Cincinnati's Golden Days of Broadcasting
The Birth of Modern Broadcasting
The development of modern wireless communication didn't occur overnight. Throughout the 19th century, many scientists and inventors such as Hans Christian Ørsted, Micheal Faraday, Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, James Clerk Maxwell and Reginald Fessenden, to name just a few, made individual discoveries, contributing bits and pieces to the technology until finally crossing a legal boundary to become what it is today. Advancements in warfare technology, such as wirelessly controlled torpedo guidance, provided an important incentive in the development.
By the dawn of the 20th century, it was a race between Guglielmo Marconi, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison to become the first to create presentable prototypes that could attain government approvals and patents.
On January 13, 1910, Lee de Forest's transmission of the Metropolitan Opera House earned him the credit of "Father of Modern Broadcasting" and before long, radio stations would run rampant across the world, especially America..
Rise of Cincinnati's Radio Prominence
An Ohio entrepreneur, inventor and industrialist named Powel Crosley began Cincinnati's first radio station out of his garage. Powel and his brother Lewis, the namesakes of Crosley Field, were instrumental in forming the Cincinnati Reds baseball team and the manufacture of an automobile line - the Crosley. By 1922, Crosley Broadcasting Corp had grown to become the 50-watt radio station with the call letters WLW (World's Largest Warehouse), it's tower erected using 2 antennae, one stacked on top of the other which was inverted, forming a diamond shape - as it stands today.
In addition to WLW, other midwest stations including WOWO of Fort Wayne, Indiana and Chicago's WLS, rapidly grew so powerful that their listening area extended from the east coast to the continental divide.
The U.S. government became involved first in 1926 by establishing the Federal Radio Commisision (FTC) creating the Radio Act of 1927 which controlled licensing and ownership. By 1934, the FTC was replaced by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which put into effect a restriction of the wattage output of super stations including KDKA Pittsburg, WOWO and WLW.
In 1939, WLW was asked by the government to amplify it's output to allow a broadcast to Berlin emphasizing American disapproval of Nazi aggression in eastern Europe.
Move into the Television Media
In 1945, Crosley was purchased by Aviation Corporation eventually adopting the AVCO name. Crosley (AVCO) grew into a media conglomerate and by the 1950s operated a television network (WLW-T) across the midwest including stations in Dayton (WLW-D), Columbus (WLW-C) and Indianapolis (WLW-I) and eventually acquiring stations in Atlanta (WLW-A), San Antonio (WOAI-TV), San Francisco, Washington D.C. and St. Louis.
WLW-T originally carried NBC, ABC, CBS and DuMont programming before becoming an NBC primary affiliate.
WLW-T became the first television station in the country to broadcast in color in it's entirety earning Cincinnati it's "Colortown U.S.A." nickname.
She was an up-front, real woman who rose from humble beginnings. Her daily live television show drew millions of viewers. Her mere mention of a product could turn it into a household name. This may sound like Oprah Winfrey, but it s a description of Ruth Lyons, a pioneering broadcaster whose audience in 1960 equaled that of Winfrey s today.
A Star is Born, by Accident
Before Oprah, there was Ruth. Ruth Lyons pioneered radio and television, turning it into a marketing Mecca. She came to be known as the most "successful housewife in the world". It all came about by accident when the regular female announcer on Taft (family of President Taft) Broadcasting's radio station WKRC, where Ruth was employed as a musician/librarian, called in sick. Lyons took over without a hitch and became an overnight sensation. Haggling over a $10.00 raise, Ruth jumped ship to WLW where she and co-host Frazier Thomas built a media empire.
Ruth and her husband, Herman Newman, became philanthropists and donated much to the community which stands today as the Ruth Lyon's Christmas Fund and several other programs in the Cincinnati area.
The 50-50 Club was started at WLW as a daily lunch broadcast of fifty women (originally called The 50 Club until 50 more people were added in 1955) with Ruth concealing the microphone in a floral bouquet pinned to her dress which became her trademark. The 50/50 Club was first televised in 1949, became nationally syndicated for almost one year by NBC, then returned to the local market. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, guests on the show included Rosemary Clooney, Bob Hope, Mike Douglas, Arthur Godfrey, Peter Nero, Pearl Bailey and by the 1970s, a young David Letterman.
Target Market: Housewives
1967 marked the beginning of The Phil Donahue Show out of Dayton, Ohio affiliate WLWD, joining The Ruth Lyon's 50-50 Club, Breakfast Party and The Paul Dixon Show in the Crosley lineup.
Paul Dixon became an immediate success with his sometimes questionable material and deliveries, but all of the house-wives in the listening area were "addicted" to "Paul Baby" nonetheless. Dixon would give out "French Ticklers" to bashful females in his audience and would regularly give one of the ladies a salamie as a booby prize. Dixon made use of many inanimate objects such as the rubber chickens which came to be daily props on the set. His most memorable broadcast, at the apex of the show's popularity, was the "marriage of the rubber chickens". Traditions that began on Dixon's show are still alive today, as David Letterman, who was greatly influenced by Paul Dixon, displays when he gives out hams on his program.
Besides the 50-50 Club and the Paul Dixon Show, Crosley (AVCO) Broadcasting also produced the prime time weekly program Midwestern Hayride. For over four decades, Midwestern Hayride ran, featuring up and coming legends such as Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton and spawned the nationally syndicated, prime time TV show, Hee-Haw with several of the main characters of Hayride appearing regularly on the hit program.
Almost Everybody knew Bob Braun
If you are over forty years of age and from the midwest, you have probably seen the face of and likely heard the voice of, Bob Braun.
Bob Braun, from Ludlow, Kentucky, started his career as a sports announcer at a small Cincinnati radio station at the age of 13. He found his way into the music industry, as northern Kentucky had many dance clubs in those days, and recorded several albums. One of those albums featured the song "Till Death do us Part" which rose into the top 40 charts in 1962. He later took over The 50-50 Club, filling in for Ruth Lyons whose health was failing and then The Bob Braun Show from 1967 to 1984.
Braun was known around the country for being in TV commercials. He also had several small roles in films, his most well-known appearance being the radio announcer on the film "Die Hard II".
The 50/50 club, Paul Dixon, Ruth Lyons, Bob Braun, Colleen Sharp & Betty Lou, it's all in this encapsulation of the glory days of WLW out of "The Queen City", Cincinnati, Ohio.
Looking Back on an Era
With most of it's key characters having passed on, the golden days of broadcasting in Cincinnati are now a bygone era, though, media in Cincinnati has grown in parallel with the times.
From 2006 to 2009, WLW simulcast live on XM Satellite Radio and currently, "The Nation's Station", transmits using the HD-Radio digital system.
In 2009, WLW-T switched from analog to digital broadcasting as ordered by the FCC.
Cincinnati has a distinguished television history. Beginning before WLW-T signed on the air in February 1948, its experimental station W8XCT broadcast from the 46th floor of the Carew Tower. WKRC-TV and WCPO-TV signed on in 1949, WCET in 1954, and WXIX-TV in 1968. Since then, television has become part of the family.
© 2014 Steve Dowell