Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Monitoring Monitor

Something had to be done about radio.

Radio networks were set up to supply stations with comedy, drama, variety, mystery, soap operas, kids adventure serials and quiz shows. In the mid-1950s, the networks were still there, but all those programmes were now on television. People didn’t want them on radio any more. The networks had to decide what to do to maintain their huge investment in radio.

One man had an idea. An idea he, ironically, borrowed from television.

NBC’s Pat Weaver figured if the Today show could work on TV, it could work on radio. Weaver’s original idea for Today was to have a “communicator” throw live to people and places all over the world, including someone in studio reading the latest news, or a young woman in front of a weather chart. Critics laughed a bit at Weaver’s obsession for going places for no particular reason other than to go there. But Today worked through the bugs and gained an audience. So why couldn’t it do the same thing on radio?

Weaver dredged up his buzz word of “communicators” and invented Monitor, sending the programme live all over the place. It lasted on NBC for almost 20 years (19 of them post-Weaver). The programme still has real die-hard fans.

However, let’s go back to its debut; actually it’s pre-debut. Here’s columnist John Crosby reviewing a promo for Monitor in his column of April 22, 1955.
NBC Pulls Out All Stops To Regain Radio Interest
NBC has as elaborate plan to restore interest in radio. Starting June 12, the network will present “Monitor,” a program that will start at 8 a.m. Saturday and continue 'till midnight Sunday every week-end. The program will be a “kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria,” according to Pat Weaver, president of NBC, a man whose prose style strenuously resists interpretation.
“Monitor” will consist of—let's see now—news, sports, time, and weather (every hour), comedy, music, drama, music theater, sound track from films, records, top dance bands around the country, simulcasts from TV shows— if you happen to be in a car and want to catch Maurice Evans declaiming "Macbeth", for instance—or—well, any other kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria that happens to occur to the people over there between now and June 12.
Weaver wants attentive listeners, not what he calls secondary listeners — those people who just leave the radio on all day and pay only dim attention. According to an NBC press release “Monitor’ microphones will be equally at home in the White House or the dressing room of Sid Caesar”. In other words, the mobility and speed of radio will be emphasized.
It’s Big—Naturally
Naturally, this Weaver brainstorm is being done in a large way. NBC is constructing something called Radio Central at a cost of $150,000. Radio Central is just a consolidation of all the new facilities over there so one man can pick up a remote newscast by pushing a button. The show will be run by "communicators." (At least Weaver will call them "communicators." No one else will, including their own wives.) The communicators haven't been picked yet. NBC now has a tape of the sort of things we are going to hear on "Monitor" and it sounds pretty good, though I'm not at all sure NBC can keep it up week after week. The tape begins with Dave Garroway announcing National Observatory time and calling off the seconds past the hour. Next Morgan Beatty chimes in with a little news—or rather headlines. Art Buchwald, who is “Monitor’s” roving correspondent in Paris, does a clever little bit about the Germans as seen through the eyes of the French.
Next you get Groucho Marx, supposedly at a bar in Beverly Hills, singing “My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer.” Then he remarks “Imagine the patience of this brewery. A hundred and two brews before they found one that satisfied. Can you imagine how lousy thirty-seven must have been?”
And in a trice we switch from a Beverly Hills saloon to one in Germany where everyone is singing (in German) something called “The Nicest Place Is At The Bar.” And the next thing you know you're at the Lido, that elaborate tourist trap in Paris, with an announcer trying to describe all those lovely, naked girls in the floor show.
From Hollywood comes a brief commentary on the movie "Blackboard Jungle", and then there's an excerpt—a pretty exciting one—from the film. The next voice you hear is Ogden Nash, remarking: “People are very brave. People are the bravest things there are. People are composed of men and women and men are brave enough to marry women, all women are brave enough to marry men.” And then he recited a poem about women's hats.
Then, by George, we heard a description of the race between Sea biscuit and War Admiral at Santa Anita, a bit of news that has been around for some time. And pretty soon, there is the tape of George Gobel warming up his television audience before his show—which was just as funny as George Gobel on the show and maybe a little funnier.
And if that isn't a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria, then I don't know a kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria when I hear one.

