It was the question that consumed network speculation in 1984 and '85: Would Mutual be sold? When? To whom? And for how much?
New Mutual president Jack Clements told Radio & Records in June 1985, "Every now and then someone calls me and says, 'I want to make an offer for the network.' . . . I tell these people that the network isn't for sale, but if they persist I pass the calls along and the inquiries go away."
But about a month later, Amway got a call from Westwood One, Inc. (referred to henceforth as WW1), a California-based program syndicator specializing in longform shows and concert specials for young adults. The company had just issued a secondary stock offering, with the intention of using the proceeds for acquisitions. President/Chairman Norm Pattiz told R&R, "It certainly hasn't been a secret that we were looking to buy something." (Earlier in 1985, WW1 had failed in an attempt to buy RKO Radio Networks.) When WW1 called Amway about discussing a sale, "They (Amway) told us the network wasn't really on the block, but would send us some information anyway."
Negotiations went smoothly, and the sale was was announced in September 1985, taking all but a few savvy industry-watchers by total surprise. The price: $37 million.
For its money, WW1 got the radio network of about 860 basic stations, (with about 1,400 stations airing one or more programs), which included affiliation contracts, studios, programming services and staff. It did not get Mutual's satellite services division and uplink facility - something Amway wanted to keep and WW1 didn't want to buy.
To Pattiz, the marriage "was a perfect fit. WW1 is a longform program producer and distributor, and Mutual doesn't really have much of a presence in that area. Likewise, we don't have a news or sports department and Mutual does, and they have an older demographic base than we do." Where would WW1 succeed where Amway didn't? "WW1 will not be an absentee owner the way the previous owner was . . . we plan on taking an active role in maximizing Mutual's potential - and we think there is tremendous opportunity to do that." Pattiz explained some of that would come in what the business world now calls "synergies:" "For instance, we won't need to do business with outside producers, because the biggest outside producer in the world is us. There are a lot of ways we can integrate the two companies to make a substantial impact on our P & L."
The announcement of the sale caught Jack Clements by surprise, but he called it a "marriage made in heaven." He and the rest of the Mutual team kept their jobs. Amway would not comment on any aspect of the sale, suggesting they were anxious to move on from their foray into broadcasting.
Pattiz added, "You certainly haven't seen the last of the expansion for WW1." Indeed, it wouldn't take long: in 1987, WW1 purchased the NBC Radio Network from General Electric (NBC's new owner), becoming the first company in almost 50 years to own and operate more than one network (this will prove important shortly).
On the surface, little changed: Mutual's program offerings in 1988 were still among the most diverse in network radio. They included four newscasts each hour, ranging from one-minute updates to the traditional five-minute top-of-the-hour newscast; forty-one sportscasts each week, including 16 "Wide Weekend of Sports" programs; Notre Dame Football each Saturday, two NFL games each Sunday, and NCAA basketball. Daily features included "Face-Off," a confrontation between Senators Ted Kennedy and Alan Simpson; and a comedy feature from Mort Sahl. There was also the early-morning news magazine, "America in the Morning"; "On the Garden Line with Jerry Baker," a two-hour weekly call-in show on gardening; "America on the Road," a weekly hour about the auto industry; and "Weekend Headliner," the successor to "Reporter's Roundup."
There was also "The Larry King Show," Mutual's late night showcase. By the mid-1980s, it was being heard on about 300 stations. To ease King's workload (he also had a nightly show on CNN), it was shortened from five-and-a-half hours to four, and moved from midnight to 11 p.m. In addition, King's first two hours were sold separately - a move that increased the average spot rate from 60 to 260 dollars. Also, a two-hour program with Dr. Toni Grant was added from 9 to 11 p.m. from 1986 to 1988.
By 1993 though, King had grown weary of the late hours, and the show moved to afternoons (Jim Bohannon inherited King's late-night slot). But it faltered there: King's personality didn't wear as well in the light of day; also, it was scheduled in the afternoon drive-time slot on the east coast, and stations didn't want to give up a chunk of commercial time - or their afternoon shows - to a network offering, even for a personality of King's stature. Ratings were disappointing, and after a year, King left Mutual and his radio-only show; WW1 would simulcast the audio portion of CNN's "Larry King Live."
However, subtle changes were underway at WW1 to save money after the $50 million acquisition of NBC Radio. In 1989, NBC's news and engineering operations in New York were moved to Arlington and combined with Mutual's. However, both networks' newscasts remained separate and distinct; while field reporters were shared, each network had different formats and anchors.
But that would not last. In 1992, further consolidation took place: newscasts were streamlined and took on similar formats. The two networks aired their own newscasts between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. eastern time weekdays. But overnights and on weekends, one newscast was produced each hour for use on both networks, the only differences being the recorded introductions, commercials and concluding network identifications. "Wide Weekend of Sports" was cancelled, along with NBC's "Weekend Sports"; both networks would share "The Scoreboard," a generic, one-minute hourly sportscast, seven each on Saturdays and Sundays. Many of Mutual's daily feature programs were also cancelled.
Between 1992 and 1998, a series of acquisitions and mergers in the radio industry resulted in even more changes at WW1.
On August 31, 1998, the news operation in Arlington was closed. Mutual and NBC Radio newscasts were now handled from CBS' facilities in New York. About 75 people lost their jobs, although a few, like longtime Mutual anchors Peter Maer, Bob Fuss and Sam Litzinger, were absorbed into the CBS operation, which was sending signals that programming for three networks was redundant.
The writing was on the wall.
On April 18, 1999, the final newscast to bear the Mutual name was broadcast. As a replacement, Mutual affiliates were offered CNN Radio newscasts (which WW1 had distributed since the 80s), with the familiar Mutualert tones still in use. The Mutual name was "retired" by WW1, just six months short of its 65th anniversary.
But is it gone for good? An April 27, 2000 simulcast of WW1's "Jim Bohannon Show" (remember - the successor to "The Larry King Show"?) on C-SPAN clearly showed the WW1/Mutual mike flags in use, and the old "Mutual Broadcasting System" sign still on the wall of the Arlington studio. Perhaps?? . . . NAH!!
Some information on this page came from various issues of Billboard, Broadcasting, and Radio & Records magazines; The Seattle Times, and Variety.
Text copyright © 2009 Kenneth I. Johannessen.
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