Every summer I try to do some sort of feature at this blog. This year, I’m taking the easy way out by shining up and repeating some posts from the past. This one first appeared on June 21, 2005.
Given the monotonous mishmash American radio has become, it’s hard to imagine very many aspects of it capturing the imagination of listeners in such a way that they might feel nostalgic about it years from now.
In June 1955, Monitor premiered on NBC. It came along at a moment when many people believed radio might die out entirely in the face of television. TV had taken away the long-form comedy and drama programs that were staples of radio—nearly 40 percent of network radio programs migrated to television during the medium’s formative years—and nobody was quite sure what might replace them. So Monitor was an attempt to reinvent the medium—and media history geeks won’t be surprised to hear it came from the mind of Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, who developed both Today and Tonight for NBC-TV, and who may have been one of the last national media executives who didn’t treat cultural and public affairs programming like bad-tasting medicine he was forced to take.
Monitor was a weekend variety service, a mix of music, news, sports, comedy, and features intended to be self-contained. In the early years, a station could fill most of its weekend hours with Monitor and nothing else if it chose, although the number of hours Monitor was offered varied quite a bit over the years. In the early years, its hosts were a who’s-who of NBC greats—David Brinkley, Dave Garroway, Frank Blair, and others. During the 1960s, its most popular host was probably Gene Rayburn, known to most as the host of TV’s Match Game. Veteran game-show host Bill Cullen also hosted Monitor segments in the 1960s. Before Don Imus became a crabby talk-radio pundit, he was a theater-of-the-mind genius, and he was on Monitor for a time in the 1970s, as were Wolfman Jack and Robert W. Morgan. As radio formats fragmented and FM use rose, Monitor‘s time passed. It signed off for the last time, after 19 1/2 years on the air, in late January 1975.
In a way, Monitor was an early example of the packaged programming that has proliferated across the dial in our day. People in a faraway studio made the decisions about what to air, and local stations merely consumed it. So what’s different about Monitor, and why is it worth remembering years after its demise, if today’s programming won’t be? For one thing, Monitor assumed a level of active listener engagement that’s rare today outside of talk formats and public radio. And where stations today are narrowly targeted to include a particular sliver of the available audience and exclude the rest, Monitor was mass appeal. It assumed the existence of an electronic public square where many different kinds of people congregated, and therefore, it owed something to everyone who might happen by.
Another way in which Monitor differed significantly from today’s packaged radio is that in most cases, there was somebody sitting in the local studio to play the local commercials and handle the local newscasts. (Today, many radio stations are frequently unstaffed, with all programming operated by computer.) One old radio guy of my acquaintance claimed that when he didn’t feel like doing his own weekend show, he would simply turn up Monitor and go to the studio next door to get stoned with the FM jocks.
I’m convinced it’s more than coincidence that in the 1970s, as the radio audience slivered into niches where other people and their interests need never intrude on a listener’s private world, interest in public affairs began to erode. . . . . In the end, Monitor remains important because of its small-d democracy—and the way it lived up to Pat Weaver’s belief that a well-rounded radio diet was good for people, right up to its final minutes on the air.
There’s literally hours of reading and listening fun at the Monitor Tribute Pages, including the famous Monitor Beacon, the network’s sonic signature. If you remember Monitor at all, you’ll enjoy it. If you don’t, treat yourself to a taste of the old school.