31 October 2005

You're on the Monitor Beacon!

If I said the word Monitor, what would be the first thing to come to your mind? Probably, the cathode-ray or LCD video display on which you're reading this very blog.

But iffin' I were to go back in time to, say, 1970, and utter the same three-syllable word to an average adult, chances are a distinctive audio signature would play in their head, a one-of-a-kind collage of beeps and boops. And their mind would think about leisurely weekends -- running errands in the car, on trips out of town, or just puttering around the garage -- with the radio as a companion.

Yes, for those old enough to remember, there was a network radio program known as Monitor. It began in 1955 as an experiment born out of desperation. TV was slicing flesh off radio's bones, layer by layer. Something had to be done, and NBC President Sylvester "Pat" Weaver (father of actress Sigourney Weaver) gambled all of NBC Radio's fortunes on a crazy idea: a mish-mash of features, interviews, sports, music, remote broadcasts, in-depth news and comedy he called Monitor.
It would air for much of the weekend - Saturday morning through Saturday afternoon, and into Saturday night. There was also a Sunday afternoon and evening version, as well.

If it succeeded, NBC Radio - the first radio network in the U.S. - would be reinvigorated. But if it tanked? NBC Radio would likely have folded before 1960. Many called it "Weaver's Folly." BUT - they discounted Mr. Weaver's track record. Are you familiar with a little-known failure of a TV program called Today? Okay, what about the obscure little basement production known as The Tonight Show? Both were created in the mid '50s by Pat Weaver. Maybe Weaver was a bold risk-taker. Or maybe Weaver was rolling the dice, hoping for a 7. Perhaps Weaver exhibited professional hubris.

None of it matters. Monitor was successful. It turned network radio on its ear. It lasted until early in 1975!!

I'm too young to have remembered the program firsthand, but as one who has always been passionate about radio history and enjoys listening to recordings of old broadcasts, I was vaguely familiar with Monitor - but only in a read-it-in-a-textbook way.

Then I discovered Dennis Hart's fantastic tribute to Monitor ... then I bought his book, and devoured it. Then, through trades with fellow radio hobbyists, I managed to get copies of the few Monitor 'airchecks' known to exist.

Man, that was some fantastic stuff. Each segment was hosted by a big name, often from the TV side of the hall. Gene Rayburn, of Match Game notoriety, was one of the best-remembered of the show's hosts. Bill Cullen was another, Joe Garagiola, Art Fleming, Bert Parks, and others. The music mix in the '60s programs were of the easy listening / 'middle of the road' genre, but I didn't care. In fact -- and here's the scary part -- I found it quite to my liking as I listened.

And it got me to thinking. What this country needs is another Monitor.

We have plenty of talk programs, as many music programs as there are notes on the scale, and there's comedy to be found.

Talk programs? All partisan, and obnoxious blowhards speaking to their own choirs. The comedy -- especially of the type found on your average morning drive radio show -- often causes people to blush with its blueness. And music? It's splintered into too many genres and sub-genres.

We're almost to the point where we want nothing except to find our own "niche" station, and not venture out to sample other things. We only want people who tell us what we want to hear. We only want music we like (this is a problem prevalent among the teens today). People of the conservative persuasion only want to be in their little cocoons, being told their views are correct, and receiving their daily affirmation that Liberal = Satan. And those on the liberal side who are able to receive the Air America talk network are also guilty of the same mentality. We are truly a divided nation.

For all the 'nationally syndicated' radio product out there, there is precious little where people can all tune to and enjoy a national radio service ... together ... and as Americans. The closest we have to such a thing are the NPR daily offerings Morning Edition and All Things Considered. But even those programs -- which, in spirit, owe a great deal to Monitor, don't pass the "universal appeal test."

The beauty of Monitor was that people all over the country loved it -- and were all listening and enjoying TOGETHER!

Can this be done today? It's a challenge. But a challenge not unlike that which existed in 1955. What radio needs is another Pat Weaver to stand up and offer to a radio network's group of affiliates a revival of the Monitor formula. Bring in a group of well-known personalities to host. Not big-ego celebrities; people who elicit a 'comfort level' with an audience. Al Roker quickly comes to mind.

News on the hour, sports on the quarter hour, interview features - designed not just to entertain, but to inform. Comedy: radio is one of the best mediums for comedy expressions. There's plenty of room - and, maybe, a hunger - for good clean comedy. By 'clean' I don't mean "bland" or "whitewashed." There's a lot of material out there that doesn't rely on toilet humor, four-letter worlds, or body functions to bring out a good belly laugh.

Politics? In this day and age, we're too divided here. Leave it out. Both left and right.

And music. Naturally, this would never appeal to somebody like my 13-year-old son. But neither did the original Monitor. Aim it at the 30 and over demographic. There are a lot of us listening, a lot of us who remember the glory days of mass-appeal radio. Play music from the 1950s through the 1980s -- pop hits, some country hits, some R&B hits, and even some rock 'n' roll. I might not like every tune, however the next one might catch my ear. Gee, that sounds an awful lot like ... the way top-40 radio used to be!

I know it's just daydreaming. Yet certainly I can't be the only one who, deep inside, misses the feeling of community at the radio set. Check out Dennis Hart's website. Listen to the many audio clips available. Hear the beacon.

If I could have that on the weekend, the way our parents had Monitor, I'd willingly sit through a Culture Club record here or a Crystal Gayle song there.

And so concludes my trapise into the past. (I wonder if I can stick around awhile longer - it's better back here)

Ciao For Niao. [said to the tune of the NBC chimes]

--Talmadge "Weekends are different, so is MONITOR" Gleck

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