Some History of the Mutual Broadcasting System

The Mutual Broadcasting System was founded September 15, 1934, to provide programming for WOR, WGN, WLW, and WXYZ. The first programs were broadcast on October 2, 1934. In September 1935, WXYZ joined the ABC Network and was replaced by CKLW.

On April 27, 1946, the network carried a special two-hour program celebrating the acquisition of its 300th affiliate, in Oil City, Pennsylvania.

The network called itself the world's largest radio network, based on its number of affiliates. However, in the United States, other networks had stronger affiliates in the largest markets.

Mutual was originally owned by the Bamberger Broadcasting Service, Inc. (the licensee of WOR) and WGN, Inc. In the 1950s the network came under the ownership of General Tire and Rubber, Armand Hammer, the Hal Roach Studios, and Albert G. McCarthy. In 1960 Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing purchased the network. It later came under the ownership of Amway and then Westwood One.


Elizabeth McLeod

These posts by broadcast historian Elizabeth McLeod are reproduced here with her permission.

Date: Sun, 11 Apr 99 08:19:09 -0400
From: Elizabeth McLeod (lizmcl@midcoast.com)
To: old.time.radio@broadcast.airwaves.com
Subject: Re: Mutual Network

I read with interest David Hinckley's column in the New York Daily News in which he reminisces about the Mutual network. He mentions that Mutual was the smallest of the four major radio networks; is this true? I recall that Mutual used to call itself "The World's Largest Network" as well as "the radio network for all America". Was it the smallest or largest network?

I guess this depends on the angle one is looking at—by the late forties, Mutual was, in terms of affiliate count, the largest network in the US. But many—in fact, probably most of its affiliates during this era were small, local stations of 250-to-1000 watt variety. While it did include such powerhouses as WOR, WGN, and KHJ, most Mutual stations had small signals, limiting the network's reach—and its appeal to advertisers.

In terms of its advertising revenue and its corporate set-up, Mutual was a very small operation compared to NBC and CBS. During the OTR era, the network was unique in that it was the only network owned by its stations—with most of the stock controlled by WOR and WGN, and smaller shares owned by the Don Lee Network in California, and the Colonial Network in New England. There was no “Mutual Broadcasting System Building,” and the network owned no stations or studios, nor did it actually produce any programming. Mutual shows were produced by the stations on a cooperative basis, and the stations paid the productions costs and furnished the facilities, not the network. This setup was radically different from that used by the Major Networks, so in that sense, one could call Mutual “small.”

Also, did Mutual concentrate mainly on adventure, mystery and drama or were any comedy shows carried?

Given that all of its shows were produced by its stations—and most of its shows were produced by WOR or WGN—the emphasis was on low budget programming. Mutual never had much success in attracting Big Time Advertisers, and tended to include a lot of sustaining or regional programming. Without Big Time sponsors, there were no Big Time comedy-variety shows. That's not to say there were no comedy-variety shows—there were quite a few obscure musical-variety features that originated from WOR in the late thirties and early forties, and were picked up by the network, but none of them ever made much of an impression. Perhaps the best comedy program to be picked up by Mutual was the original "Here's Morgan," originating at WOR. This was the show that made a star of Henry Morgan: a bizarre 15-minute stream-of-consciousness monologue. Not very many Mutual stations carried it, but at least some did—enough to give Morgan a national reputation, which would lead to his getting a Major Sponsor after the war (but not on Mutual!).

It was possible to produce dramas for very little money, so Mutual had a very heavy schedule of low-budget dramatic shows. Most of these were produced at WOR, using a repertory company of New York actors. Despite the low budgets and the repetitive nature of many of the scripts, there were some excellent shows that came out of this era—I think The Mysterious Traveler stands up very well against the big time thrill shows like Suspense. And Mutual led the way when it came to kiddie action serials—a very inexpensive format that made the network piles of money in the mid-forties.


