Many of us may never have heard of Mary Margaret McBride, but our grandmothers, who grew up when radio was the most advanced form of mass media for most Americans, may have been familiar with her show. Her experiences paved the way for women as journalists and radio personalities, and learning about her career shows us the changes in women’s lives over the first 75 years of the 20th century.
McBride was born on Nov. 16, 1899, in Missouri to Elizabeth Craig and Thomas Walker McBride. Their farm family struggled to find a secure home during the early years of her life. By the age of 6, McBride was enrolled in a preparatory school, William Woods College, at first with the funding of a great-aunt, who withdrew support when McBride said she wanted to become an author. McBride went to work part-time while still a child and then a teen at the Paris Mercury, the local newspaper, so she could pay the costs of continuing her education.
McBride caught a passion for journalism at the newspaper. With encouragement from her boss, she moved and got a part-time job at a Columbia, Missouri newspaper when she began attending the University of Missouri at the age of 16. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism by the age of 19, balancing academics and her job at the paper. She also joined the Alpha Mu chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta, an international sorority first created at DePauw University in 1870 to help support women venturing into coeducational institutions.
After graduation, she took a range of jobs as a reporter and publicist in Missouri then in Washington, D.C. Even though her great-aunt didn’t approve, McBride wrote fiction and news reports for newspapers and. Under her own name and pen-names, McBride also authored and co-authored 11 books over the course of her life.
McBride broke into radio when she was hired by WOR to play a fictional grandmother on “The Martha Deane Show” in 1934. However, McBride wasn’t an actress, and after a few weeks, she told her listeners that she was really a journalist and not married, let alone a mother or grandmother. Her listeners wrote in, and her show continued with unannounced guests as varied as explorers, literary types, ministers, and florists for well over a decade. She even crossed racial lines with her guests, thanks in part to the influence of Eleanor Roosevelt.
The tagline for her radio show was simple and to the point: “It’s one o’clock, and here is Mary Margaret McBride.” The target audience was the average American household during the period when “average women” went through radical shifts. During WWII, millions of women had to work in factories to support the war effort, only to be urged back to the kitchen so that WWII vets could return to their roles as breadwinners in the 1950s. McBride’s show wasn’t the normal soap opera fare for her listeners, and they loved her for it.
Her show was so popular that in 1949, its 15th-anniversary celebration had to be held in Yankee Stadium to hold all of the attendees; millions more listened to the show on their radios. Even after her retirement in 1954, she continued to host a radio show from her home for several years.
In 1957, McBride was interviewed by future television journalist icon Mike Wallace. We can watch that interview today. By then, McBride had conducted over 30,000 interviews on her radio shows. She talked freely about all subject matters in a straightforward, yet charming fashion. Read the transcript of it here.
McBride focused on her career at a time when that wasn’t a common choice for women. By taking that leap of faith and telling her audience the truth about who she was in 1934, she opened the door for the acceptance of women having serious public discussions about the world.