Recalling a Media Pioneer: NBC Radio's 'Monitor'

Author Dennis Hart notes the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of Monitor on NBC. Hart wrote Monitor, The Last Great Radio Show, the story of then-NBC President Pat Weaver's attempt to save his radio network. Hart claims Monitor started many of today's media formats, including talk radio.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Fifty years ago today, on a Sunday afternoon in 1955, on the airwaves of the National Broadcasting Company, a new radio program was introduced to America.

(Soundbite of "Monitor")

Unidentified Man #1: 4 PM Eastern Daylight Time, 2000 hours Greenwich Mean Time, this is "Monitor," reporting the nation and the world.

HANSEN: The show, called "Monitor," made its debut at a precarious time for the network's radio business. Such stars as Bob Hope and Jack Benny had abandoned radio for the still-infant medium of television. Network executives were trying to salvage their radio divisions. NBC President Pat Weaver had created the weekday shows "Today" and "Tonight" for his fledgling television network. For radio, he aimed to draw a weekend audience with news from NBC reporters and to hear records, to listen to interviews and to laugh at the comedy routines of the likes of Bob and Ray.

(Soundbite of comedy routine; telegraph tapping within speech)

Unidentified Man #2: Hello again, sports fans. This is Bob and Ray in our telegraphic studio, all set to bring you a telegraphic re-creation of the big ball game being played in Helmwood between one man's family and Pepper Young's(ph) team.

HANSEN: "Monitor" was a hit, and it remained a staple of America's weekend radio diet through the second half of the 1950s and the 1960s. But its popularity waned, and "Monitor" went off the air in 1975. Dennis Hart is, to say the least, a big fan of "Monitor." He's written two books about the show and he maintains a Web site devoted to the program. Dennis Hart is in the studios of radio station KVPR in Fresno, California.

Welcome to our program.

Mr. DENNIS HART (Author, "Monitor: The Last Great Radio Show"): Thank you, Liane. It's a pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: There is one sound that so many people identify with the "Monitor" broadcast: the beacon.

(Soundbite of electronic beeping tones)

HANSEN: Why was this beacon created?

Mr. HART: It was created to signal to listeners that the show was radically different, it was innovative and you just had to listen. It was a marvelous electronic mishmash that Pat Weaver came up with. When he gave the signal to his people months earlier that he wanted to do a different type of radio show, he knew that it had to be different not just in terms of content, but it terms of how it was identified to the public.

HANSEN: Other than the beacon, which was unusual in itself, what was it that distinguished "Monitor" from other programs that were on the radio at the time in the mid-'50s?

Mr. HART: Almost everything. It was a radical revolution in radio. Remember that by the 1950s, network radio was in the same pattern of programming that network television is today: half an hour or hour-long comedies, drama, variety, mystery. So you had to tune in on the hour or half an hour or you figured you'd missed something. So what Weaver did was throw everything out. He came up with this radical idea that he would program a 40-hour continuous broadcast hosted by big-name TV people, and he would put everything into the broadcast. It would have news, sports, comedy, variety, live interviews, live comedy from the likes of Bob and Ray and Nichols and May, on a non-flock-time(ph) basis. In other words, if you were at home, on the road, at the beach, you could tune in at any time and you could hear something. Further, if you didn't like what you were hearing as soon as you tuned in, just wait a few minutes. The pace would be so great that you'd catch something that you really liked just a few minutes later.

HANSEN: They even had weather with Miss Monitor.

Mr. HART: Tedi Thurman--she was an actress, she had done a little bit of radio, she had done some television, but she was a model. And it was Weaver who came up with the idea of having her do weather in a way that had never been done before.

(Soundbite of "Monitor")

Ms. TEDI THURMAN: (As Miss Monitor) In Atlanta, the temperature is 87, partly cloudy; Spokane, 64, fair.

Mr. HART: She would come into the studios and be there virtually every hour of the 40-hour weekend, with just a few breaks, and she would do weather with this lush music behind her. To say the least, Miss Monitor probably became the most recognizable female voice in the country within a few short months after she went on to "Monitor."

HANSEN: How did people react to those early programs? I mean, wasn't--in the first program, there was interviews with Marilyn Monroe, Helen Hayes. I mean, it was--and they were traveling to different places and getting sound from there. How did people really react to it?

Mr. HART: The response was incredibly positive. Virtually all of the critics who wrote about it in Time or Newsweek magazine, The New York Times in the next day or so were positive, because network radio, they realized, had been on its deathbed. Within a month or two, NBC radio stations across the country were reporting increased audiences, they were selling it out on the local availabilities, the local commercial time that they were given, and it became--and this is a cliche--a smash hit.

HANSEN: The program changed and evolved over the years. It went on Friday nights for a while. It had a weekday slot. Content was changed; it went through a lot of things. But the final show was the weekend in January, 25th and 26th, of 1975. What killed the show?

Mr. HART: The changing nature of radio, particularly AM radio, eventually spelled the doom of "Monitor." AM radio, by the mid-1970s, was under siege from FM, which had discovered that by playing music, they could siphon away that AM radio audience. It's not an exaggeration to say that by the mid-'70s AM radio thought that it was on its deathbed. And so to counteract the music stations, more and more NBC affiliates were pulling away from the full feed of "Monitor." They were no longer clearing all the hours that the network was putting up on the air. Well, when you're not clearing the show, the advertisements aren't being heard, the commercial sponsors aren't being heard in some major cities. And so what had happened was that as more and more stations began pulling away, primarily bigger stations in bigger markets, advertisers began going away from the show, and the show began not to just not make money, it began to lose money.

HANSEN: There were many imitators over the years. What's the program's legacy?

Mr. HART: First of all, it saved NBC Radio for 20 years. It kept it on the air. Secondly, it is the forerunner of modern talk radio. Prior to "Monitor," talking was really not accepted on radio. You played music, you had some entertainment, you had some network shows. Talk was not something that radio specialized in.

Thirdly--and I think this is really important--"Monitor" was the first program, the first entity, the first medium, to tie the United States together on a real-time, live basis. Television could not do that. The technology had not evolved. "Monitor," in effect, was the Internet of its day. For all of those weekends, for those thousand weekends, people in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, listening to "Monitor," were part of a single enterprise, simultaneously hearing the same things and participating. And that, for all of those weekends, was magic.

HANSEN: Dennis Hart is the author of two books, "Monitor: The Last Great Radio Show" and "Monitor: Take Two," about NBC's radio program "Monitor." It first aired on June 12th, 1955.

Thank you very much, Dennis Hart.

Mr. HART: Thank you, Liane.

(Soundbite of 1975 broadcast of "Monitor")

Mr. JOHN BARTHOLEMEW TUCKER: It's time, my time, I guess, to say goodbye to all of you listeners who've become friends of this program in its nearly 20 years of existence. We leave you reluctantly. We leave you, we hope, with some indelible memories. We certainly have them. This is John Bartholemew Tucker, and you'll never hear this sound live at this hour again. This is "Monitor" on NBC.

(Soundbite of electronic beeping tones)

HANSEN: And this is NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

(Credits)

HANSEN: I'm Liane Hansen.

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