Olympics | OLYMPIC NOTEBOOK

Michael Socolow explores evolution of global sports broadcasting through prism of 1936 Berlin Olympics in award-winning book

by Ed Odeven

With a sharp eye for detail, American author and media historian Michael Socolow combines elements of geopolitical intrigue, Olympic history and sports broadcasting exploration infused with vigorous enthusiasm for rowing in his notable November 2016 book “Six Minutes in Berlin: Broadcast Spectacle and Rowing Gold at the Nazi Olympics.”

On the May 9 “Huddlin’ With The Pros” podcast host David Weinstein referred to the influential time period of Socolow’s book by describing it as “the genesis of global sportscasting and how we all now pay attention to sports.”

Six Minutes in Berlin caught the attention of the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation, which named Socolow the winner of its 2018 Broadcasting Historian Award.

“As my book points out, NHK were the only foreign broadcasters to travel to Los Angeles in 1932 for those (Olympic) Games, but the Olympic organizers prohibited live broadcasts (the Japanese sportscaster would take notes in the stadium, drive to NBC’s Los Angeles studio, and re-create the event),” Socolow stated in a recent interview. “The signal would be sent to San Francisco for relay to Tokyo.”

In describing what Socolow accomplished in his thorough research and reporting, the news release announcing the award summed up his ambitious feat.

“Socolow uses a single case study — the gold-medal winning rowing crew from the University of Washington, which upset the Germans in front of Adolf Hitler and 75,000 fans — to illustrate the development of sports broadcasting at the personal, national, and global levels,” the news release stated. “He interweaves the broadcast of that race, heard by millions in the United States, with the memories of the oarsmen and contemporaneous press accounts to revisit the dramatic and exciting origins of live global sportscasting.”

Socolow, a gifted observer, was thrilled and humbled by the recognition he received in winning the award.

“I’m honored and very grateful to the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation and the Broadcast Education Association for this recognition,” Socolow said in a press release issued in February.

“The history of radio and television provides an important tool for understanding contemporary media debates, and I’m thankful to the foundation and the BEA for their continued support of broadcasting history.”

Socolow was presented the award and a check for $5,000 at the BEA’s annual convention in early April in Las Vegas.

Booklist, meanwhile, succinctly reviewed the book this way: “Socolow . . . is well placed to set that Olympic final in the context of a Nazi propaganda machine that found its fullest expression at those Games. . . . The author’s finer brushstrokes . . . paint glimmers of the horrors to come, but also the manifold personalities comprising that uniquely American crew, and the sheer competitive thrill of the final itself, whose wake can still gently lift the world 80 years on.”

In Christopher Hilgert’s review of the book, which was posted on the website tandfonline.com, the two narratives of the book come to the fore.

Hilgert wrote, “On the one hand, with great passion Socolow tells the fascinating underdog story of the ‘Husky Clipper,’ a varsity boat from the University of Washington, and its eight oarsmen, one coxswain, and a gifted coach. The team qualified to represent the United States at the 1936 Olympics and, despite many obstacles, eventually won the gold medal by beating the favorite teams from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.

“On the other hand, this is interwoven with an historical analysis of how an international collaborative network of broadcasting institutions and a handful of radio reporters strived to report on such sport competitions. In combination with other media and the Nazi propaganda’s general graze for the huge and spectacular, these broadcasts transformed the Olympics from a rather elitist festival of athletic contests ‘into the professional globalized spectacle we know today.’ ”

Socolow’s interest in broadcasting can be traced to his upbringing. His father, Sanford, had a longtime involvement at CBS News (1956-88), including time as executive editor of “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” from 1978-81.

Earlier this spring, Socolow visited Lisbon and spoke at the Sport, Olympic Games, and Media Conference, which was sponsored by the Portuguese Olympic Committee. While there, he presented a paper on global shortwave radio at the Berlin Games, live color transmissions from the 1968 Mexico City Games and the central question of why both important technological breakthroughs “aren’t considered bigger landmarks in broadcast history.”

