Thursday, July 30, 2009

Listening to D-Day on the West Coast
“Sat Up All Night By The Radio”

The Allied landings at Normandy on June 6, 1944 have been called radio’s finest hour, and the archival recordings of CBS’ coverage and that of NBC comprise an exciting historical record of how radio presented this important event to the American audience.

However, one often overlooked aspect of D-Day radio in the United States is the difference between how and when the news was received on the East Coast versus the West Coast. It's an interesting broadcasting event from an historical and a geographical perspective, and worth taking an anecdotal look back.

D-Days: June 5 and June 6
As the first unconfirmed word that the invasion was underway reached network studios in New York, it was nearly 1:00 am Eastern War Time (EWT) on the morning of Tuesday, June 6. At this time, it can be safely assumed that the majority of radios in the Eastern War Time Zone were switched off and their owners fast asleep. On the West Coast, it was a different story, as it was not quite 10:00 pm Pacific War Time (PWT) on the night of Monday, June 5—within the block of programming that would now be called prime time, when the audience in the Pacific states was perhaps among the largest of any time of day.

What Was On The Radio?
On NBC's West Coast regional feed, a serial drama called Hawthorne House was on the air live from San Francisco (it had begun at 9:30 pm Pacific War Time). On the East Coast, NBC was carrying a performance by the Three Suns live from New York.

For a description of what CBS was broadcasting, we turn to page 11 of From D-Day to Victory In Europe, a promotional book of radio transcripts published by the network in 1945:

Now it is a little after 12:36 (AM, Eastern War Time, Tuesday, June 6, 1944). On the outer air over the swing shift and sleeping America there is music. Lennie Conn’s orchestra, out at KNX in Los Angeles, is piping in a program to the network; Lennie and The Boys are putting a good deal of schmaltz into Forget-Me-Nots in Your Eyes.

For further illumination, we turn to pages 88-89 in another book from CBS (still in promotional mode in 1950) called The Sound of Your Life. This excerpt amplifies the earlier account through the experiences of a hypothetical, radio-loving family called the Smiths:

If, like the Smiths, you were living East of the Rocky Mountains on June 5, 1944, you probably got a better night’s sleep than the folks who lived in the Far West. (For Westerners that was the night World War II began to be the War-of-the-Long-Waits.)

On the East Coast it was already 12:48 a.m., June 6. In Indiana it was 11:48 p.m., June 5, and the Smiths had gone to bed. But in the Rockies it was 10:48 p.m. and on the West Coast, a wide-awake 9:48. Over CBS Ned Calmer cuts in on a program of popular music to say: “A bulletin has just been received from the London office of the Associated Press which quotes the German Transocean News Agency as asserting that the invasion of Western Europe has begun. This report—and we stress it is of enemy origin with absolutely no confirmation from Allied sources—says that American landings were made this morning on the shores of Northwestern France . . .”

Instantly the nation (where it is awake) is electrified. And then the vigil begins. Nothing new is added for the next two hours and 44 minutes. Every little while another announcer takes the microphone, edges up to the report, points out its unofficial source, and backs away. Major George Fielding Eliot gnaws the bone awhile; then even he gives up.

In the Mountains it is now 1:32 a.m., June 6. On the Coast, a yawning 12:32. Five seconds later the real news breaks. A voice [Colonel R. Ernest Dupuy] from SHAEF in London: “Under the command of General Eisenhower, Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces, began landing Allied armies this morning on the northern coast of France.”

Graveyard Shifters and Insomniacs
Both NBC and CBS were on the air with first (unconfirmed) word of the invasion just before 1:00 am EWT (June 6)/10:00 pm PWT (June 5)--which would likely have been compelling enough to keep a fairly large West Coast audience tuned in, and late enough to have missed all but graveyard shift workers and insomniacs on the East Coast. Just under three hours later, both networks carried the official SHAEF confirmation at 3:32 am EWT/12:32 am PWT--and it's no stretch to assume that the percentage of West Coast listeners who heard the official word (who had stayed up to follow the news) would have been much greater than the percentage of East Coast listeners who heard it.

Thus, it's also fair to assume that greater numbers of West Coast listeners followed more of the continuous network coverage on NBC and CBS versus East Coast listeners who woke up on Tuesday, June 6 and turned on their radios to find a story that was already in progress and well underway (and for which they'd missed the "opening act").

In effect, West Coast radio listeners on D-Day were the first Americans to experience what would later come to be called "wall-to-wall coverage" of a significant news event, a media practice that would become increasingly common and taken for granted as the 20th century progressed.

"No Idea As To How Large An Audience We Have"
CBS' Paul White wrote of the minutes after the official announcement of D-Day in his book News On The Air, including his anecdotal sense that large numbers of people were tuned in to their radios all over the country--not just on the West Coast:

As 4 o’clock [AM, Eastern War Time] nears we’ve no idea as to how large an audience we have. But we know it’s almost certainly the biggest ever to be listening at that hour. Stations around the country wire in that lights are on all over the city, that men are coming out into the streets and bellowing, “Turn on your radios!” In many war plants the night shift workers are told the news; they listen for a moment, their jaws tighten, and they go back to work a little harder and a little faster. Power companies report an unusual load for electric current. (from page 336)

What About The Blue Network and Mutual?
Other than a brief mention in John Dunning's Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio, I've been unable to find any account of what news or other D-Day coverage the Blue Network or the Mutual Broadcasting System was carrying at this time. Perhaps because the recordings of the CBS and the NBC coverage have long been in circulation, and because both CBS and NBC produced promotional materials describing their coverage, historians, other researchers and writers have tended to only focus on these two networks. If you can share any insight regarding D-Day on the Blue Network or Mutual, please contact me via my profile or post a comment below.

