Being that my father worked for NBC Radio as an engineer, I had regular access to the building. Indeed, he brought me in every Saturday to keep me out of my mother’s hair.
But I was fascinated as a child. Here were all these tape machines, control rooms, microphones, huge studios, all this used to create this magic called radio.
The Early Years
My earliest exposure to Monitor came around 1962, when accompanying my father to work, I walked into the Radio Recording Department and heard this strange set of different tones, that kept repeating itself with someone talking over it. I later discovered that this was the “Monitor Beacon” and it was a sound to this day, I associate with NBC, even though the last radio broadcast from our studios occurred years ago.
I can remember Louise Malcolm, the Radio Recording Group 5 (supervisor) recording a protection copy of the first hour of Monitor on Saturdays from 9-10am NYT on one of Radio Recording’s venerable RCA RT-11B reel-to-reel tape machines. In those days, Studio 5B/NY also used to record 2 copies of the 9-10am segment in addition NBCR’s protection copy. All three copies were later played back to air at the same time from 12noon-1pm.
I remember how impressed with the amount of activity that went on in Studio 5B/NY on a Saturday morning. George Vose, an elderly (to me at that time anyhow) gent, spun records in the control room complete with his pipe, which he constantly smoked. George Kovacs, John Marrin and John Clark would man the controls in 5B. Bud “Boy Producer” Drake, the
Saturday morning producer was always there along with his ever present clipboard. Lauren Grant, the Associate Director would be throwing cues and figuring out timings for the show. Writer Charlie Garment manned the typewriter, always ready to make whatever changes in the script that became necessary and P.A. Melanie Turner was present to make sure that the turntable engineers had the proper music or tape.
You have to understand that as a small child, Studio 5B seemed as big as a warehouse to me. It was definitely the coolest radio studio in the building at the time. They had couches scattered about, flowers in vases, and sometimes, a grand piano would be in one corner complete with a boom stand with an RCA 77DX hanging from it. I so impressed; here was a room, where Gene Rayburn, a TV show host, was announcing and people across the country were listening to it. But it just wasn’t that alone. There were all these incoming feeds, from all over the world coming into radio city and being fed out live to the whole country. Here would be someone from Germany talking live to Gene Rayburn! Or a live report from a Vietnam battlefield being fed live to the net.
Most of my exposure to Monitor was on Saturday mornings; however on the rare occasion that my dad could be convinced to stay and work overtime, I’d see the Saturday afternoon crew come in and begin to set-up the studio for their segment. I can remember Bill Cullen or Ed McMahon stroll into the studio and go over the routine with the producers. I was a
regular visiting the studio and the crew there treated me like I was a part of the Monitor family.
Working On Monitor/Saving The Day
I can remember my father working on the Monitor program in various capacities whether doing remote pickups or editing with Bud Drake or Parker Gibbs. One year, it was a Saturday morning and my father walked into the Radio Recording Offices on the 7th floor. The Group 5 was waiting there for him. “Get down to the 5B studio right now!” My father asked what was up? The supervisor told him that they had an on-air technical emergency and he should bring his toolbox with him. The both of us went down to 5B and we found that one of the two turntables used to play records was not working; apparently one of the arms on one of the turntables had fallen off while playing back a record. They were now down to one turntable to play back records and were in a panic. My father broke out some hobby Poxy, and in five minutes, the turntable arm was as good as new. I remember he got an atta-boy from the Monitor Executive Producer for that one.
The Evolution Of Monitor
I watched Monitor evolve over the years as certain features were added, and dropped. The music also gradually changed, and towards the end, they were playing a more contemporary sound, although it was not unusual to hear a Percy Faith or Nashville Brass piece during a Monitor cutaway.
One thing that always impressed me about Monitor was the way that it was presented. It was always presented in a professional manner, with high technical and production standards. NBC was still using Staff Announcers to open and close the Weekend Monitor News On The Hour newscasts. On a sad note, towards the end of the Monitor era, NBC dropped the Monitor Beacon Sounder from all newscasts and used the standard NOTH theme that was used during the week. In addition, they eliminated the opening and closing billboards in a cost cutting move which did away with the staff announcer’s fees which were paid when staff announcers were utilized.
The Final Days
I remember the day my father came home from work and at the dinner table, announced that NBC had canceled Monitor. For me, it was the end of an era, something that had been such an integral part of NBC Radio was coming to an end. I couldn’t fathom coming to work with my father and walking into an empty studio 5B. No Monitor, how could this happen? There had always been Monitor and I thought that there would always be one.
Before I knew it, the closing days of Monitor were at hand and the last weekend was here. I made sure that I came into work with my father on Saturday, (I was already in college at this time). I walked into the control room and there was a sense of resignation that this was it. It was a funeral-type atmosphere. Big Wilson was the host and the show deviated from the normal format to one of reminiscing about Monitor’s life from the beginning. I remember that composer Sammy Cahn composed a song about Monitor for the closing show and how everyone in the control room, though sad, thought that it was a beautiful piece. Before I knew it, Saturday was over and Sunday was upon us. I was not present that very last day, although my father had someone roll tape on the last day’s programs. But the following Saturday, when I walked into the 5B control room, it was a different feeling from what I had known all my life visiting NBC. It was eerily quite and deserted.
When Monitor went off the air, for me and I’m sure many of the people who worked on the show, it was like saying goodbye to an old friend.
Post-Monitor Era At NBC Radio
Monitor was replaced in May 1975, with News and Information Service (NIS), a twenty-four hour news service designed for all-news and information stations. The Executives at NBC Radio had high hopes for this new concept, but unfortunately, NIS was cancelled almost 2 years later.
In 1979, I followed in my father’s footsteps and went to work for NBC Radio as a Vacation Relief Engineer in the Radio Recording Department (the same department I grew up in). I brought in an old Monitor air check of Bill Cullen and set it up on a reel-to-reel machine and began to play it. As soon as the sound of the beacon became audible, people came out of the woodwork to hear the tape. Especially the old-timers who worked the show; the smiles it brought to their faces’ was priceless. They immediately launched into stories about their days working on Monitor. At the conclusion of that summer, I was made “staff” and promptly transferred to Local Radio operations.
In 1987, we started hearing rumors that NBC Radio was considering reviving Monitor in a new format. Indeed, copies of old Monitor air checks were unearthed and dubbed off. We were all excited, as we had just moved into state-of-the-art studios, which would have been perfect for Monitor. But, alas, in August 1987, General Electric sold off the radio division to Westwood One, who had other ideas for NBC Radio, and Monitor was not one of them.
Most of the people who worked on Monitor have either retired or left NBC. There are a handful of engineers, 1 or 2 directors left and that’s it. When they retire, so will the stories of working on Monitor retire with them. Somehow, I have a sneaking suspicion that due to my age and circumstances, some day I may be the last person here at NBC to have been present during Monitor.
I will always treasure those moments I spent at NBC, watching Monitor take to the airways.