Monitor: An audio mosaic of news & talk
NBC Radio's innovative round the clock; round the world program started as 40 continuous hours on the weekends
Garroway's interview of Monroe was on Monitor's first program
Previously vibrant network radio was floundering after World War II, a victim of competition from television, when a visionary at NBC developed a distinctive weekend program U.S. listeners enjoyed for two decades.
The program, a blend of talk, music, news and entertainment, was called "Monitor." Its creator, Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, is also known for producing a daughter, actress Sigourney Weaver.
During the 50s, NBC President Pat Weaver, was an innovator in two media. He created two of NBC’s signature TV shows, “Today” and “Tonight.”
Weaver, a former radio producer, also focused his time and efforts on the NBC Radio Network, which began in 1926. Radio stars, such as Bob Hope and Jack Benny, left radio in the 50s and switched to television. As TV’s audience grew, radio’s ratings declined.
The network president was determined to find a remedy for the red ink flowing in NBC Radio’s ledger books. He realized that to attract a large number of listeners NBC needed to break from traditional network radio programming.
Post-war radio audiences had changed. Large radio sets, kept in the living room where the whole family listened together, where replaced by new black and white TVs. Solo listeners tuned in smaller radios that resided in kitchens and bedrooms or portable radios they took on the road.
Weaver focused his attention on the weekend when Americans were more mobile and active. This was the period when they were more likely to turn off the tube and listen to their car radios or portable radios at the beach, park or elsewhere. Weaver took the blend of news and talk that made his “Today Show” a hit on TV and used it as the basis of an expansive new radio show.
A big name host was sought
Like an artist at the potter’s wheel, Weaver spent weeks molding and shaping his new radio program. He abandoned the typical 15, 30 and 60 minute program length and decided a day-long show would work best with his new magazine-style program. Weaver also emphasized the use of remote segments broadcast live from various locations around the country.
"Monitor's" blend of news and talk mixed with entertainment and comedy resulted in an eclectic and a very enjoyable audio mosaic that earned public support from 1955 to 1975 and critical acclaim. In 1959, Newsweek called the program “the biggest thing in radio.”
In its early years, 30 million of America’s 180 million citizens listened to “Monitor.” Advertisers also flocked to the show in such large numbers that ad sales for the entire NBC radio network climbed.
As the program’s first broadcast (June 12, 1955) approached, Weaver was equally concerned about the selection of on-air talent, the construction of a state-of-the art studio, the promotion of “Monitor” in the media and the development of a unique audio recording to signify “Monitor.” At NBC they called the sound the Monitor Beacon. (Its history and an audio link is below.)
The TV Hall of Famer needed a big name host to attract media attention and bring the program prestige. So, Weaver set out after Dave Garroway, who he had installed in 1952 as the “Today Show’s” first host. Morning TV viewers enjoyed Garroway’s easygoing presence, something he honed during his years on Chicago radio. The TV star originally resisted the move to go back to radio, but Weaver persisted. Garroway eventually capitulated and was hired as the show’s first host or "communicator" as Weaver called the position.
“Monitor” was divided into four hour segments and each was staffed with two communicators. The list of “Monitor” communicators was a mix of actors, NBC newsmen and broadcasters, many who also served as TV game show hosts. There was: John Cameron Swayze, Bill Cullen, Hugh Downs, Gene Rayburn, Ed McMahon, Henry Morgan, Frank Blair, Monty Hall, Durward Kirby, Frank McGee, Barry Nelson, David Wayne and many others during the show’s 20 year history.
Radio program's signature was the unusal "Monitor Beacon"
“Monitor’s” infamous beacon helped the program standout, like a solo peacock displaying its striking feathers in the midst of radio’s field of gray.
The unique sound cue started each hour and communicators would end every 15 minute segment saying, “You’re on the Monitor Beacon,” which was followed by the distinctive sound. As the program changed over the years, adding hipper communicators like Don Imus and Wolfman Jack, the Monitor Beacon remained a constant.
The beacon was “an amalgamation of high frequency beeps and boops, recalls Jim Cox in his essay: “From Radio Central: You’re On the Monitor Beacon.”
NBC technicians wanted to create a distinctive sound for "Monitor." They started with high frequency dial tones used in long distance calls, rerecorded it at higher and lower frequencies, filtered it and overdubbed in a stylized Morse code sound repeatedly signaling the letter "M" for "Monitor.”
Once people heard it, they never forgot it. “The beacon became the identifying sound for a generation of radio listeners,” according to the Cox essay.
It would cost $1.3 million today to build Radio Central
Each communicator sat at the “Monitor” anchor desk in Radio Central, a massive complex built especially for “Monitor” for $150,000 ($1.3 million in today’s dollars).
The glass enclosed complex included a large radio studio, a tape room, huge control room and several small announcer booths.