Date: Mon, 12 APR 99 07:48:44 -0400
From: Elizabeth McLeod (lizmcl@midcoast.com)
To: old.time.radio@broadcast.airwaves.com
Subject: Re: Mutual: The Beginning

The New York Daily News reports,

The seed for Mutual was planted in late 1932, when Detroit's WXYZ decided to launch a Western series with a hero who was "the embodiment of answered prayer." On Jan. 31, 1933, the noble, unsmiling Lone Ranger debuted over eight stations called the Michigan Radio Network. Tonto was added in the 12th show, so the Lone Ranger would have someone to talk to, and within a year WGN in Chicago, WLW in Cincinnati and WOR in New York signed on. On Sept. 15, 1934, this new alliance became the Mutual Broadcasting System, with WOR as a flagship, "The Lone Ranger" as its cornerstone and expansion as its grand hope.

This is the usual capsule story of the origin of Mutual, but it distorts a number of important points—creating the impression that the whole project began at WXYZ, as an outgrowth of the Lone Ranger. Not true. While a number of WXYZ veterans have told the story from this perspective over the years, it's not the whole story. Radio Guide reporter Francis Chase notes in his 1942 book Sound And Fury:

At WXYZ in Detroit, Trendle executives will tell you that Mutual came into existence to give network outlet to the Lone Ranger after unsatisfactory attempts to work out an arrangement with CBS and NBC. That the highly profitable Lone Ranger show should inspire the formation of a network is less likely than that the four powerful independent broadcasters who organized MBS felt the need for an outlet for the expensive shows they were producing and the large talent staffs they maintained."—(Chase, pps. 45-46)

This is a very important distinction—the network was formed first and foremost for economic reasons, not because of the popularity of a particular program. Historian Gleason L. Archer, in his 1938 study "Big Business In Radio," investigated the origins of Mutual in detail—and concluded that the idea of a “mutual’ network, linking together independent stations on a cooperative basis, was being proposed by an executive named George McLelland, the former General Manager of NBC, in November 1933. McLelland opened an office to promote this idea—which was exactly the plan eventually adopted by Mutual: a nationwide program cooperative in which member stations would share the profits. Unfortunately, he was working as a free agent, with no stations to build the network around—and he was unable to find the financial backing he needed to pursue the idea.(Archer, PPS 403(footnote), 407)

At about the same time that McLelland was setting up his office, stations WOR in New York and WGN in Chicago were approached by a sponsor who wanted to put on a show over both stations simultaneously. The sponsor proposed to pay each station its standard rate—if the stations agreed the pay the network line charges. Alfred McCosker of WOR and Wilbert McFarlane of WGN discussed the idea—and were very likely aware of what George McLelland was trying to do. They adopted McLelland's basic concept—proposing to form a "mutual" network which would take advantage of the WOR and WGN program and sales departments, and for which they would serve as directors at no additional salary. It was this discussion that was the true "seed" of Mutual. (Archer, p. 407)

WLW and WXYZ—both of which maintained expensive local programming departments—soon became involved, and on September 29, 1934 the four stations signed an agreement formalizing their alliance. The agreement recognized that WOR and WGN were the "leaders" of the alliance—the true cornerstone of the operation—in that they were charged with arranging and paying for the telephone circuits that would connect the stations. The Mutual Broadcasting System, as a corporate entity, was formed on October 29, 1934 to make the necessary arrangements with AT & T for the lines. Stock in the corporation was evenly divided between WOR and WGN, and it was acknowledged that these two stations "controlled" the corporation. ("Report On Chain Broadcasting," FCC, 1941, pages 26-27)

Mutual programming during the early months of the network was quite limited. The Lone Ranger was a feature of all four stations—as were Lum and Abner, who then originated at WGN (but oddly, no one has ever suggested that L & A were the "cornerstone" program of Mutual, even though they were the best-known, most publicized performers on the network in the early months. By early 1935, L & A were being extension-spotted onto several non-Mutual stations by transcription—giving them the widest circulation of any Mutual feature of the time) Most of the rest of the programs were musical features originating at WOR or WGN.

