1972 - 1977: Coming To Life

"I agree that Mutual hasn't done too well for the past few years,
but I can tell you this: Mutual is now alive."
                                                                                                            - C. Edward Little, Feb. 1972

In the fall of 1971, C. Edward Little - a catcher in the New York Yankees farm system from 1946 to 1953 - and his associates sold Mutual affiliate WGMA (AM) in Hollywood, Florida. He had decided to "take it easy for a while, play a little golf." But Little's sabbatical was interrupted by a call from Mutual's management, asking if he would be interested in becoming the network's president. Soon, he was telling Broadcasting magazine, "I love this job."

Little soon started making good on his promise of bringing the network to life. He immediately announced plans to start not one, but two new networks - one aimed at blacks, the other hispanics. When Mutual's director of affiliate relations suddenly defected in March 1972, Little needed immediate help. He found it from . . . the Englewood, New Jersey Police Department???

Officer Gary Worth was no stranger to Mutual: he had worked in station relations from 1966 to 1969. But he had moved around since then, first to Capital Cities Communications, then managing an investment in a chain of dry cleaning shops; then Worth gave into a lifelong desire, and became a cop. He was on patrol when he got the invitation to come back to Mutual; years later, he described the network as having "about $600 in the bank and about $1 million in accounts payable."

It would be a while before Little and Worth turned that around.

On May 1, 1972, Mutual adopted the multi-network concept it had fought ABC so hard against just a few years earlier with the debut of two new networks. (For information on them, click on the logos below.)

Mutual moved its headquarters from New York to Washington in July of 1972, and closed its New York news bureau in June 1974. By then, Mutual's affiliate count had swelled to about 660, 100 of which had signed on in the previous year. While the majority of them were daytimers, about a dozen were big power, major market stations, including New York's WMCA and Seattle's KIRO.

Whether small-watt daytimer or 50,000-watt clear channel, the stations stood to make money through its Mutual affiliation, if they tried. In a presentation called "How to Make Money with Mutual," Little explained that a station with a $5 spot rate could make $13,150 a year if it sold all 2,630 commercial positions available in Mutual programs; a station with a $90 rate could rake in close to a quarter-million.

Mutual's man of the hour at that point was Capitol Hill correspondent Bill Greenwood, whom Little tapped as news director and gave him the mandate to update Mutual's staid image. Greenwood rose to the challenge, declaring to Variety, "We're going to change the whole image of Mutual, and turn it into a progressive operation."

The network's move to Washington brought with it a staff re-evaluation: out went the on-air reporter who had the voice but didn't have the journalistic skills to go with it. In came "news reporters" who could write their own copy, with each of Mutual's 16 reporters given beats. Greenwood started by luring names such as Duff Thomas, Bob Moore, Peter Gamble, Bob Edwards and Candy Crowley; in all, Greenwood hired two news people from ABC, and three each from CBS and NBC.

The new Mutual format consisted of four newscasts each hour (soon reduced to three), delivered by three different anchors in three different styles to be compatible with any type of local format. The top of the hour "Comprehensive" news was "more conversational" for MOR/talk stations; the newscast at :30 was "standard comprehensive newscasting" but with more punch; and the "Progressive" newscast at :55, aired by about 100 stations, placed the accent on youth for top-40 and modern country stations (Mutual also made it available to educational stations in markets that had no existing Mutual affiliate). Greenwood described its pace as "not a machine gun . . . but it's a pretty fast clip." The formula centered on an "economy of words," with network introductions eliminated and news beginning each segment. Greenwood called the approach "elongated headlines," with color and sidebars avoided; the aim was to "provide the basics for as many stories as you can comfortably put in a show and give it taste." The goal was 10 to 15 stories in each newscast with plenty of actualities, each a maximum of 25 seconds.

The changes eventually made Greenwood proud: in 1975, he told Broadcasting Mutual was "trying to get away from the old Mutual image of sounding like news readers;" the next year, he was saying the "staid, cobwebbed burial ground" had been converted into a "innovative, up-tempo, bright-sounding organization."

In April 1974, Mutual increased its weekend sports output from eight sportscasts to 36 live, five minute reports with "Wide Weekend of Sports," two each hour from 11:05 a.m. to 7:35 p.m. eastern time.

The nostalgia craze in the early 1970s brought renewed interest in the lost art of radio drama. Three networks picked up on that, almost simultaneously: NBC dusted off its 1955-58 science fiction series, "X-Minus One" for two years; "The CBS Radio Mystery Theater" hit the airwaves in January 1974. Mutual picked up the Hollywood Radio Theater's "Zero Hour," a struggling weeknight drama strip hosted by Rod Serling. Premiering December 17, 1973, Mutual changed the format after 13 weeks, going from a five-part serial to a complete story every night (Gary Worth said the stations requested the change because pre-emptions for sports hurt the continuity of a story broken up into five half-hours). The change resulted in improved clearances (251 stations by June 1974, although it was shut out in New York) and sponsorship (although not sold out, RCA, Ford and La-Z-Boy were particularly loyal). But the uneven advertiser response spelled doom, and "Zero Hour" was off the network after 26 weeks.

Mutual was also putting its sights on the one time period it didn't program: overnights. Noting surveys that showed at least one-third of Americans over 18 listened to radio from midnight to 6 a.m. at least once a week, Mutual tried in Spring of 1974 to interest stations in a six-hour music-news-interview program, "A Mutual Affair." But a lack of affiliate interest ended the project. However, in November 1975 Mutual thought it had its late-night answer, picking up Herb Jepko's long-running "Nitecap" show out of KSL in Salt Lake City. An overnight telephone talk show, featuring small talk between Jepko and his callers (anything except politics and religion), "Nitecap" had flourished up to then, putting together a small network of a half-dozen big-power stations. Mutual immediately added 72 stations, and hoped for 150 within six months.

