Ed Kobak Gets a Network*


"I will do my best to help Mutual become the leader - to work to make all broadcasting service better
and help build the industry. The listener is my boss. I want to be a good servant."

                    					                                                       - Edgar Kobak, Nov. 1944
By 1944, Edgar Kobak had become one of radio's top executives and salesmen. He left NBC in 1936 to join the Lord and Taylor advertising agency; in 1940, he suggested to RCA head David Sarnoff that NBC's Red and Blue networks be separated (which became necessary when RCA was forced by the FCC to sell one of them). Re-joining NBC, Kobak himself drew up the plans for the new network (Blue was sold in 1943; in June 1945, it was re-named the American Broadcasting Company). As the Blue's executive vice-president, he got much of the credit for its $40-million in 1944 billings. But in the summer of 1944, an executive shuffle left Kobak without many of his duties, leaving him unhappy and restless.

At the same time, there had been much conjecture at Mutual that its president, Miller McClintock, would leave when his two-year contract ran out at the end of 1944. So when Kobak and McClintock almost simultaneously announced their respective resignations in October 1944, there was little doubt where Kobak would go next.

When Kobak reported to work as Mutual's new president November 20, 1944, he had a full plate of problems waiting for him. His task was an unenviable one: to whip Mutual into shape.

There was no real management at Mutual's headquarters: there was no program department, no continuity department, and almost no policies concerning sales or station relations; there wasn't even an engineering staff - it was up to each station to keep the network in tune. Mutual was being held together by the grace of the stockholding stations.

Ed Kobak would, in effect, have to build his own network.

He started by wooing over his colleagues at the Blue: Phillips Carlin was named programming head, while Robert Swezey came aboard as Vice President and General Manager. Kobak, Carlin and Swezey became the nucleus of the Mutual braintrust that eventually would include others brought in from outside, as well as men who grew up with Mutual and were elevated to key posts at the network.

MBS directors voted to give Kobak an operating budget of several million dollars, which funded not only Carlin's programming department (to the tune of almost $1.25 million), but an engineering department as well.

Kobak added salesmen and pushed them to sell full-network sponsorships. When Kobak arrived at Mutual, the majority of national advertisers bought only 40 or so MBS stations per show, a practice popular with salesmen who drew a 2% commission for selling a split network, but only 1% for selling the full station lineup. This weakened the network financially, and hampered its physical operations. Kobak said he had to change the "state of mind" of his sales force, who until then considered Mutual a sectional or regional operation.

The results were impressive.

To the Mutual microphones came Martha Rountree's innovative newsmaker interview program, "Meet the Press," first heard in 1945; and "Arch Oboler Presents," a new series of radio plays by the famed dramatist (both "MtP" and Oboler garnered Peabody awards for Mutual in 1945 and 1946). "Juvenile Jury," hosted by Jack Barry, and "Twenty Questions" debuted in 1946. The Sunday afternoon mystery block (including "The Shadow" and "True Detective Mysteries") continued to do well, as did the weekday afternoon juvenile dramas: "The Adventures of Superman," "Captain Midnight," and "The Tom Mix Ralston Straightshooters."

But perhaps the biggest addition to the Mutual schedule was "Queen for a Day," premiering April 30, 1945. The daily half-hour featured interviews with five women chosen from the studio audience, each telling their fondest wish why they wanted to be crowned Queen. The winner, chosen by applause, was granted not only her wish, but was showered with gifts, and awarded a night on the town.

It was originally broadcast from New York and emceed by Dud Williamson (who created the format), but by June it had moved to Hollywood and the search was on for a new host. Phil Carlin said he was looking for a "personable man to bring out the woman." The new host, he said, would be well-paid if he proves he can handle a different queen every day.

That man turned out to be a former carnival barker named Jack Bailey. With Bailey at the helm, "Queen" became an immediate hit, and by the end of the year, Miles Laboratories (for Alka-Seltzer) and Procter & Gamble had signed on as sponsors. On a 1946 road trip, the show was greeted with capacity crowds in Denver, Omaha, Cleveland, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and Kansas City. In Chicago, traffic was halted for two hours when an estimated 200-thousand people (then a radio record) jammed into the city's famed Loop for a live broadcast, necessitating a mile-long public address system; producer Bud Ernst had his clothes torn by women who wanted a chance to be "Queen." There was even talk of a movie tie-in, to be produced by George Jessel.

By the end of Kobak's first year, he had brought five of the ten leading national advertisers to Mutual. In fall of 1945, nine national advertisers joined, most buying full-network programs. What's more, the average station buy for advertisers had increased from 95 in 1943 to 145 in 1945. On the co-op front, Fulton Lewis jr. was sponsored on 181 stations, Erskine Johnson on 137. In 1946, the network's billings neared $26-million - an increase of almost 50% from 1944.