The formation of Mutual drew comparatively little attention in the popular press. In fact, the very week that the Mutual Broadcasting System was formed, Radio Guide devoted more attention to the expansion of George Storer's American Broadcasting System—a more ambitious, more conventional network project that had several stations in the East and Midwest. It wasn't until the spring of 1935 that Radio Guide even bothered to give "MBS" a place in its program listings.

This slow start led WXYZ to drop out of Mutual in September 1935. The station was losing money, and felt that it had no choice but to dump its independent status and rejoin a major network. The station became the NBC Basic Blue Network outlet for Detroit, although prior contractual arrangements kept the Ranger on the Mutual stations until 1942. CKLW in Windsor, Ontario joined Mutual in its place. WLW dropped out as well in the fall of 1936.

Mutual was clearly struggling. In 1935, the cooperative only sold $1.1 million dollars in advertising, to be divided among the four member stations—compared to the $26.6 million in sales logged by NBC that same year and the $16.3 million logged by CBS. Advertisers wanted national audiences, and that was something Mutual couldn't give them, at least not as it was originally organized. In the end, it wasn't the Lone Ranger that saved Mutual—it was John Shepard and Tommy Lee, who brought the Colonial and Don Lee regional networks into the MBS fold in 1936, giving the chain a national presence. But Mutual always struggled, was always a poor fourth in time sales, and always had to fight to find decent outlets. That the network endured into the early 1950s under its original cooperative structure is a testimony to how strongly WOR and WGN believed in the basic idea—even though it was always an uphill battle.

Elizabeth


Date: Mon, 12 APR 99 08:36:31 -0400
From: Elizabeth McLeod
To: old.time.radio@broadcast.airwaves.com
Subject: Re: Mutual News

Always low on money, Mutual's European correspondents sent telegrams to be read by announcers, saving the cost of transatlantic phone calls.

Not true. Mutual's OTR-era overseas correspondents, like those of NBC and CBS, used shortwave radio to communicate with the home office, not transatlantic phone calls. Mutual listeners heard live correspondents via shortwave during the European crises of 1938-39, including London representative John Steele and Berlin correspondent Sigrid Schultz (to my knowledge the first woman to serve as an overseas radio news correspondent). The network also picked up reports from various stringers working for US wire services, notably Walter Kerr of United Press. These correspondents may not have had the high profiles of Murrow, Shirer, Jordan, and Bate—but they were every bit on the same journalistic level.

Mutual did take advantage of one cost-saving news-gathering technique: beginning in early 1938, WOR recorded English-language news broadcasts off the air from many European shortwave stations, and Mutual rebroadcast them unedited: often juxtaposing the German and Czecho-Slovak broadcasts, for example. This technique drew considerable praise from radio critics as a way of allowing listeners to hear all the points of view on the news of the day, and enabling them to judge the propaganda for themselves without the interpretative coverage offered by NBC and CBS. Mutual did have some very high quality analysts to go along with these broadcasts, however: Raymond Gram Swing, to my ear, was the most perceptive and clear-eyed of any of the commentators on the air in this era, and Quincy Howe was another voice with much to say. These men weren't "announcers reading telegrams." They were real journalists—reporting real news.

Beginning in late 1938 and continuing right thru the war, WOR regularly recorded BBC Empire Service news broadcasts, and fed them to Mutual by transcription—offering an extremely comprehensive look at European news (and, yes, an inexpensive one as well.)

Cheap didn't necessarily mean cheesy. And while the Mutual news operation may not have spent a lot of money, it certainly didn't shortchange its listeners.

Elizabeth


Date: Mon, 12 APR 99 09:24:45 -0400
From: Elizabeth McLeod
To: old.time.radio@broadcast.airwaves.com
Subject: Re: Mutual: The Beginning (an addendum)

One brief, but important, addition to my post on Mutual: The Beginning...