Well, the reviews came in. Let’s pass on a couple of them. First, one from the International News Service.
NBC Strives By 'Monitor' To Aid Radio
NEW YORK (INS)—Once before when network radio first was being pushed on its face by television, the National Broadcasting Co. tried to make a final furious last-gasp gaudiness make do for its drooping programming.
They enlisted Tallulah Bankhead to utter some classic vulgarities which drew fine reviews, a lot of publicity, but small audiences.
Called The Big Show," it was what its title suggested in everything but ratings and inevitably fizzed into a noisy memory.
Now NBC is at it again, with another fling aimed at warming over a fairly dead network audience. Called "Monitor," it had its premiere Sunday and is scheduled to continue each Saturday and Sunday from now on.
Its premiere had its first hour on both radio and TV, the network probably figuring rightly the best place to advertise radio wares on a Sunday afternoon would be via Television to which, if the home folks dial anything, TV would be it.
Its "communicators" (an NBC word meaning emcee) include Dave Garroway, Jim Fleming, Clifton Fadiman, Morgan Beatty, Bob & Ray, Walter Kiernan. Red Barber, many others. Even NBC Pres. S. L. "Pat" Weaver joined in.
It's the sort of mishmash anyone could and did get woven into its free-form, or irrelevant notions, to occasionally deadly-in-earnest. Its content dashed around every point of compass; its music was poured in hurriedly. Not time enough quite to enjoy.
There were quick human interest interviews at San Quentin prison (good), news (too sketchy), a clumsily stated and fuzzily indefinite "editorial analysis" of the news by the plainly nervous Roscoe Drummond (not so good), a double-talk sports whatever-it-was by Al Kelly (didn't come off).
Each portion, in fact, was injected so hurriedly and was chased off the air so quickly that it seemed a series of off-hand notions, little spasms of continuity strung together not so much by high imaginations but rather a clear desire to make whatever followed so different from what went on just before as to jar a listener to rapt attention.
The parts were many, varied and amazing in their scope; but settle to a sameness in their brief expandability. By attempting far too much, the effect was far too little.

No doubt Pat Weaver and the other suits at 30 Rock picked up this review in the following day’s New York Times.
Radio: N.B.C. ‘Monitor’ Scans All
Projected Forty-Hour Show Has Premiere
Remotes, Music, Talk and an Oyster Heard
Sylvester L. (Pat) Weaver, Jr., broadcasting’s most unpredictable president, starting something yesterday afternoon over his National Broadcasting Company’s radio network. Just what it is, however, he may be the only many to know for a while.
Mr. Weaver’s radio project is titled “Monitor,” and in format it is a cousin of his successful television innovations, “Today,” “Home” and “Tonight.” The show is something an electronic grab-bag, designed to keep a listener guessing as to what’s coming next.
On the premiere, the pickings were mixed. In part, “Monitor” was new and different, engendering a radio equivalent of the narcotic TV quality that keeps a viewer watching, for instance, Steve Allen. A listener was curious to know what would happen next. In part, “Monitor” was familiar N.B.C. radio in a slightly different garb.
“Monitor” got off to a bizarre start at 4 P.M. The first hour was simultaneously over N.B.C. television and radio, and the two media got tangled up to produce a hodge-podge. Then “Monitor” seemed to hit its stride. But by 10 o’clock in the evening, the show had lost some of its steam and was only interesting, but not unusual listening.
When “Monitor” goes on a forty-hour schedule next week-end—from 8 A.M. Saturday to midnight Sunday—it will have its work cut out for itself. In beginning “Monitor,” Mr. Weaver announced that it was the program’s intent to throw away the radio clock and establish a new pattern—a continuous flow of items determined by their worth.
The headquarters of the show is a new studio called “Radio Central,” equipped with all the gadgetry necessary to make pick-up from every where. With Mr. Weaver’s usual flair for the different, the N.B.C. participants are not listed as people but as “communicators.”
The first “preview” hour covered such sundry matters as a pick-up of a Los Angeles swing band, a visit to San Quentin Prison, a visit with Al Kelly, the double-talk artist, a political commentary by Roscoe Drummond, a talk by Dr. Nathan M. Pusey, president of Harvard University, the noise made by an oyster, a visit to the Bucks County (Pa.) summer theatre, a scene from the new Jerry Lewis picture and a pick-up from a trans-Atlantic plane leaving Idlewild Airport. Unfortunately for the debut, more attention was given to the TV aspect than to the radio, but undoubtedly Mr. Weaver achieved his objective of calling attention by means of TV to the fact that there still is sound broadcasting.
The second “Monitor” stretch, the first designed for radio alone, was a good deal more successful. There was news, a live dance band, a book review, an evaluation of Nehru, a jazz unit, a pick-up from Berlin, a pickup of a ceremony in Scotland, a return to San Quentin, a touch of Bob and Ray, some music from Nick’s Tavern and an interview with Mary Martin and Helen Hayes, etc.
It was this stretch that had the most pace—a liveliness and an uncertainty that held the listener’s attention.
But as the hours ran on, the problem of repetition began to assert itself. The national news became fixed at the beginning of each hour, and at roughly similar periods there were further returns to San Quentin Prison and to the plane, now winging its way across the Atlantic.
Dave Garroway, a veteran communicator, handled the 8-to-10 period, and it wasn’t too different from his old radio program. He is not the best of interviewers, as was evident in his talk with Marilyn Monroe. The pickup of Carl Sandburg was much more stimulating.
Too, the short wave pick-ups, not too many of which worked very well, lost a good deal of their value when nobody had anything special to say on the plane or on the liner United States off the Azores. Gadgetry won’t sustain “Monitor.”
A big, if unidentified, hit of “Monitor” was a young lady who delivered weather reports for just about every city in the world except New York. She made the report sound like an irresistible invitation to an unforgettable evening.
“Monitor” has such a flexible format that in the weekends to come Mr. Weaver will be able to experiment to his heart’s delight. If his past accomplishments are a criterion, he will. Which is perhaps the best guarantee that at long last network radio is going to receive a shot in the arm.