The Japan Times caught up with Socolow, an associated professor of communication and journalism at the University of Maine, via email on several occasions in recent months to discuss his highly acclaimed book, general thoughts on the evolution of the Olympics across the decades and various innovations in sports media since the early days of radio.

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How helpful were the 1932 Summer Games for NHK in terms of learning how to improvise to get things done? (For context, I think back to this nugget from one of your earlier emails to me: “…the Japanese sportscaster would take notes in the stadium, drive to NBC’s Los Angeles studio, and re-create the event. The signal would be sent to San Francisco for relay to Tokyo.”)

The 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games were a huge milestone in Japanese sports history. The Japanese team surprised the world with their success in swimming and other sports — so much so that there were rumors of cheating and drugs and immoral, life-threatening training regimens, etc.

The NHK management knew that Japan was going to do well, so they coordinated with the Radio Corporation of America (which operated NBC) to broadcast the Games by shortwave back to Japan. The problem was the Los Angeles Olympic Committee refused to cooperate with broadcasters because they feared radio’s damage to ticket sales. CBS, which had partnered with the BBC to broadcast the Games to the United Kingdom, and NBC, were both refused access to the events without an exorbitant rights payment — which they refused to pay. This locked out the NHK broadcasters.

So NHK (sports announcer) Norizo Matsuuchi would go to events, take copious notes, then be driven to NBC’s Los Angeles station where he would recreate the event in a studio. The signal would then be piped north to San Francisco, where the shortwave transmitter over the Pacific (Ocean) was located. The problem was Matsuuchi’s notes were too detailed. His description of the 100-meter sprint, which in reality took about 10 seconds, required almost a minute to recreate.

Was that a real lesson about ingenuity for the NHK crew?

I’m not sure it was ingenuity — recreated sports events were a staple of radio at the time, because of the difficulty of broadcasting from distant locations. So a lot of baseball games in the United States — for example — were recreated on the radio from telegraph reports in 1932.

In all of your research and interviews, what stands out the most about the public perception in Japan, as well as from government leaders and the media themselves, about the impact of the broadcasts of swimmer Hideko Maehata’s 200-meter women’s breaststroke gold-medal triumph and Korean Son Kitei (who represented Japan due to the colonial rule of the empire) capturing the top prize in the men’s marathon?

I was very impressed with how NHK management seemed to combine the best aspects of Western broadcasting. So NHK sportscasters had the same kind of excited and emotional connection to their audiences back in Japan that American commercial broadcasters pioneered in many ways, but they also worked within the more formal structures that were a hallmark of, say, BBC broadcasts at the time. I was struck by the power of the emotional connection between the Japanese nation and their athletes, and the way the NHK did such an excellent job to both create that bond and sustain it.

The NHK English language documentary (www.youtube.com/watch?v=_onlKgAlZ4w) about Hideko Maehata’s victory does a wonderful job of illustrating the emotional connection that millions of Japanese radio listeners had to that famous Olympic broadcast.

Did other networks mimic or emulate key elements of the way NHK managed its radio equipment and set things up during the Berlin Games? Can you give a couple examples that show a clear springboard from NHK in ’36 to say what was the M.O. of global broadcasts in the ’40s during WWII and, say, through the mid-50s?

The NHK broadcasters in Berlin actually spent a lot of time cooperating and collaborating with the Germans, who set everything up for them. Then the Germans gifted to the Japanese some equipment and technical information that was brought back East when the Games ended. What the NHK executives and technicians brought back from Berlin were German innovations in microphones, amplifiers, and the knowledge to improve directional shortwave antennae, among a few other things.

It was sort of an amalgam of the state of the art of broadcasting — the Germans, for instance, had used recent American engineering knowledge to improve their transoceanic relay, so what the Japanese brought back from Germany was truly the state of the art of international technology. And within a year, by 1937, the Japanese had begun a series of shortwave relay programs to Southeast Asia and the Pacific that mimicked the kind of propaganda the Germans were using to reach Germans in the United States, South America, colonial Africa, and elsewhere.

