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Where's NBC Radio?
Written June 3, 2002
Lawrence Welk item added April 15, 2014

 

Forty-four years later, I remember Steve Allen's walk down the hall in Burbank.  It was good to see it again.

In the spring of 2002, NBC celebrated its 75th anniversary with a three-hour television special.  One clip that I had not seen since 1958, when I watched it live, was from the Steve Allen Show.

Back then, Steve was on Sunday nights at 8:00 in black and white.  The Dinah Shore Chevy Show followed at 9:00 in color.  I think that Steve had recently moved his program from New York to the west coast, so both variety shows, his and Dinah's, now originated from NBC's Burbank studios.

At the end of one of Steve's programs, he had a camera move backwards down the hall, through a scenery dock or something, all the way to Dinah's studio.  While walking down the hall toward the retreating camera, he and his guests sang "This Could Be the Start of Dinah Shore."  (This was the portion shown in 2002.)

The camera ended up on Dinah's stage, where Steve and Dinah wrapped up his show.  After a station break, the same two-shot began her show, but it was now in color.  Although I was watching on a black and white TV set, it was easy to tell the difference:  color pictures were softer, with less contrast and detail.  Also, there was an overlaid texture of little dots.

For more details, this 90th Anniversary update from 2017 includes a link to the actual video.

That Steve Allen clip was from 1958.  Most of NBC's 75th anniversary show celebrated programs that were more recent, which a larger proportion of the audience would remember.

However, I began to notice that the first 25 years of NBC were hardly mentioned at all.  David Sarnoff's name did come up, but where was the story of how NBC began in late 1926?  Where were the Red Network and the Blue Network?  Calvin Coolidge?  HV Kaltenborn?  Fibber McGee and Molly?  Where, in fact, was NBC Radio?

A little research revealed a fact that I had forgotten.  There is no more NBC Radio.

And one of my friends from Oberlin College presided at the funeral.


I remember listening to network radio in the 1950s, when it was starting to die.

My parents had delayed getting a TV set, perhaps worrying that watching television would not be good for me.  In November 1956, when I was nearly 10 years old, they finally gave in.  Now I was able to join the schoolyard discussions of what had happened on Lassie the night before — except that my classmates were growing up.  They had all moved beyond Lassie.

Before TV, our family listened to radio, although not every night.  Mostly it was on weekends, especially in the summer.  We'd go out in the car and eat supper at a restaurant somewhere, maybe the Knotty Pine in the nearby town of La Rue, and drive around listening to the radio.  We could hear NBC on stations like WLW from Cincinnati, and CBS on stations like WJR from Detroit.

On Sunday nights on CBS in 1955 and 1956, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen had a one-hour show with his characters Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd.

Then at 9:30, there was the comedy Our Miss Brooks with Eve Arden as a single high-school teacher, dealing with such frustrations as her principal, Mr. Conklin.  The squeaky-voiced, not-too-bright student Walter Denton was played by a young Richard Crenna.  For some reason, I remember one joke in which Walter remarked, "This school bus goes all the way to Capa City.  See, right there on the side it says, 'CapaCity 44 students.'"

Our Miss Brooks had started on radio in 1948 but soon became a television series.  It also remained on radio, however, which is where I heard it.  I never did figure out the answer to one puzzle:  sometimes the audience would laugh for no apparent reason.  I'd ask my parents what had happened, but they didn't know either.  Perhaps we were actually listening to the soundtrack of the TV show, and the studio audience was reacting to a sight gag.  But it sounded more like a radio production, with Miss Brooks narrating an introduction to each scene.  Perhaps the radio actors were doing more on stage than merely reading their scripts, and the studio audience was reacting to their mugging.

I remember listening to a drama series on CBS in 1955, an "adult Western" called Gunsmoke with characters like Marshall Matt Dillon (played on radio by William Conrad) and his helper Chester.  That program soon moved to TV as well.  And there was some sort of panel discussion show moderated by Mitch Miller.

I also recall the weekend of September 24-25, 1955, when I couldn't listen to entertainment programs because my mother wanted to hear the news about President Eisenhower's heart attack.

Over on NBC, the drama and comedy and variety series had all migrated to television.  Pat Weaver, who invented NBC-TV's Today and Tonight shows, had an idea for radio as well:  a sort of all-weekend disk jockey show — but more than that — called Monitor.  An extensive website now features pictures and stories and sound clips from Monitor, which lasted for twenty years.

I recall a few Monitor moments from 1955-56:

The talk of Broadway is the musical My Fair Lady, starring newcomer Julie Andrews.

NBC Monitor News on the Hour.  This is Morgan Beatty.

Here's Frank Sinatra's new record, "Love and Marriage."

