The March of Time had its origins in a 1928 radio series developed at WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio, by radio pioneer Fred Smith, who obtained permission to use material from Time magazine in his broadcasts. Later, Smith and Roy E. Larsen, the first circulation manager for Time, developed Time magazine's own radio program, which they called Newscasting. That program evolved into The March of Time, the first network presentation of a dramatized "news" format. At Smith's suggestion, the program included the "10 best radio actors", an "announcer extraordinary", a "splendid orchestra" and a "clever director."
"The March of Time was the first radio newsreel", wrote radio historian John Dunning, "dramatized news events, elaborately staged with sound effects and music, put together like a newspaper—often on deadline, with impact and accuracy its twin goals."
The March of Time began airing as a weekly series March 6, 1931, on CBS Radio on over 32 stations on Friday evenings. The half-hour program aired Fridays at 8:30 p.m. ET. In 1935 the program was trimmed to 15 minutes and aired five times a week, but after a year returned to its 30-minute weekly format. Suspended in 1939, the series was revived in 1941 with a new format, and lasted until 1945.
Time Inc. was the only sponsor of all of the shows; other sponsors included Remington Rand, the Wrigley Company, and Electrolux. The March of Time aired on CBS through October 7, 1937, and was subsequently broadcast on the Blue Network (October 14, 1937 – June 5, 1942), NBC (July 9, 1942 – October 26, 1944), and ABC (November 2, 1944 – July 26, 1945).
One of radio's most popular programs, The March of Time was described by Variety as "the apex of radio showmanship." It reached millions of Americans during its 14-year history. The series's promotional value to Time Inc. proved to be incalculable, although Time had announced that it would discontinue the program after the first year. It was an expensive production requiring as many as 75 staff and 1,000 hours of labor to get each issue on the air.
The full studio orchestra was conducted by Howard Barlow (CBS) and Donald Voorhees (NBC). The sound effects team was led by Ora Daigle Nichols, the only woman who made a living as a sound engineer at that time. She and her husband Arthur introduced sound effects to radio, drawing on many successful years of stage and silent film experience. They began to freelance their talents to radio in 1928, and were put under contract by CBS as the demand for sound effects increased. After her husband's death in 1931, Nichols continued to lead the profession and was called the "first lady of sound effects." The media voted Nichols one of the most influential women in radio; other women honored included Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt and Kate Smith.
The March of Time broadcasts began with the tramp-tramp-tramp of shuffling feet, to indicate "the relentless impersonal progress of events." The principal narrator was the Voice of Time; another was the Voice of Fate, narrating stories of catastrophe or the death of a notable person. The first Voice of Time was Ted Husing; Westbrook Van Voorhis was the Voice of Fate. In fall 1931 Harry von Zell began a brief tenure as Time, but in October 1933 he moved to the role of announcer and Van Voorhis assumed the leading role. His voice—concluding most broadcasts with a booming, "Time … marches on!"—became synonymous with the program, both on radio and in the newsreel series.
Written to match the style of Time magazine, radio scripts incorporated transcripts of statements and comments by the figures impersonated on The March of Time whenever possible. When these could not be obtained, writers were allowed to "re-create" appropriate dialogue. Actors researched and rehearsed with great care to mimic the precise voice patterns and characteristics of the people they were impersonating. March of Time creator Roy E. Larsen recalled that only one person, Franklin D. Roosevelt, ever complained about their treatment on the program. The President was annoyed because he was getting calls from political advisors regarding statements spoken on The March of Time that he had not uttered, even though they matched his policies. White House complaints continued until 1937, when The March of Time stopped imitating FDR altogether.
"From the beginning it was known that The March of Time would face the stiffest production challenges that radio had yet known", wrote John Dunning:
When a big story broke at the last minute, a polished ready-to-air show was reorganized: the entire menu was shifted as events demanded. Newspapers are accustomed to this … but in radio, a new breed of actor had come to the fore, players who could deliver superb performances from scripts they had never seen before going live on the air. Sight reading, they called it: reading always two lines ahead and acting the lines they had already read. Actors, sound artists, and musicians worked feverishly to accommodate the bulletins from Time's reporters in the field.
Seven or eight sketches were featured in each show, varying in length from 90 seconds to four minutes. Newspapers were sometimes scooped by the radio docudrama. On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg disaster took place two hours before air time, and The March of Time created a segment that focused on the history of airship travel and ended with the news of the disaster in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Herbert Morrison's recorded radio eyewitness report from the landing field was not broadcast until the next day.