Southern Scenes

Peabody Award medallionAnd then there was that time George Foster Peabody made Jon Stewart cry.

Well, sort of.  It was in 2006. Mr. Peabody by then had been gone from this world for about 68 years. Stewart, irreverent host of The Daily Show, was hosting the presentation of the awards that bear the Georgia-born philanthropist’s name.

Twice a Peabody recipient himself, Stewart was working the Waldorf-Astoria’s cavernous, chandeliered grand ballroom like a comedy club. He was dancing up and down the fine line between impish and rude, messing with even big-name winners like Martin Scorsese. But close to the end of the ceremony, after presiding over clips from winning entries that ranged from Hurricane Katrina coverage to Battlestar Galactica to a TV-movie about a South African mom with AIDS, Stewart got choked up. He had to pause, clear his throat and compose himself before he could go on.

Moments like this – Peabody moments, we call them at the program’s offices on the University of Georgia campus – happen every year. If it’s not the emcee getting misty, it’s a recipient like Lost creator Damon Lindelof confessing in his acceptance speech that he almost didn’t fly in for the ceremony in New York because of bad weather but that his wife had told him, “This is the Peabody Awards. If you don’t go, I will slap your face.” And then he thanked her for her wise counsel and gushed about his Peabody and the heady company he was in.

What happens, you see, is that the creativity and social significance of the year’s winning productions slowly add up and reach a cumulative critical mass that can be humbling whether you’re a reporter at a radio station in Fargo or the highly compensated creator of a big network hit.

Recipients, emcees and audience members alike become palpably aware that a Peabody Award, the oldest in electronic media, is indeed the hardest to win. They are reminded that the awards go not just to work that is technically excellent but to work that also addresses issues and ideas in a thoughtful manner, that challenges the mind or that breaks new ground. They are reminded of just how good TV, radio and the Internet can be. They are reminded that the George Foster Peabody Awards are not only a gesture of respect but a double-dog-dare.

It might have been different. The National Association of Broadcasters was hoping to generate more respect for its members – and, frankly, publicity – when its executive leadership in 1938 asked Lambdin Kay, general manager of Atlanta’s WSB-AM, to dream up a prize for radio that would have the prestige that the Pulitzer carries in the print world.

What Kay came up with might have been only a bit more meaningful than a Golden Globe if it had been merely an in-house industry prize. But WSB’s continuity editor, Lessie Smithgall (a University of Georgia graduate who recently celebrated her 100th birthday), hooked Kay up with her mentor, John Drewry, the revered dean of UGA’s journalism school. Once they’d outlined the award and obtained the use of the recently departed Mr. Peabody’s name (and some start-up money) from his family, Kay and the NAB left it to Drewry to run with it. That independence has been crucial to the cache the award quickly acquired.

At the first ceremony, a 1941 soiree focused on 1940’s radio fare, awards went to stations in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbia, Missouri, for public service and to CBS Radio’s Elmer Davis for his reporting.  In 1942, Peabody winners ranged from The Man Behind the Gun, a CBS drama, to Our Hidden Enemy, Venereal Disease, a documentary produced by KOAC Radio in Corvalis, Oregon. The unique Peabody emphasis on excellence without regard to genre or market size was already evident.

The first awards to that new-fangled gizmo called television didn’t happen until 1948. Winners that year included Actor’s Studio, a dramatic anthology that involved the likes of John Steinbeck and Elia Kazan, and a children’s program called Howdy Doody. Again, that omnivorous purview, still a Peabody hallmark.

At the 70th annual Peabody ceremony coming up May 23 in New York, Larry King will be the emcee. The recently retired CNN star is the latest in a long line of past Peabody winners – among them Stewart, Walter Cronkite, Lesley Stahl, Brian Williams and Diane Sawyer – who volunteer their services. The 38 Peabody recipients range from a documentary about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird’s unique rivalry to The Moth Radio Hour, from a website devoted to U.S. soldiers recovering from traumatic brain injuries to Justified, a sort of modern-day Gunsmoke set in Appalachia.

Gunsmoke, for the record, never won a Peabody. Neither did I Love Lucy or The Andy Griffith Show, two other long-running oldies now widely considered to be classics. Oversights happen. It wasn’t that the Peabodys were snooty in the early days — well, ok, maybe they were, just a little – but that the early emphasis was heavily on news, education and public service. With occasional exceptions like Wally Cox’s Mister Peepers and Lassie (yes, Lassie but no Lucy), the entertainment series honored by the Peabody board tended to be Cultural fare such as Omnibus and The Bell Telephone Hour.

But the Peabodys steadily evolved along with the electronic media they honor and encourage. Entertainment programming began to get more attention when it became more connected to reality in the 1970s, the heyday of great Norman Lear and MTM Productions comedies. Now, more than a decade after a Peabody board honored The Sopranos for exploring “the moral complexity of modern American life,” it’s not a big shock when a fresh configuration of the 16-member board cites a South Park as well as an oral-history of the Civil Rights movement or a 30 Rock along with a Roanoke TV station’s restrained live reporting of the Virginia Tech shooting spree.

In recent years, the Peabodys have averaged about 1,000 TV, radio and Web entries – news coverage, documentaries, entertainment, public-service campaigns, children’s shows – from as close by as Atlanta and as far away as Hong Kong. From these, the board reaches unanimous agreement on only about three dozen.

After The Colbert Report was honored in 2007, a jubilant Stephen Colbert informed his Comedy Central audience that the Peabody is a “big deal” because it’s “like an Oscar wrapped in an Emmy inside a Pulitzer.”

For once, Colbert wasn’t being hyperbolic. He could have noted that it’s like an Oscar wrapped in an Emmy inside a Pulitzer preserved in amber with a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval affixed and blessings from the Dali Lama and Oprah Winfrey.

It is a big deal.

###

George Foster Peabody
George Foster Peabody

 

Truth in packaging: Noel Holston wrote about television and popular culture for The Orlando Sentinel, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and New York’s Newsday before joining the Peabody Awards staff in 2006. He traces his awareness of the award to 1957, when one of his favorite TV shows, Captain Kangaroo, won its first Peabody and for weeks displayed the medallion at the conclusion of each broadcast. For more about this year’s Peabody recipients, visit www.peabody.uga.edu.

###
Noel Holston

Noel Holston

Noel Holston, originally from Laurel, Miss., is a freelance journalist, songwriter, storyteller and actor who lives in Athens, Ga., with his wife, singer-songwriter Marty Winkler. In a previous life, he was the TV critic at Newsday in New York and, before that, a critic and feature writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Orlando Sentinel.