On Sunday evenings in the early 1930s, George V. Denny Jr. would leave his square red brick house at 316 Howard Ave. and walk toward the Radburn Plaza Building, his view of its clock tower unimpeded by structure or tree.
Upon entering the building, Denny made his way to a comfortable second floor meeting room with imposing ceiling light shades of concentric circles. Their Art Deco style proclaimed a social and technological exuberance that had been dampened by The Depression.
Denny was there to moderate discussions of political issues in those troubled times. His goal: neighbors speaking sincerely and civilly to neighbors.
This regular gathering in “The Town for the Motor Age’’ would be the seed for one of the most popular programs in the Golden Age of Radio – America’s Town Meeting of the Air.
The show would make George V. Denny Jr. a national celebrity, and set a standard for public discourse of which Americans today can only dream.
What motivated him, Denny explained, was this worry: “If we persist in Democrats reading only Democratic newspapers, listening only to Democratic speeches on the radio, and mixing socially only with those of congenial views, and if Republicans follow suit, we are sowing the seeds of the destruction of our democracy.’’
Although he would be known for promoting serious discussion of serious issues, Denny was by inclination and training a performer and entertainer.
He was born in Washington, North Carolina, in 1899. He met his wife Mary while they were students at the University of North Carolina, where they were both members of a theatrical group called the Carolina Playmakers. In 1919 and 1920 the troupe staged plays by one of the Playmakers, the soon-to-be famous writer Thomas Wolfe.
Denny eventually tried acting and stage managing on Broadway. But by 1930 he’d switched gears to civic education, and become associate director of the League for Political Action. In 1932, he, Mary and their three children moved from an apartment in New York to Radburn, which was then three years old.
The Dennys joined a cohort of energetic, intelligent and well-educated young residents. They included Rensis Likert, the psychologist who developed the famous Likert Scale, which would eventually be used in questionnaires and surveys; Richard T. Ely, one of the nation’s most prominent economists; and Frank Exner, a Columbia physicist who was assembling the world’s largest X-ray machine.
The Dennys plunged into Radburn life. In addition to his public affairs discussion group, George wrote plays for, and acted in, productions of the Radburn players. He was elected to the board of trustees of the Church in Radburn.
It’s not clear exactly when Denny began organizing and moderating Radburn community discussions. But a newspaper story describes one such “round table” at a Radburn Citizens Association meeting in October 1934.
Topics that night included:
About 100 people attended this meeting, which Denny moderated. Other members of the round table included John O. Walker, Radburn’s resident manager, and McAlister Coleman, a prominent local socialist. Walker favored allowing larger houses on larger lots; Coleman warned against attracting what he termed “wealthy riffraff.” After 30 minutes, the discussion was thrown open to the audience.
The point of the discussion, Denny told the group, was not to settle on a solution or resolve an issue, but to "think about what was said.’’
These hyperlocal sessions, as it turned out, were a dry run for what became America’s Town Meeting of the Air. And the idea for such a national broadcast sprung from a chance meeting – also apparently in Radburn.
Denny said he met a friend on the street after one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s national radio “fireside chats’’ (probably in 1934). The friend mentioned that one of his neighbors so hated FDR that he’d “rather be shot than caught listening to Roosevelt."
That same evening, Denny said, he was walking in the park -- B Park, presumably – and ruminating on what his friend had said. That’s when he came up with an idea for a radio program that would expose the public to conflicting views of political issues.
In an article he later wrote called “Democracy on the Defensive,’’ he italicized one of his theses: “Democracy presupposes a system of universal education and the dissemination of unbiased news and information on a basis which will permit of an honestly informed public opinion.”
In an interview around the same time, he said that democracy was in peril, “threatened by ideology that a strong man can rule better than the masses of people.’’
Just a few weeks after Denny’s B Park epiphany, he pitched an NBC executive on his idea for a radio program inspired by the traditional New England town meeting (and informed by his experience in Radburn). The network offered him a six-week trial run.
America’s Town Meeting of the Air, one of the nation’s first political talk shows, premiered Memorial Day 1935. It was broadcasting live from The Town Hall on West 43rd Street in Manhattan, with Denny as host and producer. The first topic: "Which Way America: Fascism, Communism, Socialism or Democracy?”
The show would become a Thursday evening fixture, in large part because Denny -- always the showman -- made it engaging and interactive.
Some programs began with a trumpet fanfare, followed by a band playing a patriotic song, such as a John Philip Sousa march or the Star-Spangled Banner.
Listeners then heard the voice of a town crier who rang a bell and called: “Town meeting tonight! Come to the old Town Hall and talk it over!” An announcer introduced Denny, who began with a folksy, “Good evening, neighbors!”
Two main guest speakers -- influential thinkers, political figures, scientists – took up the evening’s topic, such as press freedom, racism, social security, public education, socialized medicine or America's involvement in World War II.
Denny deliberately chose to broadcast his show before a live audience, rather than in an NBC studio. The cheers and boos reverberated in living rooms across America. Audience members – including some long-distance callers -- also participated in a lively question and answer period.
Denny helped organize more than 700 “listener clubs' ' across America that gathered to hear and discuss the show. Libraries stocked books on the topic for the coming week. Transcripts of the show were made available to the public.
And, to avoid even the hint of censorship, for its first decade the show had no commercial sponsor.
The show was an instant hit, broadcast by up to 170 stations to an audience of around 10 million. NBC got thousands of letters each week.
The show was also a critical success. By 1949 it had won 46 national awards. Denny himself became the first two-time recipient (1943 and 1945) of the Peabody Award for Outstanding Educational Achievement. He received honorary degrees from Temple University in 1940 and Ithaca College in 1951.
After The Town Hall was named a National Historic Landmark in 2012, the plaque affixed on the wall outside listed America’s Town Meeting of the Air as its claim to fame.
The Denny family did not live long in Radburn. In 1936 they moved to a large, newly built house in the affluent New York suburb of Scarsdale.
After World War II, however, television began to replace radio as the dominant communications medium. Denny tried to transition his long-running show to TV, but the old formula did not work. He lasted as moderator until 1952; the show itself ran until 1956.
On Nov. 11, 1959, Denny died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 60 years old.
By that time, the show’s connection to Radburn was virtually forgotten. None of Denny’s obituaries mentioned that he had lived or volunteered there. His New York Times obit incorrectly reported that the genesis of the radio show idea occurred while he was living in Scarsdale.
But in 1975, Charles Ascher -- a key official in the company that built the Radburn -- mentioned Denny’s connection in a speech marking the community’s 50th anniversary.
The Town Meeting of the Air, like the Town for the Motor Age, was a quintessential product of its time. Yet radio remains a potent political force. And Denny’s warnings about the dangers of a polarized electorate and the importance of an informed public seem as fresh now as they did those Sunday evenings in Radburn nine decades ago.
Click here for some digitized episodes of America's Town Meeting of the Air
Rick Hampson and Stephen Taylor lead free Historic Radburn Walking Tours. For information, contact email@example.com