Happy Birthday to Night Watch – radio’s first reality show

With a few, shining exceptions (Blind Date, COPS, ElimiDate, Jersey Shore, Joe Millionaire, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, Shahs of Sunset, The Bachelor, The Real World seasons 1 and 2 (true stor-ay!), and maybe a couple dozen others, tops) I hate reality TV. To me, most reality shows are endurance-defying and totally depressing in a consumerist dystopian way. My aversion to most reality television is not really out of some moral disapproval of schadenfreude nor a principled dislike of unscripted entertainment. No, I usually just find them painfully boring and unpleasant. I remember first hearing about Survivor and was rather excited by the concept, hoping for naked castaways with no common language forced to fight tooth and claw just to stay alive. Imagine my disappointment upon finding out it involved little more than people unpleasant from the get-go undertaking a series of challenges for prizes in a tropical setting and talking about alliances. Yawn. The good reality shows (as determined by me) offer anthropological thrills, exposing the strange mating rituals of exotic subcultures and paint portraits of people in a way rarely seen in the stylized fictions of the day.

One of the earliest reality programs was on the radio, Night Watch. It was preceded by the hidden camera prank TV show Candid Camera which debuted in 1948 but, though both reality shows, could scarcely be more different. Night Watch debuted on CBS on April 5th, 1954, a few years after the popularity of TV exploded, threatening film and radio’s dominance. To compete with TV’s popularity, film offered things not available on TV like widescreen, technicolor, married couples sharing a bed, and black people. Old Time Radio ultimately died out in 1962 but in its last days offered other things in short supply on TV, namely adult content, intelligence and exploitation that would never pass muster on the beloved family idiot box. Radio programmers seemed to be OK with a bit of gore and tawdriness since it all took place in the mind and because it was at least packaged as a cautionary public service rather than the exploitation which it really was. The first time I heard it was an episode involving a suicide attempt (there were several) and I was hooked.

Night Watch was developed and hosted by Culver City police reporter Donn Reed who in each episode rode around with Sgt. Ron Perkins from 6:00 pm till 2:00 am. Reed was assuredly inspired by the greatest of all police procedurals, Dragnet, which debuted on April 5, 1954 (after two auditions in January and February) and followed the dramatized adventures of LAPD officers but was widely praised for its realism. Night Watch took realism to a new level, with Reed capturing the action with a dry-cell powered reel-to-reel recorder and a microphone concealed inside of a flashlight. It was directed, produced and supervised by Sterling Tracy, produced by Jim Hadlock and Sgt Perkins additionally worked as the show’s technical advisor.

Donald Reed, the youngest of three sons, was born to a doctor in Los Angeles, California. After completing high school, at the beginning of World War II, he joined the Army Air Forces. After the conclusion of the war, he worked for KNX where he created Night Watch. In the program, Reed never conveys a sense of self-importance even though his program presaged the development of both Cinéma Direct and Cinéma Vérité by a few years and shared many of the same hallmarks — the lack of non-diegetic sound and a for the most observational approach of the former as well as Reed’s end-of-program interviews with the subjects characteristic of the latter. Chief W. N. Hildebrande‘s wonderfully robotic, stilted epilogues make Mitt Romney sound like Oscar Wilde.

My feeling has long been that the so-called “good ole days” weren’t that different from the present — crime rates today are fairly similar to those in the ’50s (although crime coverage has increased dramatically). The mere fact that Night Watch titles include “The Nude Prowler,” “Child Desertion, Gabby and Kicker,” “Old Fashioned Suicide,” “Kid Explosives,” “Strippers and Pix Stash,” and “Goddam Lady and Mr. Peepers” should give potential listeners a sense that it’s a fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same. To me, it’s also absolutely fascinating to hear the relaxed, natural accents, rhythms and speech patterns of regular 1950s folks and to recognize how completely is from the snappy, highly artificial and frequently corny dialogue of contemporaneous TV and films.

Night Watch only ran for about a year, till April 22, 1955. I’m not sure why it was so short-lived — although producer Jim Hadlock‘s son was hit by a car whilst running an errand for his mother and suffered from a skull fracture. Reed auditioned another similar program, provisionally named, Police Recorder. Police Recorder was to have combined Donn Reed and Detective Sgt. Ron Perkins’s recorded field interviews with a police psychologist. The project never progressed beyond the audition stage. Reed subsequently joined KABC-AM Radio in 1957, where he joined Captain ‘Max’ Schumacher on Air Watch, an early drive time traffic report program. He remained there until 1960 after which, in 1961, he moved to KMPC where he remained until 1981, receiving several Golden Mikes in the process.

Perkins went on to serve as Culver City’s mayor and died in 2008. As for Reed’s later partner, Captain Schumacher, he died in an air accident with his helicopter and an LAPD one over Elysian Park, in which he and to cops were killed.

You can listen to all 52 episodes for free here. Old Time Radio shows on CD are also available in the store. Special thanks to the folks at The Digital Deli Too for their invaluable research and preservation efforts


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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

Art Prints

 

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