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a series of important hearings with leading statesmen giving testimony. One witness was George Kennan, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union. NBC were carrying Kennan's testimony live. A CBS administrator ruled that their network could not afford the loss of commercials and insisted on sticking to a fifth rerun of an episode of I Love Lucy. This was too much for Friendly. He resigned forthwith.

The Ford Foundation engaged him as a television consultant and he persuaded them to produce a $20m grant to finance a two-year series of experimental programmes on Sunday evenings for the newly formed Public Broadcasting Corporation to show what informational programmes might do if freed from commercial restrictions. The series, Public Broadcast Laboratory, was only partially successful, and was terminated after six months. But it helped to convert what had been a collection of struggling education systems into a viable non-commercial public network.

Simultaneously the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, New York, appointed him as the first Edward R. Murrow Professor of Broadcast Journalism. He showed a great talent for passing on his wide experience to new generations of electronic journalists.

Leonard Miall

Ferdinand Friendly Wachenheimer (Fred W. Friendly), television executive: born New York 30 October 1916; married 1947 Dorothy Greene (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1968 Ruth Mark (three stepsons); died New York 3 March 1998.