The sponsor who approached WOR and WGN in November 1933 may have been the Gordon Baking Company, makers of Silvercup Bread, which began sponsoring The Lone Ranger at the end of that month over WXYZ. I've not positively confirmed that a proposition from Gordon Baking was the trigger that got McCosker and McFarlane talking (and would appreciate hearing from anyone who could confirm it) but the timing would certainly be right, since the Ranger first appeared in New York in early 1934.

In any case, Gordon Baking's involvement was probably the source of the "Lone Ranger Formed Mutual" story—and it was undoubtedly the catalyst for bringing WXYZ into the group. But nevertheless, the idea for forming a permanent network, and the concept of its cooperative structure originated with McCosker and McFarlane, with perhaps a bit of inspiration from George McLelland—and it is they who deserve the real credit for creating Mutual.

Elizabeth


Date: Thu, 23 Mar 2000 17:59:26 -0500
From: Elizabeth McLeod lizmcl@midcoast.com
To: old.time.radio@oldradio.net
Subject: Re: More on Mutual

I was curious who decided which programs were worthy to distribute. Let us say that WOR is producing a Monday night at 8:30 program. Could Mutual tell WOR to move it to 9PM as they were to begin distributing a WGN show that would be airing at 8:30? And was a station ever told their program was not worthy of network distribution? I picture this guy at Mutual contracting out with the few key stations to produce a full network line up of programs.

Originally, Mutual never had that kind of control over the stations—prior to 1940, there was no time optioning clause in Mutual contracts, and the network couldn't contractually require the stations to do anything. Commercial programming on Mutual was sold on an al la carte basis—the sponsor selected a lineup of stations, and paid based on the individual rate cards of each of the stations chosen. Mutual would then receive a commission for handling the sale and the rest of the money would go directly to the individual stations. Only those stations chosen by the sponsor carried the show—the network itself had nothing to do with making the decision.

As for sustaining programs, these were chosen by Mutual's program service coordinator from among the programs produced by member stations, and it was just a matter of what was available during non-sponsored time periods. In practice this usually meant programs produced by WOR or WGN—and often these were split on a regional basis, with eastern stations getting the WOR sustainers and midwestern stations being offered the WGN programs. WOL provided many of Mutual's public affairs and commentary programs—Fulton Lewis Jr., the American Forum of the Air, and similar offerings. Pickups from other stations were usually confined to special events—if a major event was happening somewhere along the network, the local affiliate in that city would be expected to feed it to the whole chain.

After 1940, Mutual followed the example of NBC and CBS in adding a time optioning clause to its affiliate contracts, but it was far weaker than that administered by the big chains—MBS only controlled a maximum of four hours and fifteen minutes per weekday, as opposed to the full-day options exercised by NBC and CBS.

Elizabeth


Date: Thu, 28 Feb 2002 16:43:29 -0500
From: Elizabeth McLeod lizmcl@midcoast.com
To: old.time.radio@oldradio.net
Subject: Re: Mutual in Detroit

Can any of you Detroit old-timers explain the history of Mutual Broadcasting in the Motor City? As I understand it, WXYZ was a founding member of the Mutual Network, formed in part to carry The Lone Ranger. Yet by the time I began listening to TNR in 1939 or 1940, he was on the NBC Blue affiliate (WNBC) in Hartford, Conn. and at some point, a Canadian 10,000-watter in Windsor was carrying Mutual programs—without TLR.

I'm about 1500 miles away from Detroit, but I think I can answer this. WXYZ dropped out of Mutual after less than a year, in order to become a basic NBC Blue affiliate, and was replaced as Mutual's Detroit outlet by CKLW in Windsor. Prior contractual arrangements kept The Lone Ranger on certain Mutual stations until 1942, when it moved to the Blue. However, beginning in February 1938, the program began to be distributed by syndicated recordings to stations in markets where the live program was not being carried, and it is likely that you were hearing one of these transcription broadcasts rather than a live network presentation. The transcriptions and the live broadcasts continued alongside each other thruout the 1940s.

