September 23, 2014

The life and death of the greatest radio program

Monitor: The Inside Story of Network Radio's Greatest Program, by Dennis Hart, iUniverse, Inc., 270 pages, $19.76

Why, you may ask, am I reviewing a book about classic radio on a blog devoted to classic television?  Aside from the obvious connection between the two media, it's absolutely necessary for one to understand the role that television played in the creation of Monitor, the NBC radio program that ran for nearly 20 years from 1955 to 1975.

By the mid-50s, it was clear that television had forever changed the way network radio functioned.  Most of radio's brightest stars and programs had already transitioned from radio to television (or were in the process of doing so), and the advertising dollars were following.  It was pretty clear to most people that if something wasn't done, and soon, network radio could well cease to exist.  This is where Pat Weaver comes in, and where Dennis Hart's engrossing story begins.

Weaver, of course, was the L'enfant terrible of early television; as President of NBC, he'd created everything from the Today and Tonight shows to the concept of the TV special, or "spectacular."  His idea to save network radio was equally audacious: a continuous, 40-hour program running from Saturday morning to Sunday midnight, featuring some of the biggest names in entertainment presenting literally everything: news, sports, comedy, live concerts, interviews with celebrities, recorded music, and remote reports from around the world - in other words, a show that would become known for "going places and doing things."  Weaver described his baby as a "kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria," but settled on a much simpler name: Monitor.

As Hart points out, this was an incredibly risky move: by putting all its eggs in one basket, large though that basket might be, NBC was literally staking its future on Monitor.  If the show failed to attract advertisers and listeners, the network would likely go under.  The fact that it didn't, that Monitor became an epic adventure that would run from the last of the big bands through Vietnam and Watergate and acid rock, was a testimony not only to Weaver's vision but to the talents of the producers and directors, writers, technicians, and personalities that helped assemble the mammoth show each week.  And it is this story that Hart brings so wonderfully to life.

Dave Garroway, the first "communicator"
The list of people who appeared on Monitor over the years reads like something of a who's who of the entertainment world.  The list of hosts alone (or "communicators," as they were initially called) would have been enough: the very first voice of Monitor, Dave Garroway; newsmen such as Frank McGee, David Brinkley and Frank Blair; television personalities from Ed McMahon and Hugh Downs to Gene Rayburn and Art Fleming; DJs such as Big Wilson, Wolfman Jack and Don Imus; and actors whom one wouldn't picture as radio hosts: David Wayne, Barry Nelson, James Daly and Tony Randall, all of whom helped create a conversational intimacy with the listener that made everyone feel as if they were part of an extended family.

There were comedy stars as well: Bob and Ray (who initially were to be on call throughout the weekend, ready to fill in on a moment's notice should a technical glitch prevent a particular report from being broadcast), Nichols and May, Jonathan Winters, Ernie Kovacs and more.  Feature presentations and reviews throughout the weekend were provided by names like Arlene Francis, Betty Furness, Gene Shalit and Dr. Joyce Brothers.  And no overview of Monitor would be complete without the immortal "Miss Monitor," played by Tedi Thurman, the sexy, alluring voice who read the national weather while romantic music played in the background.

The program itself was a true magazine, covering it all: breaking news, in-progress sports reports, live big band and jazz concerts, interviews with celebrities and newsmakers, features on all aspects of life and the latest in popular culture.  It's a rich, colorful history, and Dennis Hart takes full advantage of it.  He was fortunate enough to connect with and interview many of Monitor's key people while they were still living, collecting insightful (and often hilarious) stories from those both in front of the mic and behind the control room glass, assembling them in a way that gives the reader a real picture (so to speak) of what made Monitor such a special show.  He also does a good job of placing Monitor's role in radio's rich history, particularly the bold advertising timeshares with affiliates that allowed the show to thrive well into the '60s.

In fact, though, some of the most interesting segments of Hart's story come from the anecdotes provided by those who listened to the shows, both adults and those who grew up with Monitor as a regular weekend ritual.  Nobody expected to listen to the entire show, and that was the point: it was always there, ready whenever you happened to tune in to it.  Monitor took full advantage of growing American mobility to position itself as the listener's friend, whether you were at the beach, driving in the car, working in the garage or basement, or just spending time with friends.  There's one scene in particular, in which a listener describes the effect of walking down the street, hearing Monitor coming continuously from every house along the block, that illustrates just how much we've lost in our headlong rush to embrace the world of individuality and fragmented demographics.

Nothing lasts forever, though, and such was the case with Monitor, which eventually fell victim to a number of circumstances, most of all the desire of big-market affiliates to control their own commercial and broadcasting time.  When Monitor went off the air, in 1975, there were still over 120 stations, but hardly any were in the major markets.  And if there's any criticism of Hart's book, it's in his description of Monitor's downfall; chapter after chapter discusses the program's success in terms of stars, segments, features and the like, so the story of its demise (a gradual reduction in hours from 40 to a mere 12, plus 9 hours of repeats; loss of stations, advertising schemes with affiliates that cannibalized the show's flow and hastened its death) comes as something of a shock, with little foreshadowing provided to give it context.  It also serves to somewhat diminish the show's remarkably long run; without the twists, turns and surprises that surrounded the show's existence, one feels less the weight of the show's passing years, and its ability (or inability, as in the case of popular music) to change with the times.

That's a minor quibble, to be sure, in this fascinating book.  I have to admit that I have no memories of Monitor myself, although I must have just missed being aware of it, for I still have a great fondness for the all-news format that replaced it (NBC's News and Information Service, whose slogan was, "All News, All Day, Every Day").  Or perhaps Monitor had already disappeared from the airwaves where I lived back then.  All the more reason, then, for this book (and Hart's companion website), to introduce those of us without memories to the remarkable show that was Monitor.  For those fans of old time radio programs, the claim that Monitor was network radio's "greatest program" might seem a bit spurious, or at least somewhat grandiose.

But a 40-hour program that was born of desperation, a program that helped save an entire network for twenty years, a program that went around the world and broadcast anything and everything that was worth broadcasting, all without losing a sense of fun and wonder: well, that makes it pretty great in my book.

1 comment:

  1. I am barely old enough to remember "Monitor," on my mom's kitchen radio, probably before I had a radio of my own. After reading about it and listening to airchecks, what's most striking about it is its small-d democracy. It presumed the existence of an electronic public square where everyone would feel welcome to linger awhile. That's vastly different from radio formats today, which are constructed to appeal to highly specific slivers of the audience, thereby excluding as many people as possible. As a veteran of the radio biz, I understand why it is the way it is now--but I am convinced one of the problems in our society these last 30 years or so is the disappearance of spaces where everyone feels as though they belong.

    Someday I am going to figure out how to get the Monitor Beacon as my ringtone.

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