READ ALL ABOUT IT!: D-Day In Seattle
In Seattle, newspaper accounts shed some light on how the news was received late on the night of June 5 and early on the morning of June 6--with church bells ringing, factory workers pausing briefly before returning to work, and downtown revelers showing steely resolve:

Boeing Silent Moment, Then Work Resumes
Seattle Times, June 6, 1944
Riveting guns clattered last night against the glistening skins of Flying Fortresses in Seattle’s great Boeing factory. Electric drills hummed. Hammers, handled with the deft touch of sure, skilled hands, clanged artfully against metal. The night workers of the graveyard shift were on the job—as they had been for years of nights—relentlessly turning out bombers for the destruction of Hitler’s crumbling empire. Then, at 1 a.m., loudspeakers came to life all over the plant. “Confirmation has been received,” came a solemn voice, with an undertone of excitement and jubilation, “that the invasion of France has started.” The guns, the drills and the hammers were stilled. A hush like that of a cathedral descended over the thousands of overalled men and slacks-clad women. For a moment they stood, in spontaneous recognition of the solemnity of the moment. Then, breaking the spell, men and women shook hands, slapped each other on the back, as if to say: “Let’s get on with it!” They picked up their tools. The night workers of the graveyard shift were on the job.

Seattle Takes News Calmly; Action Breaks War Tension
Seattle Times, June 6, 1944
The sheer force of the biggest news of the war was running like a heavy tide through Seattle today. There was no wild excitement, no shouting, no cheering crowds. The news of invasion was too big, its import too great. The breath of expectancy was being let out with a deep relief that the end of waiting had come. “Folks just seemed to accept it, said Police Patrolman Joe Edwards, who witnessed the initial reactions on his night beat around Second Avenue and Yesler Way. “The thing was too serious to comment on. Folks wanted a little time to digest it.” “Nobody paid much attention to the first German report,” recalled James Stayron, employee in a restaurant at 602 Seneca St. “Then the real report came through, and it sort of hit you hard. It was like letting out a breath you’d been holding a long time. You were worried, but way down inside you felt good.” Soldiers and sailors at U.S.O. centers and the Army-Navy Y.M.C.A took the word calmly. The battle was one they might presently be in. On this early morning of D-Day, sleep was more important than talk. Meanwhile, church doors were swinging open as early a 6 o’clock this morning. The churches stood waiting in the dawn, ready to receive those who would come to pray for those others who were going ashore along the northern coast of France.

Prayers for Invasion In Seattle Churches
By E.J. Mitchell, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 6, 1944
Clamor of church bells heralding the long-awaited invasion of Western Europe by Allied armies awakened Seattle’s devout early this morning. From the dome of the First Methodist Church in the early morning hours came the amplified chimes of the church organ playing the sacred battle cry to Christendom with such hymns as “Onward Christian Soldiers,” “Faith of Our Fathers,” and “Lead On, Oh King Eternal.”

Seattle Churches Join in Prayers for Invasion Forces
By E.J. Mitchell, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 7, 1944
Church bells and chimes pealed the call to worship, and many churches were immediately opened for public prayer, shortly after midnight, when the official news was flashed to Seattle that the fateful hour had struck.

The Sagacity of Hope: Bob Sat Up All Night
Of all the contemporary accounts and other evidence of how D-Day was experienced differently on the West Coast, entertainer Bob Hope perhaps best expressed the West Coast view of D-Day in the introduction to his NBC program the night of June 6, broadcast from an air base near Van Nuys, California:

What has happened during these last few hours not one of us will ever forget. How could you forget? You sat up all night by the radio and heard the bulletins, the flashes, the voices coming across from England, the commentators, the pilots returning from their greatest of all missions . . . newsboys yelling on the street . . . and it seemed that one world was ending and a new world beginning . . . that history was closing one book and opening a new one, and somehow we knew it had to be a better one. You sat there, and dawn began to sneak in, and you thought of the hundreds of thousands of kids you’d seen in the camps the past two or three years . . . The sun came up and you sat there looking at that huge black headline, that one great black word with the exclamation point, “Invasion”. Click here for complete audio of Hope's June 6, 1944 program.

East Coast Bias?
I've spoken with more than a few radio history enthusiasts who live on the West Coast who believe that written radio history favors the East Coast. Specifically, the work of Erik Barnouw, notably his three-volume set of American broadcasting history (A Tower In Babel, The Golden Web, The Image Empire) published by Oxford Press. This same series has been criticized for being CBS-centric (Barnouw worked for CBS in the 1940s), elevating Murrow and company and relegating NBC's World War II broadcasting to distant also-ran status. I believe there's an element of truth to these feelings.

While I can't necessarily refute Barnouw's findings, I do believe that significant work remains to uncover and document radio's development--that much from the West Coast and elsewhere can be added to the narrative (beyond simply criticizing the work of another writer/researcher) to make a more complete picture. And I think that's pretty exciting . . .


