What follows is my opinion.

The announcement of Mutual's demise in 1999 was met mainly with shrugs and a look back to its glory days with the "Lone Ranger" and Gabriel Heatter, with a nod toward Larry King. Whatever eulogies were given were generally not complimentary. "Change killed Mutual years ago," wrote Broadcasting & Cable in an editorial titled "No Time for Tears." "The wake," they wrote, "is merely a formality." Even longtime correspondent Dick Rossé, in a feature for the same magazine, had few kind words for the network he spent 36 years with, other than "the checks always arrived on time," and "all in all, we were a merry bunch . . . everyone drank too much."

Admittedly, Mutual was never the most stable of networks, would probably never be lauded for the quality of most of its programs - particularly in the early days, full of schlocky crime dramas and quiz shows - and its ever-changing affiliate line-up, while perhaps impressive in overall numbers, lacked a certain status (Neon, Kentucky? Sidney, Montana? King City, California?)

But most overlooked the fact that many of radio's most important trends were started by Mutual. Co-op advertising, started by Mutual with Fulton Lewis Jr.'s nightly news program, would become a standard piece of the revenue pie for all networks. Mutual's emphasis on sports in its early days favored by general manager Fred Weber gave it an audience when most of its other shows didn't; that approach was, in effect, copied by ABC's Roone Arledge in the 1960s. Like them or not, the FCC's 1941 rules on chain broadcasting (and the Supreme Court's upholding of them in 1943) were stemmed by Mutual's very existence at least as much as anything else. New and innovative shows such as "Queen for a Day" and "Meet the Press" helped start new programming trends in the mid-1940s. Mutual's focus on news and sports in the late 1950's preceded the other networks by a few years; and Mutual was the first to launch a successful national talk show with Larry King in 1978.

Unfortunately, all of those "firsts" were hampered by Mutual's unwieldy ownership structure and management theory. In some ways, it was set up for failure right from the start. Its original policy of letting each station opt out of airing any program was a recipe for disaster: what's the point of having a network when the full network isn't on board? In addition, having radio stations own the network is a good idea only when the "owners" are fully committed to it. Clearly, WOR wasn't, and its failure to clear most Mutual programs was probably more damaging to the network than its large number of rural affiliates.

In the late '50s, '60s and '70s, though, the main problem stemmed from the lack of station ownership. Owning stations meant at least a level of guaranteed clearance (something Mutual didn't have, especially in the major markets) and revenue from local spot sales. Although 3M and the Fraim-Berry group probably meant well in its pledge to buy stations, their failure to do so probably did more to hurt Mutual's future than anything else. Had either bought some stations, Mutual would have been in a better position almost instantly, and may have been a much larger force in the network industry going into the 1970s and beyond.

And Amway's purchases of WCFL and WHN in the late '70s were ill-timed at best, and ham-handed at worst. And that shines light on another factor: luck. On Radio Row, Mutual was, in every respect, the "hard-luck kid." The last with the least, it had to make do with the scraps left by advertisers. When television came on the scene, it eventually fell farther than the other networks, and only barely survived.

Mutual survived and thrived when it had people who cared enough to take an interest. Fred Weber, Ed Kobak, Bob Hurleigh, Ed Little, Gary Worth, Marty Rubenstein, Jack Clements, Ron Nessen - all took a personal stake in making Mutual a force in network radio . . . even when the network's owners didn't share that.

The network radio scene has changed drastically since Mutual exited the scene. CBS Radio, still distributed by Westwood One, is probably the closest to a traditional network, although ABC Radio, which had been reduced to a news service distributed by Dial Global, has been reclaimed by Disney and is ramping up network activity again - though hardly the four-network juggernaut it had been. NBC Radio is dead, replaced by a one-minute hourly news blip now distributed by Dial Global.

Yes, in the end, change killed Mutual. Changing times, changing tastes, changing people. If only some of them along the way cared, maybe just a bit more, things might have been different.


Text copyright © 2013 Kenneth I. Johannessen.

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