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“Visualize ace counterspy of them all as David Harding…”

“Visualize ace counterspy of them all as David Harding…”

Posted by Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. on May 18th 2023

On this date in 1942, the man who brought Gang Busters and Mr. District Attorney to radio consoles “added one more jewel to his Triumvirate of Tension,” according to historian Jim Harmon in The Great Radio Heroes. Radio impresario Phillips H. Lord conceived Counterspy (also known as David Harding, Counterspy) as a program that would capture the imagination of the listening audience during World War II by creating a fictitious unit of the U.S. government, “the United States Counterspies,” that investigated the espionage activities of “the enemies of our country both home and abroad.” We could state that Counterspy received the official stamp of approval from the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover…but that would be a big stinky fib. Lord was determined to avoid the same grief he received from Hoover as he did over Gang Busters, and one can be reasonably certain that J. Edgar held Counterspy in the same contempt as he did The FBI in Peace and War.

“Germany has its Gestapo, Italy its Zobra, and Japan its Black Dragon,” noted Counterspy’s memorable opening. “But matched against all of these secret enemy agents are Uncle Sam’s highly trained counterspies.” Representing Team Uncle Sam was David Harding, much in the same manner as Special Agent Jim Taylor (played by Stacy Harris) was the personification of the Feds on This is Your FBI. (Interestingly, though This is Your FBI had the full backing of J. Edgar, it never achieved the popularity of Counterspy…or The FBI in Peace and War, for that matter.) Harding was portrayed in the premiere episode by actor House Jameson, a radio veteran best known for practicing law while dealing with the antics of wacky teenager Henry Aldrich (House was Sam Aldrich, Henry’s long-suffering father). But the role of Harding would eventually be the responsibility of Don McLaughlin, described by more than a few observers as “the most American voice on the air.” (McLaughlin also worked on Lord’s Gang Busters as “Commissioner Valentine.”)

Listeners truly believed that the exploits of David Harding were based on official cases, despite Lord’s concoction of the fictional “United States Counterspies” (the U.S. did employ counterspies, but it’s not like they had an agency letterhead or anything). While Counterspy was never a darling of critics—Harding and his fellow “counterspies” were described as “by-the-book, humorless, heavy-footed, hard-nosed, unromantic federal agents” according to author Jim Cox (Radio Crime Fighters)—its appeal to juvenile audiences was undeniable, despite a good amount of unfriendly violence. In addition, the show had one of the medium’s most memorable openings: over the sound of a key clicking out Morse code, an announcer intoned “Washington…calling counterspy…” There would then be a pause, and then Harding would respond “Harding…counterspy…calling Washington…” The announcers for Counterspy included Roger Krupp, Lionel Rico, Bob Shepherd, and Ed White, who at various times plugged such sponsors as Mail Pouch tobacco, Pepsi-Cola, and Gulf Oil gasoline.

Later in Counterspy’s run, the creative minds behind the show gave David Harding a sidekick in Agent Harry Peters, portrayed by veteran actor Mandel Kramer. Peters served the same function as Mr. District Attorney’s stooge Harrington and gave Harding sizable support when the focus in the plots shifted after WW2 to battling Cold War enemies and narcotics kingpins. Nancy Douglas performed many of the female parts on the show, with the supporting cast also featuring such familiar East Coast voices as Ralph Bell (who excelled at playing villains), Larry Haines, Bryna Raeburn, Lawson Zerbe, Frank Readick, Luis Van Rooten, Elspeth Eric, Roger DeKoven and Karl Swenson.

In 1950, Columbia Pictures brought Counterspy to the silver screen with the first of two motion pictures in a brief franchise, David Harding, Counterspy. Replacing Don McLaughlin’s most American voice was studio contractee Howard St. John as Harding, with an uncredited Fred F. Sears (later a director) portraying Agent Peters. Sears did receive credit in the follow-up, Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard (1950), but the studio abandoned any further Harding exploits after that. McLaughlin also lost out on the TV pilot that would have launched a TV series (Don Megowan played Harding) yet that never got off the ground, either. Phillips H. Lord had to be mildly surprised at the longevity of Counterspy (he had planned to terminate the program once WW2 ended), which continued to entertain listeners until November 29, 1957. As for Don McLaughlin, he settled in to play patriarch Chris Hughes for three decades on the long-running daytime TV drama As the World Turns.

Radio Spirits has the perfect gift for those of you observing the anniversary of Counterspy’s radio debut today: it’s appropriately titled David Harding Counter-Spy, and it features sixteen broadcasts from the series that originally aired between 1942 and 1950. You’ll also find a pair of vintage episodes in our Great Radio Spies collection, available in our digital downloads store. Happy anniversary, David Harding!