Colonel Edward Montague Kirby had a long and successful career in broadcasting, advertising and public relations. His most important contributions to radio however were made while he worked for the United States government.
Born in Brooklyn, New York on June 6, 1906, Kirby was the son of a coal merchant. Sent off to a boarding school at a young age, he returned to New York for a time in his high school years before going to a private military academy in upstate New York. He was later accepted at the Virginia Military Institute, where he received his A.B. degree in 1926, along with a commission as a 2nd Lt. (Field Artillery) in the U.S. Army Reserves.
Kirby worked at several jobs over the next few years. He was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and later did economic, statistical and market analysis for several banks. He worked for C.P. Clark, Inc. of Nashville in 1929 doing advertising and public relations, and it was here he directed national advertising campaigns for several important clients, including the General Shoe corporation. He also got his first radio experience, producing nationally distributed programs for General Shoe and others.
Soon, he came to the attention of Edwin Craig, Vice President of the National Life and Accident Insurance Co. of Nashville and a director of the National Association of Broadcasters. He brought Kirby onboard in 1933, and in a few years the company had increased its insurance policies by 57%, due largely to Kirby's judicious use of the firms' radio station, WSM, as a sales tool. It was during this period that Kirby met Marjorie Arnold, daughter of the Dean of the Vanderbilt Law School and a staff actress at WSM. They married in 1936, and had two daughters, Patricia and Kip.
Towards the end of his tenure with National Life and WSM, Kirby gained valuable experience in working under duress during the disastrous spring floods of 1937. He also had an idea for a monthly magazine, called Rural Radio, which was created solely for rural listeners. It took almost a year to get off the ground and initially was a great success. But it folded in a short period of time since Kirby accepted an offer to become the National Association of Broadcasters' first full-time Director of Public Relations in Washington, D.C. While with the NAB, Kirby served as the Secretary of the NAB Code Committee and helped setup what later came to be known as the Broadcast Advertising Bureau. He also worked behind the scenes to help free broadcasting from the grip of ASCAP through the creation of Broadcast Music, Inc.
In December of 1940, Kirby was loaned to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson as a "dollar a year" civilian advisor for radio, becoming the defacto head of the Army's radio branch. He also served as a liaison between the broadcast community and the War Department. One of his most important jobs in that capacity was to lobby for the continued independence of radio in the face of the increasing inevitability of U.S. entry into World War II. In this he was successful, as there was no outright takeover of broadcasting facilities by the government in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Soon after the attack, work began under Kirby's direction on two radio programs, The Army Hour, meant for listeners on the homefront, and Command Performance, for those in uniform. The Army Hour was an attempt to bring the reality of the war home to the American people through the power and immediacy of radio. It was carried by NBC, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on the show. Highlights included interviews with both top brass and returning combat veterans.
Command Performance was the brainchild of Lou Cowan, who was asked by Kirby to come up with a show to entertain the troops overseas. The idea Cowan came back with was a natural for an army of "citizen soldiers" fighting for democracy far from home. As Kirby later wrote: "The GI who was trained to obey commands in the line of duty could now command anything he wanted from the radio world in the way of entertainment…It was unique, it was democratic, it was American." It also made for perhaps the best program of the war years, though one that civilians hardly ever got to hear.
Stars from Bob Hope and Bing Crosby to Judy Garland and Merle Oberon appeared gratis in answer to some soldier's letter. In the end, performers and the networks donated millions of dollars worth of talent and facilities.
In May of 1942 Kirby became Lt. Colonel Kirby, with substantially the same duties he had as a civilian. In 1944 he was attached to General Eisenhower's staff to carry out perhaps the most important broadcasting-related assignment of the war. Kirby was given the task of coordinating all radio coverage of D-Day and the subsequent invasion, as well as establishing an allied radio network to serve all the troops involved in the operation. For his efforts he was promoted to full Colonel, and was awarded the Legion of Merit and the Order of the British Empire. In 1943 he was honored with a Peabody Radio Award for "Yankee Ingenuity on a global scale."
After the war, Kirby did freelance public relations work for a time. He also wrote a book, Star-Spangled Radio, co-authored with Jack Harris, which chronicled "radio's part in World War II."
Kirby was also instrumental in persuading Universal Pictures to do a film about famous bandleader Glenn Miller, who lost his life while on a plane trip to entertain American troops during World War II. Kirby had worked closely with Miller in arranging his schedules and camp shows during his military career. During the filming of the production, Colonel Kirby served as one of the technical advisers. The movie, The Glenn Miller Story came out in 1954.
When the Korean conflict erupted, Kirby was recalled for an emergency tour of duty as Chief of the Army's Radio-TV Branch. Colonel Kirby reactivated the Army's public information activities and effectively launched its use of television, creating the program The Big Picture, a fixture on American television for the next two decades.
Colonel Kirby left the Army for the last time in March of 1953. Working for the Washington D.C. Board of Trade he originated the Christmas "Pageant of Peace", an event that has taken place annually on the Ellipse to this day. He later worked for the People-To-People Foundation. In 1957 he accepted the position of Director of Public Relations for the United Service Organizations (USO) where he worked tirelessly to raise funds for the USO and established strong ties with the Advertising Council to facilitate national exposure for USO radio, television and print campaigns. Colonel Kirby resigned from the USO in 1970 and returned with his wife to Washington, D.C. He died in 1974.