We're going to give the engineers a few seconds to reconfigure the network; the next voice you hear will be live from Los Angeles.

After our family did get a TV set, there was one Saturday night during the 1958-59 season when we once again listened to Monitor.  The record industry had recently discovered stereophonic sound, but there was no way yet to broadcast in stereo, either on TV or on radio.  With both a TV network and a radio network at its disposal, NBC decided to experiment by putting one channel of audio on each.

The date may have been February 21, 1959.  We tuned in the Perry Como show on WLWC-TV at 8:00, and off to one side, we tuned in Monitor on WLW-AM.  For about the middle 30 minutes of the one-hour variety show, the TV network carried the left channel and the radio network carried the right.  There was the obligatory "ping-pong" stereo demonstration, in which Perry said, "And now, walking down Stereo Street with his gold-handled cane, here comes the star of Bat Masterson, Gene Barry."  We heard the taps of the cane start off to one side and approach the center until the actor appeared on our screen.  Mostly, though, there was music, which did sound somewhat better in stereo although the right channel was obviously of much lower quality than the left.

This was not the first time this technique had been tried.

On an early Wednesday evening in 1958, my mother was at choir practice.  Alone in the house, I switched on the radio and was surprised to hear a television program.

Lawrence Welk and his band hosted two weekly hours on ABC-TV, one on Wednesday and the more popular one on Saturday, and this sounded like one of them.  Was I actually hearing a television show being simulcast on radio?  Despite publicity like the October 15 ad for northeastern Ohio shown here, I hadn’t heard about the experiment.

Nevertheless, I turned on the TV set, tuned the dial to WTVN-TV from Columbus, and there it was.  The combination of radio and television filled the living room with “champagne music” in stereo.

Wunnerful, wunnerful!  I almost felt like dancing, had I known how.

In 1975, NBC Radio gave up on Monitor and tried something they called NIS, the News and Information Service.  This was a continuous feed which local affiliates could combine with their own local news coverage to create a 24-hour news program.  NIS afforded stations an easy way to convert to an all-news format, and as I recall, that's how KQV in Pittsburgh made the switch.    

But NIS didn't work out.  By 1983, NBC Radio's main business was no longer its network but its eight radio stations, including flagship WNBC-AM in New York City.  In that year, Randall Bongarten came to WNBC as vice president and general manager.

Randy Bongarten, Oberlin College class of 1971, had been my news director at our college station, WOBC-FM, and he succeeded me as station director there.  Afterwards he became a radio executive in the real world, and by September 1984 he was president of NBC Radio, which greatly impressed me!

(Nowadays, he's with Emmis Communications.  Based in New York, he serves as chairman of the largest radio network in Hungary.)

Click here for two other photos from 1968

In 1985, the most notorious personality on WNBC was shock jock Howard Stern.  One of his bosses was the station's GM, my old friend.  I've never talked to Randy about this story and haven't seen him since 1988, but here are a few snippets gleaned from the Internet about that 1985 episode.

WNBC's new general manager was Randy Bongarten, a man Stern would describe . . . as "one of the greatest people who ever lived."  Bongarten called Stern into his office and told him, "Okay, do your act.  Just be yourself."

Randall Bongarten, who once managed Stern, has said, "The thing that makes him popular is that he asks the questions that are on people's minds.  That's truth."

Howard says even Randy Bongarten, the NBC program director he considered his savior at NBC . . . .

On Monday, September 30, shortly before Howard Stern was to go on the air, WNBC fired him.

Stern said the firing, which came suddenly, mystifies him.  Indeed, no single incident seems to have prompted the decision, and there had been ample signs that WNBC was happy with him.  At the beginning of 1985, Randy Bongarten, the president of NBC's radio division, ripped up Stern's contract and wrote him a new one that at least doubled his salary and included many bonus incentives.

Bongarten was also the man who fired Stern.  Despite persistent rumors that NBC network brass or even RCA board members were behind the decision, the radio management team insists that it was entirely responsible.

A couple of years later, the corporate bosses made the decision to get out of radio.  Randy was instructed to begin supervising "the disposition of NBC's radio assets."  By September 1988, NBC had sold all of its stations and network and had left the radio business forever.

So there is no more NBC Radio, and there hasn't been for years.  I suppose that we can all blame Randy Bongarten.

 

UPDATE:  Early in 2003, three different readers pointed out to me that Westwood One, the radio company that bought most of NBC Radio's assets when it went out of business, has revived the name — sort of.

"NBC News Radio" provides brief hourly newscasts to affiliates around the country using NBC-TV news personalities as anchors.  It's not a full-time radio network in the old sense; as the peacock symbol indicates, it's derived from (and promotes) the television network.

 

TBT

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