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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.