Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Also Appearing During the Golden Age of Radio

When you think of radio in the 1940s, you think of NBC, CBS, ABC, Mutual and all the big network shows. But what about stations that weren’t on a network?

Little local stations used 78s, syndicated programmes that came on transcription discs, local singers, musicians and such. But if you were in a big city, how could you compete with Jack Benny, Lux Radio Theatre and Superman on the other stations?

You used your ingenuity.

That’s what WNEW had to do. And it was successful. At one time, it was the highest-billing independent station in North America.

Radio columnist John Crosby lambasted many a network show during that venerated Golden Age of Radio as being trite, unoriginal, ridiculous, hokey or insulting to one’s intelligence. He despised the bureaucracy of censors, sponsor approval and network executives with their little bailiwicks. So did WNEW. Is it any wonder Crosby greeted the independent station with his approval, despite some rather unorthodox management methods (“unorthodox” was also something positive in Crosby’s view).

Here’s his column that was published on March 8, 1949. I like the ideas of parodies on network programmes. I don’t think I’d be crazy about a programme director calling me in the middle of the night at home for her own amusement.
By John Crosby

WNEW, the New York independent at 1130 on your dial, is the Peck's Bad Boy of radio. The procedure over there is by network standards outrageously amateurish and at the same time strikingly successful making it even more exasperating to its competitors. It has an impish disregard for all the competition, especially the big stations.
In the early '30s, NBC had bought exclusive rights to a big fight in the Madison Square Garden Bowl at Long Island city. WNEW blithely ignored the network contract, sent an announcer to the roof of the nearest apartment building overlooking the bowl, and broadcast the fight from there sponsored by a shoe company. NBC almost blew a gasket, but there wasn't much it could do about it.
Bernice Judis, station manager and vice-president of the station, loves to needle the big networks, has a phobia against putting anything on WNEW that remotely resembles a network show, and is, in a rather curious way, one of the severest critics of what might be referred to as big radio.
Now and then WNEW, just for the hell of it, likes to satirize its great big colleagues. Several years ago, for example, WNEW broadcast a one-minute soap opera from 3:14 to 3:15 complete with cliff-hanging broken romances, everything.
When the network stations ran hogwild over the husband and wife breakfast programs, WNEW slyly ran a program called "Cocktails and Cookies with Jack and Jill," featuring the ad lib conversation oi a couple of five-year-olds, which wasn't any less intelligent than that of some of their elders on the breakfast programs. More recently the station poked fun at giveaway programs on a program in which the listeners gave things to the station.
Miss Judis is outspoken in her criticism of big radio, which, she feels, suffers equally from hardening of the arteries and red tape. Some years ago a network executive, after watching a WNEW engineer trying to repair one of the station's ancient microphones, sent her a wire which read: "Understand you have rare old microphones. Would like to purchase them for museum of radio antiquities." She fired a wire right back: "Will give you our antique equipment provided you display it next to your antique programs."
WNEW's operation is, to put it mildly, as flexible as possible. Ideas are batted around at a daily coffee-and-talk conferences with promotion manager and station her salesmen, program director, press agent and, once Miss Judis approves. are put into effect with the speed of light.
All-night operation, which has turned out to be extremely lucrative, was simply an idea that shot through her mind at one of these conferences, and was put into effect that night. A couple of days later one of the owners of the station called up. "I don't mind a bit," he said apologetically, "But why didn't someone tell me we were operating 24 hours a day?"
Make Believe Ballroom, perhaps the most successful program WNEW has, is a three-and-a-half-hour disk jockey show run by Martin Block. WNEW's contribution was simply the pretense that there were live bands playing in a fabulous array of ballrooms. So insidious is this idea put across that thousands of listeners believe Martin Block actually is in a Crystal Studio with Benny Goodman right in front of him. Dozens of other independents across the country have borrowed the idea.
Milkman's Matinee, a very popular disk jockey show that runs from midnight to 6 a. m., flashed through Miss Judis' mind one day and was on the air in two hours. It is this sort of informality which WNEW an interesting though nerve-wracking place to work.
Like its boss, WNEW is an extremely feminine station, largely furnished in blond wood with turquoise and lime walls. (Its rate cards used to be shocking pink, one of her favorite colors). Miss Judis is on wisecracking terms with virtually everyone there, her interest in their employees extending even to their clothes, which she criticizes candidly. She is not, however, a person any one can relax with easily and the presence of such a feminine ball of fire around the premises is not altogether soothing.
One rather bitter ex-employe swears that when he worked for WNEW every employe in the place was being psychoanalyzed--all by the same man at cut rates. "I think the station had some sort of deal with him." There is some exaggeration in this statement but it is fairly illustrative. Miss Judis' concern for her employes is profound and maternal, but it is also a little feudal. Occasionally when she is bored she may phone and summon some of the field hands to her apartment to amuse her.
The process is getting hired at WNEW is something no one easily forgets. The prospect is plunked down at a coffee-and-talk conference of executives and asked the most searching questions, one of which—from Miss Judis—is: "Why do you want to work here? Take away the salary and what have you got?"
The executives not only fire questions at the prospect, but talk about him as it he weren't there. Finally, if the decision is favorable, Miss Judis turns to the executive in whose department the job lies: "Well, Ira, you want him, you got him."
“Make Believe Ballroom” was certainly a success for Martin Block, who had been selling razor blades before he knocked on Judis’ door. She hired him in 1934 for $25 a week. Eventually, he parlayed the show into a $200,000-a-year gig, though he insisted he had no idea Al Jarvis was doing the same kind of show in Los Angeles when he started. “Milkman’s Matinee” made a celebrity of Stan Shaw, the young announcer who became “Stay-Up Stan, the All-Night Man.” A song was written about him. And at the time this column was printed, the co-host of the WNEW morning show was Gene Rayburn. But they all eventually left for the “big radio” that Judis despised.

And what of the unorthodox Bernice Judis? Ownership of the station changed in 1954. You know the old saying about a new broom. She and her second husband, WNEW sales chief Ira Herbert, were bought out and tossed out. In 1960, they bought three stations in the U.S. South. Judis died in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in late May 1983 at the age of 83. In the meantime, the new ownership of WNEW did quite well. Broadcasting magazine reported sales figures for 1955 were 32% higher than 1953. And dismantling and replacing Judis’ programming schedule brought about ratings increases as higher as 29% to 125% for certain shows and total listening up by 70%. It’s all the more amazing considering radio was losing oceans of ad dollars to television.

It seems Miss Judis’ antipathy for network-type radio was all for nought.

1 comment:

  1. WNEW's offices and studios, with a lovely art deco design, was for years on the second floor of a building on east side of Fifth Avenue near Grand Central Terminal (IIRC, at 45th Street) in Manhattan. The station itself lasted all the way into the 1990s as the city's AM radio standards station before being sold to future mayor Michael Bloomberg for his business channel (which, ironically, now has reach into the U.S. and Canada -- if you're listening to Bloomberg Business on Sirius/XM radio, you're listening to 1130 WBBR, the former WNEW out of New York).

    The Modernaires re-recorded a version of "Mlikman's Matinee" for WNEW in 1955, which lasted all the way to the '93 shutdown, and would be broadcast on WNEW-TV for years just prior to their overnight sign-off.