Robert Lewis Shayon, 95, Is Dead; Elevated Radio
July 18, 2008
By BRUCE WEBER
Robert Lewis Shayon, who wrote and produced groundbreaking radio programs in the 1940s, including the “You Are There” series for CBS, and who later became a longtime television critic for The Saturday Review and an Ivy League professor — all without a college education of his own — died at his home in Frankfort, Ky., on June 28. He was 95.
The cause was pneumonia, said his wife, Nash Cox.
A voracious reader and autodidact who became a booster of television’s educational possibilities, Mr. Shayon, whether writing for radio, television or print, was always informed by meticulous research and had a style that was a pleasing amalgam of modesty and erudition.
“The series carries the usual bag of space-fiction hard- and software — lasers, telepathy, time warps, etc.,” he wrote in the 1960s about a new show, “Star Trek.” “Countering the comic-strip values is the image of an integrated crew representing diverse races — albeit the captain is an American and the known space system seems to be under the benevolent hegemony of a Pax Americana.”
In the postwar 1940s, working in the radio documentary unit at CBS with Edward R. Murrow, Mr. Shayon wrote and directed two special programs that helped elevate the medium.
The first, “Operation Crossroads,” aired in the spring of 1946, less than a year after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a survey of public knowledge and opinion about atomic energy and featured an interview with Albert Einstein. Jack Gould, writing in The New York Times, said the program “expanded the horizon of American radio more than any other single broadcast has done in recent years.”
The second, in 1947, was “The Eagle’s Brood,” about the spread of juvenile delinquency in the United States. Mr. Shayon wrote its script “after a 9,000-mile, $2,000 coast-to-coast tour of U.S. slums and prisons,” Time magazine reported at the time. ” ‘What I saw,’ says Shayon, ‘hit me between the eyes.’ His script, as radio rarely does, hit listeners between the ears.”
Mr. Shayon went on to produce and direct the “You Are There” series for CBS, which melded history and technology by telling the stories of historical events — the storming of the Bastille, the discovery of America by Columbus — as if they were being covered live on the air. The first episode, on July 7, 1947, about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was written by Mr. Shayon. The program aired for three years and was made into a television series with Walter Cronkite as the host.
Mr. Shayon was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 15, 1912. His mother died when he was 6, and his father, an insurance salesman, later married a woman with other children, leaving Robert adrift.
“He left school at 15 or 16 and never looked back,” Ms. Cox said in an interview Thursday.
Wanting to be an actor, he ended up, in the late 1920s, sleeping on a park bench, taking odd jobs in theaters and occasionally reading poetry on the radio. It was in a radio studio that he met a woman who changed his life, an Australian opera singer named Leah Frances Russell, who became his mentor and benefactor. Not only did she give him a place to sleep, but she introduced him to her daughter, Sheila, whom he eventually wed. Their marriage lasted 47 years, until she died in 1983. Mrs. Russell lived with them throughout the marriage, and the two women died within a month of each other.
In addition to his wife — Ms. Cox, whom he married in 1984 — Mr. Shayon is survived by two daughters, Diana Shayon of Westport, Conn., and Sheila Shayon of Manhattan, and three grandchildren.
Mr. Shayon was laid off at CBS in 1950, the year his name appeared in an anti-Communist pamphlet, “Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television,” and he was blacklisted by the broadcasting industry.
Turning to the print media, he became the first television critic for The Christian Science Monitor before joining The Saturday Review, where he remained for more than 20 years.
He was the author of several books, including “Television and Our Children,” which was published in 1951 and was one of the first considerations of the impact of the new medium on young people. In 1965 he joined the faculty of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. When he retired, in 1990, the school endowed a chair in his name.