NBC H-Hour Pamphlet (PDF)
NBC produced a promotional pamphlet following D-Day called H Hour that includes a chronology of events and a summary of NBC Radio broadcasts of June 6 and June 7, 1944. I haven't been able to track down a facsimile online to share, but it's worth hunting for. Please send me a link if you come across it posted somewhere or I may scan mine and post the PDFs someday. UPDATE JUNE 2010: The first 10 pages of the pamphlet are now posted here.

D-Day Radio Special from 2004 (AUDIO)
For audio of a one-hour D-Day radio special presented by Feliks Banel (that's me!) on KBCS 91.3 FM in 2004, follow this link to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer blog from the 65th anniversary of D-Day in 2009.

D-Day Radio Program from June 2009 (AUDIO)
I was guest on the hour-long KOMO AM-FM (Seattle) program Beyond the Headlines with Charlie Harger talking about D-Day in June 2009 (note: the program was also rebroadcast on June 6, 2010). Click here for complete audio.

Related Books
For a list of best books about radio (including radio's role in D-Day), click here for an earlier post from I STILL Love Radio.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

RADIO CRITIC WANTED by Robert John Landry

Editor's Note: Show biz pub Variety editor and writer and CBS radio director Robert John Landry wrote two books in the 1940s about radio. The excerpt below from Landry's first book, Who, What, Why Is Radio?, lays out his take on the necessary qualifications for a radio critic. Though written more than 65 years ago, Landry's words still ring true for those attempting criticism—to, as he says, "capture the essence of merit"—of radio in the early 21st century. -Ed.

The radio critic, if and when the breed develops, would need fairly exceptional gifts of perspective. Being neither too serious, the glaring fault of pedagogues, nor too flippant, perhaps a tendency of journalists, the critic would have to have a sense of relationship and proportion developed far beyond that of the early radio editors, who were often former radio technicians and hence could hardly hear the programs because of sheer fascination with the mechanics of transmission. Above all, the radio critic would face an obvious but important fact—it is easy to dissect the mediocre, difficult to capture the essence of merit.

A qualified corps of radio critics would certainly enhance the dignity of radio programs and help elevate standards by spot-lighting the shoddy, the careless, the incompetent, and praising the opposites. Public praise is the greatest known stimulant to professional pride among all who deal in creative or semi-creative enterprises. Individual radio critics, publicly labeled as such, and themselves subject to the responsibility and integrity of their task, would have a clarifying influence unlike that of the present pressure-group, axe-grinding criticism which promotes confusion and is by its very motivation incapable of inspiring anything more than resentful defensive measures from the entrepreneurs.

Perhaps some day we may see under classified ads something to this effect:

RADIO CRITIC WANTED—Must be gentle, understanding, fond of children’s programs, devoted to the finer things yet capable of listening to claptrap sympathetically. Should be socially conscious by no business-hater, should have working familiarity with the classics, the lower middle class, the consumer movement and the Crossley Report. He must be high-minded, yet possessed of humor; he must modify his boldness with discretion; he must know acting, directing, advertising, merchandising and orchestrating and should know about public interest, convenience and necessity. Finally he should be free of bias, a master literary stylist and willing to work for small wages. Also willing to arrange free talent for the publisher’s pet charity and relieve switchboard operator at lunch hour.

From Who, What, Why Is Radio? by Robert John Landry.
Originally published in 1942 by George W. Stewart, Publisher, Inc., New York.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Turn It Off
John Crosby Column from August 4, 1948

Editor's Note: This timeless column from radio critic John Crosby called Turn It Off from August 1948 is a perfect summer radio criticism re-run. I've added a link here and there for additional context.

I read in the New York Times that show business has reached a nadir—well, one of its nadirs, show business being one of those professions where ultimates are attained every other day. Radio stars are fighting salary cuts. Guest stars will be eliminated or bought at bargain rates next season. Top stars are unsigned and programs are reducing their prices $3,000 to $4,000.

The profit margins on movies are down in some cases by as much as 50 percent. Sheet music sales are down 40 percent. Records are down 10 to 35 percent. On Broadway, Brock Pemberton, who has been prophesying disaster for the theater ever since I was a little boy, declared: “The financial slump is greater than anything since the pre-war depression.”

Exhilarated by these portents of doom, I had lunch with a publisher. “The book business,” he announced with unwonted zest, “is through. Nobody reads books any more and I’ve an idea that reading of any sort is on the way out. You want a brandy? Might as well make an afternoon of it. Nothing to do at the office.”

After digesting this information slowly, I rang the secret number of my spy in the picture magazine game, a character who lives on the Street with No Name: “We’re advertising in all the newspapers, but the circulation is going down anyhow,” he declared bitterly. “People just don’t seem to want to look at pictures any more. Makes a man think, doesn’t it?”

It certainly does. The Hooper ratings are as close to zero as they ever get. If people aren’t looking at the picture magazines, listening to a radio, reading the books or going to the movies, what on earth are they doing? My researchers are up in the Adirondacks fishing, so I paid a visit to Jim and Grace Mainwaring up in Bronxville. Jim and Grace, I ought to explain, are to statistics what guinea pigs are to science. If Gallup consulted them first, he’d save himself a lot of trouble. Whenever there’s a 30 percent slump in anything, you’ll find Jim and Grace involved in it somehow.

