You’re on the Monitor
by Dennis Hart
It became the greatest show in network radio history, the forerunner of talk radio and one of the most-copied formats ever. Its creator, the brilliant NBC President Sylvester L. “Pat” Weaver Jr., described it as a “kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria.” To the rest of us, it was simply, and wonderfully, “Monitor.”
It was born out of desperation and inspiration. When “Monitor” made its splashy NBC Radio debut on Sunday, June 12, 1955, traditional network radio, with its half-hour and hour comedy, drama and variety shows, was in desperate shape. Television was stealing — had stolen — most of radio’s audience, and it was clear that something new and different was needed — fast. Weaver, who already had created “Today” and “Tonight” on his TV network, came up with a format so audacious and grandiose that nothing like it had ever been heard.
The Show’s Format
That premiere Sunday, “Monitor” aired on NBC Radio from 4 p.m. to midnight Eastern Time, with the first hour simulcast on NBC-TV. Starting the following weekend, the program ran continuously for 40 hours, from 8 a.m. Saturday to midnight Sunday. It had everything — news, sports, comedy, interviews, remote pick-ups from around the world, music — a true magazine of the air. Listeners could tune in or out at any time during the weekend, wherever they were — at home or in their cars. During any “Monitor” hour, dozens of different people, places and things were presented — all presided over, live, by hosts Weaver called “communicators” in mammoth New York studios NBC named “Radio Central.”
If “Monitor” had failed, NBC Radio would have disappeared decades before it did. But it worked — indeed, it was a smash hit with listeners, advertisers and critics. It quickly became NBC Radio’s biggest moneymaker and almost single-handedly kept NBC in the radio business. Simply put, “Monitor” became the biggest thing in radio.
Over the years,“Monitor” hosts included some of broadcasting’s best and brightest stars — including Dave Garroway, Frank Blair, Hugh Downs, Frank Gallop, Walter Kiernan, John Cameron Swayze, Ben Grauer, Clifton Fadiman, David Brinkley, Art Buchwald, Don Russell, Jim Fleming, Leon Pearson, Red Barber, Peter Roberts, Johnny Andrews, Al “Jazzbo” Collins, Gene Rayburn, Bert Parks, Mel Allen, Wayne Howell, Hal March, Frank McGee, Monty Hall, Bob Haymes, Bill Hayes, Ed Bryce, Peter Hackes, James Daly, Ted Steele, Jim Backus, David Wayne, Ed McMahon, Barry Nelson, Tony Randall, Henry Morgan, Brad Crandall, Joe Garagiola, Durward Kirby, Garry Moore, Murray the K, Ted Brown, Jim Lowe, Bill Cullen, Dan Daniel, Cindy Adams, Art Fleming, Art Ford, Don Imus, Wolfman Jack, Robert W. Morgan, Tony Taylor, Bruce Bradley, Big Wilson and John Bartholomew Tucker.
Classic comedians showed up every weekend, including Bob and Ray, Nichols and May, Jonathan Winters, Phyllis Diller, Ernie Kovacs, Bob Hope, Bob Newhart, Stiller and Meara, Selma Diamond, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen and, later, Pomerantz and Finkelman. In the early years, Bob and Ray stayed at Radio Central for many hours each weekend, ready to ad-lib skits if remotes weren’t ready or technical problems blew up a scheduled segment. In 1957, they won a Peabody Award for their outrageously creative routines on “Monitor.”
There was the inimitable “Miss Monitor,” Tedi Thurman, who made the weather forecast sound like, as one reviewer put it, “an irresistible invitation to an unforgettable evening.” At one time or another, every major TV, radio or movie star turned up at Radio Central for interviews. In addition, features like “Ring Around the World,” “On the Line with Bob Considine” and “Celebrity Chef” became regular “Monitor” segments, as did reports anchored by the likes of Barbara Walters, Arlene Francis, Marlene Dietrich, Betty Furness, Chet Huntley, Morgan Beatty, Al Capp, Jean Shepherd, Skitch Henderson, Lindsey Nelson, Kyle Rote, Bill Mazer, Paul Christman, Curt Gowdy, Sandy Koufax, Jim Simpson, Chris Economaki, Len Dillon, Ted Webbe, Gene Shalit, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Fran Koltun, Jerry Baker (the Master Gardener), Graham Kerr (the Galloping Gourmet) and numerous others.
