Once upon a time, most Americans got a great deal of their news and entertainment from broadcast radio. With the advent of commercial television shortly after World War II, however, the situation changed. Radio went into a steady decline as more and more homes replaced their living-room receivers with the new magic box. Though the major radio networks consequently shifted their programming efforts to television, a few struggled to protect at least some part of their investment in radio, attempting to maintain audience share.
Among those few, the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) was perhaps the most active. The network had some success in 1950-52 with the all-star “The Big Show”, a star-laden program now regarded as variety radio's last great gasp. By the mid-1950s, though, it was felt that in order to keep radio viable, a new direction was needed. A new sort of program service, one that television couldn't easily duplicate. A program that might point the way to the future of radio programming. And one that would satisfy the demands of advertisers and network executives.
That program was Monitor, created by the then-president of NBC Radio, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, creator of many well-known television shows, including The Tonight Show and The Today Show (both of which are still running), and father of film star Sigourney Weaver. Weaver's idea was to create a program that would air continuously each weekend, and feature news, music, talk, sports, interviews – a “magazine” show that listeners could tune in and out of as their schedule and interest permitted. As much as possible, the show would be broadcast live, and would not only entertain, but (as Weaver hoped) would at times educate its listeners as well.
Monitor, described by its creator as a “kaleidoscopic phantasmgoria”, debuted Sunday, June 12, 1955, from NBC's Radio Central studios in New York City, with an introduction from Weaver himself. The show was an immediate success; not only with listeners, but with advertisers and critics, who found the program's format a refreshing change from what had gone before. Monitor's various segments were presented by on-air personalities Weaver called “communicators”, and included some of the best-known names in broadcasting. Listeners might tune in and hear Joe Garagiola, Match Game host Gene Rayburn, Bill Cullen, humorist Art Buchwald, the notorious Don Imus, veteran newsman David Brinkley, and many others.
Often, there'd be comedians – Phyllis Diller, Elaine May and Mike Nichols, Bill Cosby, and Bob Newhart were among the bunch who lightened the mood. Indeed, notables from every walk of life might drop in to Radio Central to spend some time with Monitor listeners: psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, cartoonist Al Capp, Sandy Koufax, “Galloping Gourmet” Graham Kerr, critic Gene Shalit, and Barbara Walters were just a few of the celebrities one might hear. Monitor didn't skimp on news and sports, either. Both were covered remarkably well, often by veteran reporters, honoring Weaver's dictum to educate and inform as well as entertain.
The program itself, and many of its segments, were introduced by the Monitor Beacon, a sort of jingle created of high-frequency telephone tones, mixed and filtered, designed to sound as if they were being dialed by an operator, and with the Morse code letter “M” (for 'Monitor') superimposed over the tones. The Beacon became an immediately-recognizable sound, so unique that former Monitor listeners know it well to this day.
Though Monitor was a grand success for many years, times and tastes change, and very few things last forever. As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, radio listeners gradually began to look elsewhere for entertainment. Radio station affiliates started installing their own disc jockeys, taking audiences, and more importantly, advertisers, away from Monitor. The program had, in its heyday, saved NBC Radio for a time, but the future increasingly belonged to FM radio and themed stations. Monitor struggled to change, installing some star DJs such as Wolfman Jack and cutting back its scheduled hours, but to no avail; its audience was moving on. The program lasted until the weekend of January 25, 1975, and went out with a 12-hour retrospective of its most memorable broadcasts.
Today, Monitor is fondly remembered by many people (including the author) old enough to remember tuning in to it. It's likely that the program paved the way for modern radio magazine shows such as National Public Radio's All Things Considered, itself hailed by some as the successor to Monitor. Fans of the program have fortunately preserved many long segments that are available for listening at the Monitor Tribute Pages, listed below in the references. They're worth a listen, if only to hear how good broadcast radio could be.
Hart, Dennis and Hart Bradley., "The Monitor
Tribute Pages ". Last revised October 2005. <http://www.monitorbeacon.net/> (January 2008)
Wikipedia. "NBC Monitor”. Last revised December 2007. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monitor_%28NBC_Radio%29>. (January 2008).