Mutual signed its 300th affiliate in April 1946 (the network broadcast a two-hour special to celebrate). The next February, affiliate number 400 came aboard, the 153rd station to be added since Kobak took the helm. By the end of 1947, MBS had 483 stations.

But while Kobak was able to whip the network into sound management shape, he was still hampered by the stranglehold of the stockholder stations. Too often, MBS was at their mercy, and their programming decisions often hampered Mutual's - and Kobak's - progress. The key problem children were New York's WOR, and Mutual's gateway to the west, the Don Lee Network (technically, MBS' ONLY western affiliate).

For example, Variety reported in February 1948 that three-dozen Mutual programs were not being cleared by WOR, with another half-dozen or so airing on a delayed basis. What's more, it was reported that Don Lee head Lewis Allen Weiss forced Mutual to put right-wing commentator Upton Close on the network's schedule in 1946, while turning thumbs-down on more moderate-to-liberal mouthpieces like Arthur Gaeth, Cecil Brown, and former New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia - thereby denying them (and Mutual) a Pacific Coast audience.

With either WOR, Chicago's WGN or Don Lee passing on a program, it was difficult - if not impossible - to guarantee a national audience for an advertiser, and sponsors sometimes yanked their Mutual programs because key markets could not be guaranteed.

For its part, WOR had a ready answer to Mutual's gripes: its local shows got ratings - and sponsors. The November-December 1947 Hoopers showed WOR with twelve of the 16 most popular local shows; the December Pulse ratings for New York local originations gave WOR the top two shows, and eight of the top 20. What's more, the station ended 1947 with its biggest year, sales-wise. Let other New York flagships be network spigots, WOR figured; it would be more than happy to fill the local void.

WOR added to its case in 1949 with a study showing that ratings for sponsored network programs averaged 23.5% less in New York than the network Hooperating. For instance, Mutual's premiere daytime offering - "Queen for a Day" - had a Hooper rating in New York that was 41.7 percent less than its network rating, its Sunday "House of Mystery" rated 26.3 percent lower in New York. But the reverse could also be true: Mutual's William Shirer commentary scored a New York rating 32.1% higher than its network numbers, and its "American Forum of the Air" bested its cross-country Hooper by 62.5%.

WOR's research director, Robert Hoffman, said the purpose of the study was to stimulate local sales: "We certainly don't want to keep anybody from buying time on Mutual. The study simply shows that an advertiser may miss out in the biggest market in the country if he doesn't supplement his network coverage with local radio."

In WOR's defense, MBS' program lineup was obviously weak. Aside from the Sunday mysteries, the late-afternoon kid strips, "Queen for a Day," its roster of commentators and a healthy sports schedule, Mutual's programming didn't offer a lot. Daytime was a prime example: while NBC, CBS and ABC's schedules were virtually sold out, Mutual had only ten sponsored quarter-hours, six were co-op and 21 were sustaining.

To the big station's point of view, MBS' programs weren't big-league enough. But it was a vicious circle: how could Mutual put on a big-league program for a major advertiser if there was no guarantee that it would be aired by its major market affiliates?

It couldn't, a fact ironically underscored in a March 6, 1949 exchange on "The Jack Benny Program." It was Benny & Co.'s tenth show for Lucky Strike cigarettes on CBS, both star and sponsor lured there from NBC by William Paley. The joke came out of left field, set up in a conversation about horse races:

Dennis Day: "I know all about races and betting. I follow every race track in the country."
Jack Benny: "Oh, you know all about betting, eh? Well, let me ask you something: what's a mutual?"
Dennis Day: "That's a network that didn't offer you a job."

It got one of the biggest laughs of the show. But one can only wonder whether Mutual's stockholding stations could have come together to at least make a stab at snaring Benny. Or Bob Hope. Or Red Skelton. Could MBS have convinced a sponsor that it could offer a timeslot and station lineup effective enough to sell its products on "Amos 'n' Andy?" Or Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy? Or Abbott and Costello? Or Bing Crosby? (Not that Mutual didn't try there: in 1946, when Crosby was intent on recording his shows rather than doing them live, there were whispers that he might take his weekly clambake to Mutual. But talks quickly unravelled, and the Groaner went to ABC for Philco.)

However, two big names moved to Mutual in 1947: one was the "first lady of radio," Kate Smith. The popular singer (who, along with Jack Benny, once had the only non-cancellable contracts in radio - only war could force them off the air) brought her daily commentary program, "Kate Smith Speaks" to MBS June 23, 1947. In the process, she stirred up a minor controversy when she said that she switched her program from CBS because of "restrictions and censorship" imposed on her programs. "You don't have freedom of speech on Columbia . . . every day it's 'delete this' or 'cut out that.'" CBS countered by saying that Miss Smith left CBS because her sponsor, General Foods, didn't renew her contract; what's more, CBS said that her news comments were subject to review in the same manner as other such programs on its network.