How open-minded and progressive in their thinking were the management types and decision-makers at NHK during the 1936 Summer Games? Were they very visionary in their outlook on what technology could do? Was it more of a combination of sheer luck and coincidence?

My sense is that the Japanese executives at the Berlin Games knew that their work had more than one goal. The sports broadcasts were important, but learning and matching the West in broadcast technology was also an essential purpose of their trip. I don’t think it was luck or vision, per se — they knew before the Games began that they had a tremendous opportunity to improve their broadcasting and they exploited it effectively. As The Japan Times reported at the time (and I cited in my book), Japanese and German engineers had been cooperating on improving global relay and reception for about a year before the Games started.

Can you paint a picture in words citing why/how NHK, largely unknown to many in the West, played a pivotal role in global broadcasting and technological advances based on the overall narrative of your book? For instance, after the Berlin Games, what role did Japan have in expanding shortwave relay throughout Asia?

American radio and broadcast history has a clear Eurocentric bias — largely it’s linguistic and cultural, but also because that’s where most of the archival materials exist and are accessible. Collaboration and exchanges between the British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) and the U.S. networks, as well as the Dutch, German and French broadcasters, have received recent attention from scholars. Similarly, there’s been excellent work done on radio’s growth and development in Canada and Mexico.

But Asia shows up primarily in the scholarship through a Western Imperial focus until just before World War II. That’s when U.S. reporters like CBS’s Bill Dunn (who wrote the memoir “Pacific Microphone”) and Cecil Brown (who wrote “Suez to Singapore”) began to make Americans aware of radio in places like Dutch Indonesia, Singapore and Manila.

NHK is a fascinating organization, and I came to its history in my book via scholars who’ve written about its development and Hisateru Furuta’s official history of Japanese broadcasting (“Hisateru Furuta, Broadcasting in Japan: The Twentieth Century Journey from Radio to Multimedia” (Tokyo, Japan: NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, 2002).

From early on, NHK executives pioneered a model more closely modeled on the BBC than American networks — emphasizing educational uplift and moral instruction over popular programming. But they also recognized the importance of sports and radio’s important role in promoting nationalism by the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Baseball and sumo broadcasts were particularly popular in the earliest years. By 1932, the NHK would be the only international broadcaster attempting its own live coverage of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games, but that didn’t quite work out.

What was your objective in writing this book? And what were the biggest challenges you faced?

I’d say I set out to tell a story from sports history that’s dramatic and engaging, and to also revisit parts of media history that aren’t well known. I wanted to give the reader a sense of the Berlin Games from multiple viewpoints — athletes, fans, radio listeners at home on different continents around the world and broadcasters. And I wanted to show how we can locate so much of what we consider sports broadcasting in one event that occurred in August 1936 that was experienced by over 300 million people. Whether I succeeded or not I leave to the readers.

And the biggest challenge wasn’t the editing (“whittling down”) but, rather, the language barriers to doing truly global broadcast history. I cited and quoted sources in French, German, Spanish and English and I’m sure my lack of facility in those languages left much great material passed over. When I could decode something I realized I needed, and I knew it would be in the book, I sometimes had to pay for translation assistance and asked friends for help.

The other major challenge is simply publication. It’s getting more and more difficult to sell a book manuscript to a publisher — either for the trade market or academic market — and my original attempts to reach a larger audience than just scholars was stymied, and that delayed publication at least two or three years. But I’m happy with the academic market and the reception of the book among scholars.

What does it mean to you that you were chosen for the Library of American Broadcasting Foundation’s 2018 Broadcast Historian Award?

The award means a lot to me personally — I’m gratified and honored my research has been recognized. Since my book is about an important moment in global broadcast history, I also think it’s a recognition of the new histories that are looking at ways national broadcasting systems collaborated and influenced each other in their developmental era.

For you, does the award symbolize inspiration you received from your father and his career and his bond with Walter Cronkite during their CBS collaboration?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t be a journalism educator, or so curious and interested in media and broadcast history, if I didn’t witness some of it as a child when my father produced the “CBS Evening News.”