I found Jim, tanned and healthy, spraying copper and rotenone on the tomato plants. “The radio?” he said vaguely. “Well, I don’t know. Grace and I get pretty tired at night. We go to bed. No, we haven’t seen a movie in months. Books? Well . . . “

I looked up Grace and found her splashing waterproof paint on the bottom of the catboat. “The hell with the amusement industry,” she declared heartily. “Have you seen the new puppies? They’re out back.”

I withdrew and scrutinized the puppies, who had the unearthly sweetness of all puppies, reflecting that the amusement industry was up against some stiff competition.

This is the season when the joke about Harry Truman’s piano begins to pall. The simulated thrills of “Suspense” are nothing next to the bursting gladiolus in the backyard, the distant sails on the bay. “The Saturday Evening Post” romance has no charms comparable to the new girl who moved in four doors down the street, and neither has Judy Garland. The sports commentator chattering about the Dodgers can’t outtalk the tennis racket in the front hall closet.

This is not the time for vicarious thrills; this is the time for one’s own. In this curious age when the tendency is to sit passively and watch the professionals at work, this is one season when the amateurs avoid the movies, cast aside the book, turn off the radio, and—just for a change—participate. On these fragrant summer evenings, when conversation blooms shyly on the front porch, who wants to listen to the radio?

Or read a radio column?

Or write one?

From Out of the Blue: A Book About Radio and Television by John Crosby.
Originally published in 1952 by Simon and Schuster, New York.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Is Radio Still Good For Anything?

Radio is in decline at the moment. There’s no use pretending otherwise. As a business, bloated boom year revenues are down because the audience is moving on to other appliances for their audio entertainment and edification, and the advertising isn’t worth what it was even just a few years ago. And there’s not allegedly much hope for the up and coming generation to embrace radio, if this viral phenomenon authored by a 15-year old Morgan Stanley intern is any indication.

But really, radio has been begging for (and ultimately getting) attention from each new generation for the past 60 years or so. Unlike the pre-TV days, families don’t sit down together and listen to the radio, and they never will again. But that’s okay, since radio is the ideal 21st century companion to keep an individual informed and entertained while getting things done, while driving, or for listening unobtrusively in the dark while the rest of the household sleeps. Kids may not get this now, but they will in the future.

That’s why I believe there are several areas where radio remains--and will always remain--the superior means of delivering quality audio content, such as:

Live Coverage of REAL Breaking News. A well-run local news or news and talk station (with network affiliation) can bring listeners a near-perfect balance of The Truly Big National or International Story as well as the distinctive local angle and the shared local experience via intelligent and charismatic on-air talent.

Timely Topical Therapeutic Talk. What I mean by this is a call-in program with a charismatic host who can create conversations that are worth eavesdropping on for their news value and community-building value. One national example: the many hours of late night and overnight talk presented by NPR in the days following 9/11. With Scott Simon as host, a range of callers shared their thoughts, feelings, where-they-were-when stories and other reactions. No conclusions were reached as far as I can remember, but for those of us left sleepless in those dark days and nights, it was comforting to feel a part of the larger community. Locally, news and talk station KOMO switches to something they call “Neighbor to Neighbor/Driver to Driver Coverage” when conditions warrant, with regular radio news anchors fielding listener calls and giving brief news updates. I’ve spent many a snowy or windy night captivated by amateur descriptions of weather-related hassles on the roads or in the neighborhoods of the Pacific Northwest.

Live Coverage of Debates, Speeches, Political Conventions and Hearings. More often than not, visuals presented by TV of these sorts of public affairs events add nothing to the program (and otherwise just distract from the verbal content). Sure, there’s that old saw that, for radio listeners, Nixon beat Kennedy in the first 1960 presidential debate—but I’m willing to take my chances. Now, where’d I put my LazyShave?

Live Baseball. Baseball on TV (and in person, for that matter) is far inferior to baseball on the radio—the visuals are repetitive and add little to the enjoyment, and I don’t want to sit and look at anything for three-plus hours. With a talented aural broadcaster such as Hall of Famer Dave Niehaus, even the dullest game (and I’ve lived through a number of those courtesy of the Seattle Mariners, circa 1977-1994 and of late) comes alive as a shared experience on radio. Especially magical here on the West Coast are when extra innings result in games at SAFECO Field being the last Major League match-up still going, when it’s long after midnight in the east. Extra credit awarded to those dial twisters who can find a minor league contest emanating from the hinterlands.

Classical Music. I don’t own much in the way of classical music recordings, but I often like to have classical playing in the background when I need to focus on a writing project or other intellectual (?) pursuit. I count myself lucky to live in Seattle, home of legendary classical music station KING FM, who are also pioneers of online classical programming via and who have a number of decent commercial-free HD classical channels that I can take advantage of when I don’t want distracting headlines, traffic and weather reports.

Jazz. Again, I don’t own a lot of jazz recording, but I sure love to hear a nice mix of classic and contemporary jazz at least a few times a week. Tacoma NPR affiliate KPLU offers jazz and blues on terrestrial FM, plus the pioneering commercial free Jazz 24 online (as well as via HD here in Western Washington).

Live “Curated” Programs. Sure, I could plug in my 30GB iPod and put together a pretty cool playlist of songs from just about any genre, and I often do. However, the frustrated ethnomusicologist in me also likes to hear the stories behind the songs, quirky anecdotes about the composer/performer, and how particular numbers fit into the larger context of the style, era or genre. Prime examples of Live “Curated” Programs include Seattle NPR affiliate KUOW’s Swing Years and Beyond with Amanda Wilde (Saturdays from 7:00 pm to 12:00 midnight Pacific) and Tacoma NPR affiliate KPLU’s All Blues with John Kessler (Saturdays and Sundays from 6:00 pm to 12:00 midnight Pacific), both available streaming live online.