But Mutual wanted changes, trying to fix something that wasn't broken. Jepko knew this, and held his ground. He said "no" when Mutual asked him to move his show to New York or Washington; he refused to engage callers in anything more controversial than the weather in Omaha. Little found the program "not exciting," and told Jepko early in 1977, "Unless you do something about it, you ain't going to be on Mutual." Come spring, Mutual made good on the threat, cancelling Jepko in May 1977 and replacing him with the more topical "Long John Nebel - Candy Jones Show" out of WMCA New York. Jepko was back to an ad-hoc network of ten stations, and his fans flooded Mutual headquarters with complaints. "I have a room full of telegrams and mailgrams and letters and postcards," Little told the New York Times in July 1977, "telling me how great Jepko was."

Those cards and letters piled into Mutual's new headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The network moved there from the nation's capital in November 1976. Featuring automated and computer-controlled broadcast studios, Mutual could now feed six different programs simultaneously.

Also that year, Mutual was again involved in a battle at the FCC. The question at hand was essentially: "What is a network?" The radio network picture had changed enormously since the FCC's network rules passed Supreme Court muster in 1943, and some in the industry thought it was time to revisit the issue. Mutual - although on a growth spurt - was feeling heat not only from ABC's four networks, but also from the audio services of Associated Press and United Press International - which, although not defined as "networks," could be sold to more than one station in a market. (AP and UPI charged stations a fee rather than selling advertising) So, as they did almost a decade prior with ABC, Mutual went to the FCC crying foul.

"If APR (AP Radio) and UPIA (UPI Audio) are allowed to continue unregulated, they will soon come to monopolize radio news," Mutual charged in its petition. "Not only do APR and UPIA fall squarely within the legal meaning of the term network, they in fact actively bill themselves as broadcast networks . . . more importantly, they perform exactly the same function as Mutual and other networks in terms of the program service they provide to and the impact they have upon radio licensees, and are in direct competition with all radio networks."

Mutual wanted the FCC to redefine the term "network" as the "simultaneous broadcasting of an identical program or parts thereof by two or more connected stations." Mutual also favored retention of the rule preventing stations from carrying more than one network.

Not surprisingly, AP and UPI called Mutual's petition nothing but an attempt to destroy its competition. AP argued its audio service was merely an extension of its wire service, and that it "cannot be restricted by government regulation without violating the First Amendment."

Mutual found little support from the other webs. ABC argued for elimination of all eight of the substantive rules, terming them "no longer relevant." NBC and CBS didn't address the squabble directly, although NBC suggested a working criterion for a network is one that pays compensation to its affiliates (that would exclude not only APR and UPIA, but also NBC's own News and Information Service - which would fold the next year).

But in March, 1977, The FCC essentially sided with ABC and Mutual, rescinding most of its 1941 rules on networks, replacing them with a policy statement that defined a network as a programming source that "entirely or chiefly" by interconnection is capable of simultaneous interconnection. That put APR and UPIA into the "network" category.

But was the feeling in Arlington "Mutual?" Not necessarily, anyway for a while. In February 1977, Mutual enforced a lockout of its technicians, a ten-week dispute that centered on who had jurisdiction in tape rooms. Up until then, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) had exclusive jurisdiction in physically editing tape, a policy Mutual wanted to terminate. Five days after the lockout, the Washington-Baltimore local of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) called a strike against the network, alleging unfair labor practices. AFTRA charged Mutual with "harrassment and intimidation of employees for union activity and the unwarranted firing of four employees within a 24-hour period." Mutual's argument centered on whether the strike was legal, that the two sides had entered into a contract with a "no-strike" clause. The strike lasted five weeks.

In May 1977, Mutual broadcast "The Nixon Interviews with David Frost." The four 90-minute conversations were aired simultaneously with weekly syndicated TV broadcasts, and were followed by a half-hour analysis by Jack Anderson, James J. Kilpatrick and Mutual News vice president Bob Moore. 500 stations carried the first show, which Mutual said had a "full house" of commercials; it was also aired in Canada, Mexico, Colombia and South Africa. Excerpts were aired the next day, and the 90-minute programs were repeated the following Sunday. A fifth interview was offered in September. (It wasn't the former president's first interview turn on Mutual; in October 1963, then-private citizen Nixon sat down with MBS' Philip Clarke - a good friend - for an hour.)

Mutual was by then riding a wave of success that had taken in all of network radio. Mutual reported their sales were up more than 20% in the first five months of 1977; what's more, the demand for time was so great, the network was "having availability problems" - more orders than the network could handle.

Behind the scenes, more changes were in the works. That spring, Michigan publisher John McGoff told Broadcasting he had been talking with Mutual about buying the network. Nothing came from those talks, but by August, two other companies were bidding for the network. As the price reached $15 million, Georgia-based insurance company American Family Corporation - dropped out.

The new owners had no experience in broadcasting. But they were about to usher in a second "golden age" for network radio.

Some information on this page came from various issues of Broadcasting and Business Week magazines, The Seattle Times, and Variety.

Text copyright © 2015 Kenneth I. Johannessen.

No challenges to logo, sound or image copyrights are either inferred or implied.

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