"Kate Smith Speaks" was a co-op program heard until 1951, garnering among the highest prices for a co-op in all of network radio (in some cities, costing the station as much as $1,000 a week). In 1948-49, it was joined by a companion program, "Kate Smith Sings," sponsored for a time by Philip Morris.

The second big name: "Information, Please." The long-running stump-the-experts quiz made its way to Mutual in the fall of 1947, completing the tour of all four networks (it started on NBC's Blue Network in 1938, graduating to NBC Red in 1940, then being tossed to CBS for a season in 1946). It made the grand tour because creator/producer Dan Golenpaul, obsessed with maintaining creative control and preserving the show's integrity at all costs, battled with whomever he felt was interfering with his program, be it sponsor or network. By 1947, Golenpaul had chased off three sponsors and clashed with NBC and CBS officials (including Bill Paley). At the end of the 1946-47 season, sponsor Parker Pen checked out, and with Golenpaul widely regarded in the industry as a troublemaker, no new sponsor could be found. So "Information, Please" premiered on MBS September 26, 1947 as a Friday night co-op, with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad picking up the tab in New York, Washington, Chicago and Cleveland. Variety proclaimed the inaugural stanza (with guest Fred Allen) had put its "best foot forward."

It wouldn't be long before trouble brewed: six weeks later, Golenpaul filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board against the American Federation of Musicians (James C. Petrillo, President), charging the union with two violations of the Taft-Hartley Act, including an AFM refusal to permit music on his show (a Petrillo edict just prior to "Info's" MBS debut prohibited all networks from using instrumental music on co-op shows). Questions based on music were among the most popular on "Information, Please," and Golenpaul said he could not "sit idly by while the production of our program is hampered by this boycott." Petrillo, perhaps the person most feared by broadcasters from the late 30's to about 1950, lifted the ban in late November. Petrillo said Golenpaul's complaint never entered the picture, saying, "He only hires one piano player." But Golenpaul proclaimed victory, promising "musical questions and music all over the place" with the next broadcast.

Eyebrows were also raised when a transcribed show from a few years prior was aired; Golenpaul's deal with Mutual permitted at least four repeats from earlier seasons, with any integrated commercials in those shows (which were sponsored) dubbed out, permitting for local co-op sponsors.

Then in March 1948, Golenpaul struck again, slapping Mutual with a $500,000 lawsuit charging the network with negligence in the handling of his show, and said that when his MBS contract expired several months later, he would "scram, but fast, off the network." Among Golenpaul's charges were that a substantial number of stations were delaying broadcast without Golenpaul's authorization, and that other stations were airing it sporadically and at irregular times; that Mutual accepted sponsors without Golenpaul's OK, and that Mutual permitted stations and networks outside its system to carry "Information, Please" without Golenpaul's knowledge. Mutual responded by not only denying the charges, but also with a $100,000 breach-of-contract countersuit charging, among other things, that Golenpaul had been "discourteous and insulting" to stations and ad agencies interested in the program. (The dispute was quietly settled the next year.) Having run out of networks to anger (or be angry at), Golenpaul resorted to syndicating repeats of "Information, Please" several years later.

Things would start to unravel for Kobak in the fall of 1948. He had appointed Yankee Network v.p. Linus Travers to oversee MBS' sales and program departments. Kobak said it was to ease the workload on himself and Bob Swezey, but Swezey said Travers' role usurped his duties and resigned. Travers, not wanting to get in the middle, resigned the new post, effectively leaving Kobak alone at the top. (Swezey would reappear in an executive role at WDSU New Orleans - ironically, the same station Fred Weber had left Mutual for five years earlier.)

The programming dilemma would come to a head in early 1949. Kobak was under pressure from the MBS board - particularly from WOR and Don Lee - to do something about the program department. But Kobak backed Carlin to the hilt, even if it meant resigning.

A meeting was hastily called, purportedly to consider Kobak's resignation. But he refused to quit, saying "you'll have to fire me first." WOR and Don Lee wanted just that, but the board re-elected Kobak by a 5-2 vote (reportedly, one of the conditions was that Kobak reduce the operations budget by ten percent). However, it was only a temporary reprieve: days later, Carlin resigned, and the schism on the MBS board only showed signs of widening. Kobak stepped down at the invitation of the board. But he left on friendly terms: he set up shop as a business consultant, and signed Mutual as his first client.

Kobak's successor would have it no easier.


* - The title is adapted from several headlines in Variety that chronicle Kobak's progress at Mutual - from "Kobak's Gotta Have a Network" (November 22, 1944), to "Kobak's Gonna Have a Network" (January 24, 1945), and finally, "Ed Kobak's Got a Network" (October 23, 1946, celebrating MBS' 12th anniversary).

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

Text copyright © 2009 Kenneth I. Johannessen.

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