Live Personalities. Like any medium, local or national radio featuring charismatic, intelligent and engaging on-air talent is hard to beat. However, with the 24/7 news cycle and worldwide events happening in faraway time zones, it is essential that the personalities be live—so that they can report and react as stories (inane and important) are moving on the wires or posting on the web. A good example of this nationally is Phil Hendrie; I’m sure you could name at least a few local examples where you live.

Live Performance. So much performance is sanitized for our protection these days by pre-taping and post-production, it’s easy to forget that a staple of radio’s first few decades was the live “pick-up” or remote broadcast of dance orchestras from hotel ballrooms in every big city in the country. A few brave souls carry on the tradition of regular live broadcasts of performances, notably Prairie Home Companion and the Metropolitan Opera and the wonderful annual New Year’s Eve broadcast of Toast of the Nation.

Can you think of anything else that radio is still good for?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Do National Radio News Networks Matter Anymore?

So-called traditional media, of which radio is certainly a part, is obviously in decline. With the prevalence of cable TV, the web, free WiFi and portable devices like iPods and iPhones, I wonder who actually listens to radio for news and coverage of “special events” these days besides senior citizens, the sight-impaired and truck drivers?

I’ve been listening to much CBS and ABC radio coverage of the death of Michael Jackson these past few weeks—including live remote coverage of the memorial on July 7, 2009 and live newsroom coverage the day Jackson died (which I wrote about in an earlier post)—and it got me wondering if national radio news networks matter at all anymore.

Recent blog postings in the New York Times provide evidence that radio coverage of special events is all but written off. This Media Decoder posting documented TV viewership (30 million) while another somewhat confusing Bits posting provided web stats and attempted to put the Michael Jackson memorial into context with other recent events, such as the Obama inauguration (not quite sure how to add up these numbers). Radio numbers? There was nary a mention. If TV and the web are the Panavision and Cinemascope of today’s media, then radio is a one reel silent film. Radio has become the forgotten medium—news about which is, apparently, not even fit to post.

Media expert Jerry Del Colliano wrote a piece this week for his Inside Music Media blog called Radio, Music & Michael Jackson Died Together that ends with this observation: "Now, perhaps it's fitting that the Assistant Chief of the LAPD trying to avoid congestion at today's downtown public memorial for Michael Jackson told the public to watch it on TV and the Internet.

 He never mentioned radio."

Network radio coverage of news and special events matured in the run-up to World War II, and then hit its prime in the first half of the 1940s. Americans followed the rapidly deteriorating political situation in Europe and then the Pacific by radio; the news was coming too fast for the newspaper extra to keep up, and the radio networks had people in place to cover the stories where they were happening, as they were happening.

Broadcasters such as Edward R. Murrow, H.V. Kaltenborn, Fred Bate, Max Jordan, Elmer Davis, John MacVane, Cecil Brown and Eric Sevareid became household names, their radio stories reprinted by newspapers and their first-hand reports heard via crackly shortwave relays from war-torn foreign capitals. It was as if the medium of radio news was spontaneously invented and simultaneously achieving perfection while millions listened in. American radio news perhaps reached its pinnacle during the “pooled” coverage of the Allied landings on D-Day in June 1944 (more about that in a future posting), but it remained the primary medium for broadcast news and public affairs programming throughout the 1940s and into the early 1950s. Other media critics have pointed to the coverage of the JFK assassination as the moment that TV coverage of news and special events displaced radio—when the torch was passed to a new medium.

Network radio drama, comedy and variety programming also had its heyday in the 1940s and early 1950s in terms of quality, quantity and, most important, advertising revenue. In fact, revenue from radio programming in this era subsidized network investment in the equipment and talent necessary to launch TV; radio funded its own demise. TV rapidly became the medium of choice during this time, and displaced the audio-only format as primary domestic broadcast entertainment. To put it simply, TV kicked radio out of the living room, and radio morphed into a portable source for music and news in the bedroom, kitchen, shirt pocket or dashboard.

However, while network radio drama, comedy and variety were officially dead by 1962 and network radio revenue was decimated, all three of the American combined TV & radio networks in business at that time continued to maintain radio news operations throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s that were probably successful enough to remain solvent if not generate modest profit, since even music radio stations retained regular newscasts in this period. (Editor’s note: NBC’s weekend Monitor program is, to put it mildly, an anomaly from this era that’s worth exploring in another post.)

To understand how radio became so marginalized, it’s also worth examining the rise and fall of network TV. Not surprisingly, it’s also about the money (public interest, convenience and necessity aside, broadcasting in the US is a business, after all, and there’s no sense pretending otherwise). Network television’s decline can be traced to the late 1970s and early 1980s when VCRs and cable channels gave viewers other options besides their local ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS affiliates, and rating points and those critical advertising dollars began to slip.

But, this wasn’t just the beginning of the end of 30+ years of network television dominance—it was the beginning of the end of a half-century of network broadcasting dominance. This is because the network TV broadcasting model predates television and actually emerged during the early network radio era of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Back then, NBC was comprised of two separate networks: the premium Red Network and the more public affairs-focused Blue Network. Found in violation of anti-trust laws, NBC was forced by court order to sell the Blue Network in 1943, and the Blue Network then became ABC.