Radio Central’s vast expanse of open space with unobstructed views of staffers and banks of communications equipment became a highlight of the NBC tours at 30 Rock. One reporter called the facility “a playpen for adults.” NBC dubbed it “a listening post of the world.”
Live and remote was another “Monitor” staple. There were live interviews with world leaders in various fields, visits to Africa and Asia to hear wild animals and remote segments onboard ships, jets and street cars.
TV-Radio Magazine captured the essence of "Monitor" for its readers. “With a format as flexible as a rubber band, ‘Monitor’ snaps into action each Saturday at 8 a.m. and bounces through 40 hours of continuous entertainment,” the magazine explained.
“At one moment, ‘Monitor’ may take listeners to a night club for a jazz session, to a Broadway theater during a play rehearsal, to a championship sports event, a wedding – even into the ocean to hear oysters laughing.”
During a typical year, “Monitor” aired 6,000 remotes, more than 7,500 interviews and featured more than 15,000 musical selections, mostly live.
Featurettes & Comedians
When a major news story occurred, “Monitor” was tailor-made to cover the event – wall-to-wall. Slow news days meant there was lots of time to fill. Weaver and Executive Producer Jim Fleming packed “Monitor’s” many hours with a series of reports by various experts in gardening, relationships, food, sports and other topics.
Weaver also knew the importance of laughter and he sprinkled three to five minute comedy segments throughout the show. The cadre of comedian contributors included: Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Phyllis Diller, Bob Hope, Ernie Kovacs, Bob Newhart, Jean Shepherd and Jonathan Winters. “Monitor” regulars also included comedy teams, Mike Nicholas & Elaine May, Jerry Stiller & Anne Meara and Bob & Ray.
When Weaver signed-up the latter duo, Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding had been making Boston radio listeners laugh for nine years. They performed numerous live bits and they also played a special role. Since “Monitor” relied on numerous remote segments, Weaver hired Bob & Ray to be ready to ad-lib when technical glitches arose.
Bud Drake, a “Monitor” producer/director, recalled that there was very little prior preparation with the humorous pair. “These two guys had such rapport they could just ad-lib anything. They didn’t work from scripts most of the time,” he said.
Bob & Ray won a Peabody Award for their Monitor comedy routines.
They wouldn't miss this Miss
There was uniqueness throughout “Monitor,” including its weather segment. Rather than have a communicator or an announcer report the temperature and weather conditions across the nation, Weaver hired model Tedi Truman to handle the task as Miss Monitor.
Although listeners couldn’t see her stunning good looks, they were struck by Miss Monitor’s sexy voice as she announced the temperatures in a way that had never been done on radio before. "She made her report sound like an irresistible invitation to an unforgettable evening,” commented Jack Gould, The New York Times TV and radio critic.
NOTE: Miss Monitor at 7:54
All downhill after a great start
“Monitor” was a big hit in the early years. As the 60s dawned changes impacted all of America's culture. The country was on a youth movement and radio reflected that.
AM Radio was dominated by local shows featuring records played by a disk jockey (DJ). And more and more the music that was played on the top stations was Rock and Roll.
“Monitor” was old school and its play list was Easy Listening. NBC affiliates that aired The Beatles and The Rolling Stones during the week didn’t like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett singing on their stations on the weekends.
Readers give this book 5 stars
As a result, network execs started making changes to “Monitor” to try to keep the affiliates happy. The show’s hours were trimmed several times over the years. The number of hosts was cut in half, Miss Monitor was given her walking papers and various segments were changed, some it seemed just for the sake of change.
Dennis Hart interviewed Weaver in 1977 for his book “Monitor: The ► Last Great Radio Show.” Weaver, who was forced out as president of NBC a year after “Monitor’s” birth, still listened to his program. He noticed during the 1960s that NBC decision makers “were slipping,” he told Hart. “They either didn’t understand it or forgot to read the old memos. But it didn’t have the importance that it (once) did.”
“Monitor’s” magical legacy
In the early 70s, NBC continued tweaking "Monitor's" format in an attempt to keep it attractive for affiliates to carry. However, an increasing number of the larger NBC affiliates, even network-owned stations, refused to carry the show. On January 26, 1975 "Monitor" broadcast its last show, four months shy of its 20th anniversary.
Dennis Hart is a “Monitor” historian of sorts. He acquired a great deal of material about the show, which is featured on his website: MonitorBeacon.net.
When NPR’s “Weekend Edition” did a story on “Monitor” they asked Hart to comment on the program’s legacy. He gave a threefold answer. “It saved NBC Radio for 20 years. It kept it on the air,” he maintained. "Secondly, it is the forerunner of modern talk radio."
Hart said the third reason was the most significant: “’Monitor’ tied the United States together on a real-time, live basis…
“’Monitor,’ in effect, was the Internet of its day," he said. "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.” –TDowling
© 2013 Thomas Dowling