And, from the very first, there was The Beacon — the “Monitor” Beacon — a sound so unique that even today, decades after the show’s demise, “Monitor” listeners can vividly recall how it signaled the start of the program or a cutaway for local stations. You always knew “the sound” was coming when the host said something like, “It’s 17 minutes after the hour…and you’re on the ‘Monitor’ Beacon.“
How was The Beacon created? It was a combination of high-frequency tones dialed by an operator to activate remote telephone equipment in completing long-distance calls. The phone company had recorded the sound and sent it to NBC, which re-recorded it at higher and lower frequencies, put it through several filters and mixed it with a microsecond lag. Then network engineers superimposed an oscillator sending the Morse Code letter “M” for “Monitor.”
It was hard to create The Beacon — and impossible to forget, once you heard it.
A Typical Weekend
Each weekend, “Monitor” promised listeners that “weekends are different — so is ‘Monitor'” — that the program would be “going places and doing things” — and then made it happen. For example, if you tuned in the weekend of July 2nd and 3rd, 1955, you would have heard the Voice of America’s floating relay station in the Mediterranean, a buffalo drive on the Santa Fe Trail, the Women’s National Open Golf Tourney and the Wimbledon tennis championships. “Monitor” also had live pick-ups of an old-fashioned Fourth of July celebration from New Hampshire; live reports from an undersea exploration of a Confederate blockade runner that went down off the coast of Long Island in 1861; dance music from Rio, London, Paris and Copenhagen; and celebrity guests including Shirley Jones, Gordon MacRae, Harry Belafonte, Eddie Fisher, Humphrey Bogart, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jackie Gleason.
Changes in Monitor
As the years passed, “Monitor’s” hours and content gradually changed. The midnight to 8 a.m. Sunday hours were eliminated at the end of ’55; then “Monitor” expanded to Friday nights from 8 to 10 p.m. in 1957. For most of 1959, “Monitor” aired each weeknight from 8 to 10 p.m. in addition to its marathon weekend run.
But by 1961, weeknight “Monitor” had vanished, and weekend “Monitor” was cut to 16 hours — Saturdays 9 a.m. to noon, 3 to 6 p.m. and 7:30 to 10:30 p.m. and Sundays 2 to 6 p.m. and 7 to 10 p.m. That format, with a minor change to Saturday night’s schedule in 1970, remained until 1974, when “Monitor” was reduced to 12 live hours a weekend — Saturdays 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sundays noon to 6 p.m. Nine “re-run” hours were also programmed each weekend.
What was happening? By the 1970’s, big-market NBC affiliates (and some of the network’s owned-and-operated stations) had begun substituting local disc jockeys for “Monitor’s” weekend offerings. As affils pulled away, national advertisers began deserting “Monitor,” and the handwriting was on the wall. To its credit, the network tried almost everything to keep the program alive — often tweaking the music format, creating new musical identifications, changing hosts (to the point of bringing in rock-radio jocks Don Imus, Wolfman Jack and Robert W. Morgan to alternate on the advertiser-starved Saturday Night “Monitor” segment), making the format faster-paced — even creating a “Custom Monitor” pre-feed allowing stations to carry only “Monitor” commercials and a few sponsored segments.
It was to no avail. When “Monitor” went off the air, it was still heard on about 125 stations, but few of them were in major cities.
The Final Shows
The program’s last weekend was January 25-26, 1975. The final hosts were “Big” Wilson and John Bartholomew Tucker. The last 12 hours were a magnificent retrospective on more than 20,000 hours of “Monitor” broadcasts — far more than any other network radio show in history. Among the classic cuts played were Garroway’s interview with Marilyn Monroe, Frank McGee’s talk with Martin Luther King Jr., Bob and Ray’s hilarious take-off on “Miss Monitor” and reporter Helen Hall’s unforgettable ride on a roller coaster.
The show’s last guest was Hugh Downs, who reminisced about his earlier days on “Monitor” with final-hour host John Bartholomew Tucker. Then at 5:58:50 p.m. EST on Sunday, January 26, the “kaleidoscopic phantasmagoria” came to an end. The Beacon sounded one more time, and The Last Great Radio Show became a memory that would live forever for millions of us.