NBC Red, NBC Blue and CBS built nationwide systems of local radio stations (the affiliates) beginning in the late 1920s to enable simultaneous national broadcasting of network programming—giving national advertisers the ability to reach a national audience via sponsorship of radio programs. The television networks of NBC, CBS and ABC employed the same strategy beginning in the late 1940s (in the case of NBC and CBS) and early 1950s (ABC).

Nowadays, among the original three combined radio & TV networks, just ABC and CBS have dedicated radio-only staff reporting radio news, and both leverage TV news staff and content to support their radio news operations and coverage of special events. While relative newcomer FOX Radio also has dedicated radio staff, NBC uses TV reporters and anchors from NBC and MSNBC for their radio newscasts.

National radio news networks are still a part of the radio industry and still are there on the dial of your terrestrial radio, HD radio, satellite radio and even your web browser (which I suppose doesn’t really have a dial). As far as I can tell, the following six news organizations continue to produce at least hourly radio newscasts, and have the ability (the infrastructure and the personnel) to provide their affiliates with live coverage of unscheduled special events when the need arises: ABC Radio News (via Citadel Media Networks); AP Radio News; CBS Radio News (via Westwood One); CNN Radio Network (via Westwood One); FOX NEWS Radio (via Premiere Radio); and NBC Radio News (via Westwood One).

Maybe their continued existence in the marketplace is proof enough that the national radio news networks do matter. But I still wonder if anybody is really listening.

FOOTNOTE: It’s worth mentioning NPR here, but I’ve found their ability to cover unscheduled special events highly variable depending on time of day and day of the week that the news breaks. In a future posting, I’ll document differences in how NPR and CBS covered the space shuttle Columbia disaster on Saturday, February 1, 2003 (short version: Scott Simon saved the day for NPR). In my experience, NPR seems best suited for post-event analysis and for coverage of scheduled special events, such as presidential debates and congressional hearings.

Suggested Further Reading

Look Now, Pay Later: The Rise of Network Broadcasting by Laurence Bergreen

Radio Voices: American Broadcasting 1922-1952 by Michele Hilmes

Say Goodnight, Gracie: The Last Years of Network Radio by Jim Cox

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Another On The Media, Another Week Without Michael Jackson Analysis

When I last week lamented the lack of Michael Jackson coverage on WNYC's On The Media, I said near the end of my posting, "I guess I have next week's episode to look forward to for what will likely be insightful analysis of the Jackson coverage." Wrong! This week, OTM featured pieces from the archive about longstanding media myths and how they propagate, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, Rosa Parks and Kitty Genovese. It was great stuff, but not what I wanted to hear and nowhere near being topical at a time that cried out for topicality--and probably not something that would have happened were OTM a commercial production. I'm guessing the OTM folks were off for the Fourth of July holiday last week, but how long will the world have to wait for brilliant OTM treatment of the Michael Jackson coverage?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Seattle's KOMO Radio Goes Old School . . . REALLY Old School


Seattle radio station KOMO Newsradio AM 1000 went old school—really old school—for the better part of 24 hours just before the Fourth of July holiday. After going off the air just after midnight the morning of Friday, July 3 following an electrical fire in Fisher Plaza (the building that houses their studios), KOMO-AM came back on just after 2:00 am from an improvised studio located beneath the KOMO TV transmitter atop Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill.

It made for interesting microdrama, and absolutely fascinating local radio. I’d randomly tuned to KOMO a little before midnight while driving to drop off some DVDs that were due at my neighborhood video store at the Witching Hour. As I mindlessly scanned through the presets on my car radio, I stopped on 1000 AM, where KOMO Radio news anchor Art Sanders was on and sounding a little distressed, as he spoke via cellphone (that had been ingeniously patched into the board before Sanders and news editor Ryan Harris were, along with everyone else on KOMO’s TV side, evacuated from the building). As I drove, I heard Sanders and Harris explain why they were broadcasting from outside the KOMO building, and also give extemporaneous updates on other national and international stories they were following. Every few minutes, Sanders and Harris made references to being on “battery power” that might run out at any moment. For a radio nut like myself, it was compelling. I rushed home and began recording the KOMO signal with a Zoom H-4 Recorder, and ended up doing so for the next day or so.

At about 20 minutes past midnight, the batteries on Sanders’ cell phone apparently gave out, and KOMO was reduced to static. Click here to listen to the last 18 minutes or so before KOMO signed off. When broadcasting resumed around 2:13 am, news anchor Gary Burleigh had taken over, and brought listeners (if there were any listeners—I personally heard the recording many hours later) up to date. By this time, KOMO engineers had rigged a simple studio in the circa 1953 TV transmitter building at North Galer Street and Warren Avenue North, near the old Queen Anne High School (about a mile from Fisher Plaza). Joining Burleigh were editor Ryan Harris (still on duty) and traffic reporter Deanna Joy. Click here to listen to the first 18 minutes or so after KOMO signed back on.

While the simple studio was apparently equipped with a few microphones and the ability to patch in at least one phone call, there were no facilities for playing recordings. Thus, KOMO was commercial-free! Better yet, KOMO was also sounder-free—no signature effects, music, jingles, or anything accompanied the anchors as they went about reading the news or giving the weather forecast (I was personally happiest to be free of the thumping techno beat of the 90-Second Sports Ticker). The sound, tone and feel of KOMO was about as old-school (I’d peg it as circa late 1940s) as a commercial radio station could get in 2009.