As you can see, NBC pumped promotional money for Monitor into the trade magazines. Its success can be judged by the fact that by September, stations in Denver, Trenton, New Brunswick (N.J.) and Watsonville (Calif.) were imitating parts of Monitor, with roving mikes covering news and fluff (a chat with a beauty queen, and orphans saying their goodnight prayers were among the “stories”) and “beeper” telephones (the “beep” quaintly signified to the caller they were recorded for air). ABC Radio launched its New Sounds For You series on weeknights from 7:30 to 10, though its programming was consistent from night to night.

On November 7th, Monitor moved into weekdays with the moniker Weekday, airing from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., though NBC maintained the hoary old 15-minute soaps The Right to Happiness, Young Widder Brown, Pepper Young’s Family and The Woman in My House as well as The Lone Ranger on its daytime schedule. Weekday didn’t last long. NBC cancelled the show the following July 27th after four large stations announced they were leaving the network because of its weekday programming. It was replaced by a music show featuring bands that were increasingly becoming old folks music. However, Monitor carried on, petering out in 1975 after being hacked and slashed and turned into little more than an MOR disc jockey show punctuated by standard-issue network newscasts. By the end, new and daring it wasn’t. But it was almost all that was left of network radio.

You can learn more about Monitor on this loving fansite.


  1. The rise of public television in the 1960s did Monitor no favors -- the entertainment portion of radio already had migrated over to TV, and the growth of non-commercial educational stations took some more of what was left for radio to exploit (you also had NPR in place by the time NBC pulled the plug on the service, which would take up some more of what the original Monitor offered -- my guess is when Pat Weaver came up with the concept, he had no plans to have someone in the Don Imus mold of radio personalities as one of Monitor's regular hosts).

    1. Probably a more natural direction for Monitor to go would have been with a strict news/interview format. The US radio networks were all adding newscasts through the early '60. The trouble with that, as NBC discovered with NIS, is a format consisting of Joe Garagiola playing the New Christie Minstrels is a lot cheaper.
      I've never quite understood Weaver's fetish of doing stuff like "let's go to Niagara Falls and hear the sound of water." I can't see why arbitrary sights and sounds would induce someone to tune in.