1935 - 1938: Growing Pains

 

 



With Mutual going into battle against radio's two established networks, both National (NBC) and Columbia (CBS) refused to publicly acknowledge the new web's existence. But by no means were they ignoring the new upstart, either.

Indeed, shortly after the January 1935 agreement between Mutual's members was signed, NBC came up with a proposal: it would serve as Mutual's exclusive sales representative, selling time on the network (for a commission, of course) and making available to MBS any talent represented by the NBC Artists' Service, and any New York or Chicago studio space that might be needed.

The idea quickly died, mainly because WOR was not willing to grant NBC sales exclusivity. What's more, when the MBS chiefs met the next month, they saw no advantage to being represented by a rival network.

(Among the NBC officials in on the negotiations was its vice-president of sales, Edgar Kobak - a name that would figure prominently in Mutual's future.)

But the Mutual board agreed that the hit-and-miss selling of MBS by salesmen of the individual stations could not continue. So in June 1935, the board voted to establish a separate national sales organization. It also established program policies and agreed that MBS would not accept programs advertising laxatives, depilatories, deodorants, or any product or program containing copy that may be objectionable.

Perhaps Mutual's best salesman, figuratively speaking, was its general manager, Fred Weber. The four member stations may have created the network, but in the early days Weber was the glue who held it together and moved it forward. He became familiar with radio in the 1920s as a rate engineer for the long lines department of American Telephone and Telegraph. He came to NBC's attention, and became one of radio's first station relations executives, stationed in Chicago. In 1934, he became vice-president and coordinator of the short-lived American Broadcasting System; when it reorganized in early 1935, he joined Mutual.

Weber's blueprint for Mutual contained a heavy dose of sports, an innovation for a national network. He also became MBS' chief cheerleader, signing up advertisers and contracts with other stations whereever he could.

As the mid-30s went on, Mutual was beginning to grow beyond its original four member stations. MBS clients were supplementing their orders with other stations, most often stations affiliated with NBC Blue. This, understandably, infuriated both NBC and CBS, who felt their programs were responsible for the popularity of its affiliates, and began warning that no further time was to be made available for shows from other networks.

Meanwhile, Mutual set its sights westward. After several false starts - one of which included the possibility of Warner Bros. Pictures taking a stake in MBS, another from an outside source proposing a setup with newspaper-owned stations and a $3-million expansion fund - Mutual signed up with the Don Lee Network, a hookup of California stations started by Lee, a Cadillac dealer who owned KHJ Los Angeles and expanded it into a 12-station network, first hooking up with CBS, but tying into Mutual effective December 29, 1936. In April 1937, two Texas stations and the eight-station Oklahoma Network tied into Mutual; that September, twelve Washington and Oregon stations signed onto Mutual-Don Lee, bringing it into the Pacific Northwest.

Mutual's expansion plans not only angered the competition, but it created a schism between its founding stations, one of whom - Cincinnati's WLW, thought MBS' plans over-imaginative. WLW contended the hookup with Don Lee served to frustrate the original purposes of Mutual; namely, to make available to advertisers a quality group of four outlets offering coverage in the country's most important marketing area, and to function as a joint operation in the feeding of programs.

But WLW had a vested interest in keeping the network to only a few stations: WLW was the nation's only "superstation," then with a 500,000 watt signal that cast a wide net across much of the country. If Mutual began to sign affiliates in the cities WLW reached, WLW feared losing much of its audience to those local stations. (That became a moot point when the FCC ordered an end to the "Superstation," and WLW was restricted to 50,000 watts.)

But WGN and WOR, desiring to increase the operation's revenue, wanted to open Mutual up into a broader network. WLW was outvoted, and not long after pacts with Don Lee and several Midwest stations were signed, WLW announced it was turning in its MBS stock. It continued as an MBS affiliate for many years (even continuing to contribute programs to Mutual), although WLW's program schedule was increasingly a mix of Mutual and NBC programs.

WLW's exit followed Detroit's WXYZ, which left the network at the end of 1935 to join NBC Blue, although the station continued to produce shows for Mutual, including "The Lone Ranger," which was contractually bound to MBS until 1942. WXYZ was replaced by CKLW Detroit-Windsor, which had been CBS' Detroit station until CBS dumped it in favor of WJR when it increased its power to 50,000 watts.

Mutual's programming expanded along with its station lineup, including several programs and personalities that became long-running audience favorites:

"Co-ops," as they were called in the trade, were nothing new (dating as far back as 1930), but Mutual seized on the idea and soon became the co-op leader, a position it would hold well into the 1950s. "Cooperative programs are rapidly developing into a large proportion of our business," MBS vice-president Ted Streibert told Broadcasting. "They provide the small advertisers, with limited distribution and equally limited advertising budget, with live talent programs of network caliber at a low cost."

Although memories of Mutual programs like "The Lone Ranger" and "The Shadow" are linked with specific sponsors (Gordon Baking and Blue Coal, respectively), the truth is that they were both co-ops, sold to other sponsors in areas Gordon or Blue Coal didn't cover. By the end of 1938, MBS had six co-op shows, ranging from three to 31 stations - and as many more sustaining (non-sponsored) programs offered to local advertisers.

Perhaps MBS' "biggest" program of those early years was a co-op: "30 Minutes in Hollywood," a 1937 variety entry starring "Toastmaster General" George Jessel and his wife, Martha Talmadge; it could be called Mutual's first attempt at a major West Coast production. Although it was picked up by regional sponsors (Crawford Clothes on WOR, John F. Jelke Company on WGN, and the Southern California Association of Fresh Fish Dealers on KHJ), the show failed to draw an appreciable rating, and faded after a single season.

Meanwhile, NBC and CBS were starting to take notice, and were intent on stopping Mutual's progress. MBS felt continually blocked, due to what it deemed NBC's and CBS' excessive control of its affiliates. This brought charges of "monopoly" from many circles (including Mutual), and set up a five-year battle that went all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court.

The war between the networks was on.


Some information on this page came from various issues of Broadcasting, Variety, and Current Biography.

Text copyright © 2009 Kenneth I. Johannessen.

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


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