KOMO’s impromptu remote operations continued for most of the day on Friday, July 3. With no means for playback (or perhaps with no way to access the material), a scheduled best-of broadcast of the midday talk show The Commentators was replaced with anchors Charlie Harger and Nancy Barrick providing commercial-free news as well as some long-form radio specials from ABC (perhaps coming in “live” from ABC via a network feed) as well as hourly news and special reports from ABC News (Sarah Palin's resignation). Traffic reports, ordinarily done live in-studio or perhaps via ISDN line from the Seattle office of Metro Traffic in the Columbia Tower, came in from KOMO traffic reporter Sara Johnson via telephone (camping out at Metro Traffic). By early afternoon, just when it seemed they couldn’t get any more old-school than this, KOMO went further back into radio’s past by occasionally thanking the sponsors whose commercial spots one would ordinarily hear during a regular broadcast. It was a flashback to KOMO’s Totem Broadcasters era of the 1920s, when, rather than individual commercial spots, large portions of the broadcasting day were “owned” by one of six members of a consortium of local businesses (including KOMO's founder Fisher Mills). For details about Totem Broadcasters, track down a copy of KOMO radio reporter and TV anchor Bill Brubaker’s excellent Masters Thesis on Seattle radio prior to 1927 (I'll plan on devoting a future posting to Brubaker's pioneering work documenting early radio history).

Because the drama unfolded late at night (and because the commercial- and sounder-free broadcasting took place during a day that was a holiday for many people), KOMO's audience was probably smaller than it would have been on a typical weekday. Depending on your perspective, this is a good thing, since few listeners were inconvenienced. I think it's a shame more people didn't hear the broadcast and missed out on really terrific local radio. Further, apart from providing some low-level drama and a fascinating format for awhile, KOMO’s travails were a priceless exercise in emergency preparedness. I’d venture to say that while KOMO (and other Fisher radio stations that left the air) suffered in the short term—by leaving the air for a few hours and by giving up more than a full day worth of advertising revenue—the lessons learned by scrambling to get back on the air after a minor catastrophe will someday pay off for KOMO and KOMO listeners, far beyond what anyone can imagine.

UPDATE FOR TUESDAY, JULY 7, 2009: KOMO editor Ryan Harris sent in the note below, including a link to a complete recording from before the KOMO Radio studio was evacuated to when they went off the air around 12:15 am on the morning of Friday, July 3. Thanks to Ryan for adding to the historical record!

First-hand account courtesy of Ryan Harris of KOMO News Radio . . .

Feliks - thanks for saying such nice things about us and thank you for having the presence of mind to record us when our own recording equipment was down. What happened after 2:00 AM would have been lost and heard only by someone on some distant planet otherwise.

The power went out around 11:15 Thursday night, but the generator kicked in right away. I can only assume that was the vault fire. That allowed Dan Lewis to run downstairs to the newsroom to anchor the second segment of KOMO-4 News from there, and then another from back upstairs before it went out again. Again, I can only assume that was when the sprinklers doused the generator and its safety features shut it down. However, KOMO Radio's board and computer system are on uninterrupted battery back-ups, so we never went off. Meanwhile, security tried to evacuate us once, but Art and I refused to go until it was absolutely necessary. We knew it was going to happen, but it bought us the time to stay on the air and discuss the plan to get us on by phone. I was there one Saturday morning very early when we had a small fire - and I was furious at myself because I thought of patching in a cell call AFTER we were already shut out of the building and off the air. I wasn't going to make that mistake twice.

[Editor's Note: Click here for a complete recording of the “remote” broadcast that took place from outside the building, courtesy of KOMO.]

Thankfully, we had a TV vehicle with a radio to let us know we were still on the air and everyone from Dan, Steve Pool, Luke Duecy, Battalion Chief Teffre, GM Jim Clayton and a cast of many to join us and help us stay on the air. We stopped just before 12:30 Thursday morning because we got permission from the boss to sign off until we were ready to resume.

When Gary Burleigh, Deanna Joy and I were able to meet at 'Fort KOMO, Queen Anne', all I had was that same cell phone (gotta give props to my T-Mobile G1) for Internet access until they got me a laptop with cellular Internet an hour later. It only allowed me to surf 2 windows, so that in tandem with the G1 helped us gather some information and keep some semblance of news reporting going. I have to confess, my first stock numbers were wrong - but it was on the only site I could get to give me any numbers under the circumstances. At least I had baseball scores and Wimbledon!

It was an amazing morning I'll never forget - a story I'll probably tell my grandkids. Most of the credit really belongs to Chief Engineer John Barrett and his staff - especially Gabe and Lou, who rode the 'bamboo bike' and kept us on the air.

 Thanks also to all of the loyal KOMO listeners who stuck with us.

Ryan Harris

KOMO News Radio

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Lake Wobegon Job Shadow: My Prairie Home Companion “Embed” Experience

On July 1, 2009, PBS aired an American Masters special featuring Garrison Keillor. I missed the live broadcast, but hope to catch a rerun sometime in the next few weeks. Reading about the special got me thinking about how back in June 2004, I spent two days “job-shadowing” with the production team for the live broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion on June 26, 2004. The show was produced that week at King County’s Marymoor Park in Redmond, Washington, not too far from where I live in Seattle.

I’d heard a few months earlier that the show was coming to town, so I’d sent a letter to Garrison Keillor’s office in St. Paul, Minnesota asking for the opportunity to see how the show was done. The reasoning in my request was that since I produce an annual live holiday radio play (one of the only regularly scheduled live radio plays in the United States), I thought I could learn a thing or two from watching some real pros at work.

A kindly member of the staff (who, I believe, has since moved on) called me a week or so before the show to let me know that they’d agreed to let me hang out, and giving me instructions to report to stage manager Albert Webster. I was to arrive mid-morning on Friday, June 25, the day before the show. The weather was perfect the way late June in the Pacific Northwest can sometimes be, sunny with high temps in the mid 70s and low humidity. I drove to Marymoor and parked my car in a secret spot near the maintenance barn, stopped in to say “hi” to the Marymoor crew, and then reported to the backstage area of the then-new Marymoor Amphitheater. Marymoor is a beautiful park that was once a hunting lodge and model farm belonging to James and Anna Clise, a prominent Seattle couple from the early 20th century. It was a place I knew very well, from field trips and picnics there as a child in the 1970s, and from working as Economic Development Manager for the King County Park System in the 1990s.

Albert Webster was professional, courteous and kind—actually, everyone I met throughout my two days could be described the same way. Mr. Webster introduced me to most of the crew and musicians as they went about their important duties, and I did my best to stay out of everyone’s way (and to grasp as much as I could about the logistics and the vibe of the operation). I even got to join the cast and crew for a catered lunch in the nearby Clise Mansion.

Not long after lunch, the cast and guest performers arrived for an early afternoon sound-check and run through. I spent a lot of time speaking with sound effects guy and Mouth Sounds author Fred Newman and with actress Sue Scott, who were both generous with their time. My designated post was downstage left, right next to Albert Webster’s work area. From this spot, I watched all the set-up and rehearsals into the early evening. It seems that Keillor and crew prepare about 120%-130% of the material they need. As rehearsals progress on Friday and Saturday, they assemble a draft “rundown” of the songs and sketches (in a draft order) on a chalkboard backstage, ultimately winnowing down to the right amount of material to fill the two-hour broadcast.

Garrison Keillor arrived sometime in the early afternoon Friday and disappeared into a backstage area. At some point, he made a request for Marymoor Park brochures, apparently to help pepper the script with local flavor. A Prairie staffer went to the park office and came back with an armload maps and other materials. After awhile, Mr. Keillor came out from backstage and asked for someone to help locate a park employee, someone who could provide for him some additional local information for the script. I raised my hand and said that I’d be happy to help myself, having worked at Marymoor. Mr. Keillor motioned for me to follow him backstage and then invited me to take a seat next to small table where he was working on the script. He briefly explained what he was looking for, what the various scripts were about, and what kinds of things he needed help with.

All in all, I helped a teeny bit with the list of Marymoor amenities that appear in what became a sound-effects script called Marymoor and with some descriptive details for the Guy Noir script (I couldn’t find the Noir script online—I recall suggesting the name “Skagit” and the Labrador Retriever breed for the dog owned by a cliché Seattle yuppie type, and suggesting the words “it’s like a snail without a shell” for the description of a slug). Later, during on-stage rehearsal, I gave additional unsolicited recommendations to the sound effects script called Marymoor (clarifying that the cricket pitch at Marymoor served East Indians—not Brits—so that Fred Newman and Tim Russell used East Indian rather than Oxbridge accents for their brief “thank you very much” lines); and to The Lives of the Cowboys (suggesting the replacement of a reference to a cactus with reference instead to a Douglas fir). I was extremely flattered that Mr. Keillor and the other actors graciously and generously used all of my suggestions in the live performance, but I don’t think a single thing I contributed got much of a laugh. My apologies to all concerned.

The next day included more rehearsing and more refining of the various sketches until early afternoon (showtime in the Pacific Time Zone is 3 pm). Watching the actual live broadcast from the special stage seating area was an unexpected treat—I thought maybe I’d be relegated to a stool backstage. If you go to the slide show on this page, you can see me in Photo 8, to the left of mandolin player Peter Ostrushko (I’m the blank-expressioned blurry guy with short brown hair and glasses—remarkable how much higher the hairline has traveled since that photo was taken).

The most useful “takeaway” from my experience being embedded with A Prairie Home Companion was to learn the value of having a decent “warm-up” for the audience before any live broadcast. Garrison Keillor went on stage about 15 minutes before the show, making jokes and performing songs with the musical guests. Later that year, I instituted a warm-up before my live broadcast from Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry on KPLU-FM of The Bishop’s Wife (using the Lux Radio Theatre script), and have continued to include a warm-up every year since. In previous years, I had brought the cast on stage with only about five minutes to spare before showtime, and had depended on the announcer to read a few scripted instructions about turning off cellphones, feeling free to clap and laugh out loud, etc. Nowadays, I handle the warm-up duties myself, telling a few lame jokes, giving a brief history of live radio drama, having the sound effects guy demonstrate a few tricks, and then introducing each cast member as the clock moves inexorably toward showtime. I certainly feel more warmed up by the time the ON AIR light comes on, and I think the audience does, too.

I remain grateful to the good folks of A Prairie Home Companion for letting me spend two days with them back in 2004. The experience provided me with a lot of great memories, and a fair amount of inspiration for what’s possible on live radio.