The "Mutual was formed to carry the Lone Ranger" story is a bit of wishful exaggeration on the part of various former WXYZ staffers—the real story is more complicated. In truth, the prime movers in the formation of Mutual were WOR in Newark NJ/New York and WGN in Chicago. Both stations had been involved in an ad-hoc network called the "Quality Group," along with WLW Cincinnati, which had operated on an as-needed basis since around 1930. Albert McCosker of WOR and Wilbert McFarlane of WGN were probably inspired to set up a permanent network by a former NBC executive named George McLelland, who opened an office in New York in late 1933 proposing to start a new cooperative network based on the "mutual" sharing of expenses among members. McLelland couldn't get the idea off the ground due to lack of financial backing—and in despair, he killed himself. In the meantime, McCosker and McFarlane helped themselves to his idea and ran with it—setting up a cooperative WOR-WGN program exchange in which the stations' sales staffs and production departments would work together, and the stations would divide the cost of permanent network lines.

Meanwhile, the Lone Ranger had already begun airing on WGN, via a direct pickup from the Michigan Network fed by WXYZ. Gordon Baking Company, which sponsored the program in Chicago and Detroit beginning in November 1933, wanted to add a New York outlet as well—and at first proposed sending the scripts to WOR to be produced locally. This proved too expensive, and as a result beginning in early 1934, Gordon Baking took advantage of the already existing WGN-WOR line to send the Detroit production into New York. This marked the first association of WXYZ with the WGN-WOR group.

WLW began taking feeds from the WGN-WOR circuit around this same time, as a revival of the old Quality Group arrangement. In September 1934, WOR, WGN, WLW, and WXYZ formalized their relationship with a contract, specifying that WOR and WGN held controlling interests in the operation, and the following month, the Mutual Broadcasting System Inc. was incorporated, with WOR and WGN each controlling fifty per cent of the stock.

Contractually, at this stage, the Ranger wasn't really a Mutual program—its presence on WOR, WGN, and WLW had been arranged by the Gordon Baking Company dealing with the stations on an individual basis, and not thru a network sales office. "Lum and Abner" was also being placed on the Quality Group/WGN-WOR stations by Horlick's Malted Milk on the same sort of basis during 1934. The first really major account to be placed thru the new Mutual sales office may have been the Feenamint National Amateur Night, which ran over a "special hookup including the Mutual Broadcasting System" during the early weeks of 1935. Unfortunately, WOR was unable to clear the Feenamint program due to other commitments, and although arrangements were made to give the show a New York outlet on WINS, the sponsor was dissatisfied, and jumped the series to CBS at the first opportunity.

This type of situation was common for Mutual in its formative years—it couldn't attract large accounts, and if it did, they didn't stay long. These problems led WXYZ to drop out in 1935 and WLW quit the following year, although the latter station retained a secondary affiliation. What ensured Mutual's survival was the deal with the Don Lee Network in 1936, which gave it coast-to-coast service.

Elizabeth


Mutual's Riding Off Into Radio Sunset

This article appeared in the New York Daily News on April 7, 1999.

Sixty-five years after it was created expressly to make the Lone Ranger a national hero, the Mutual Broadcasting System is signing off for good.

Mutual, which became a full network with a reputation for scrappiness in the face of low resources, finally fell to radio consolidation.

Westwood One, which acquired Mutual in the '80s, says that as of April 18, all Mutual services—primarily newscasts—will be delivered under the Westwood One-owned CNN Radio name.

This is part of a Westwood One streamlining that will also eliminate most services of the NBC radio network, NBC's last radio link. Also as of April 18, the NBC name will be used only on newscasts between 5 and 11 a.m. weekdays.

It's a quiet ending for Mutual, which gave America not only "The Lone Ranger," but Orson Welles as "The Shadow" and the first interactive syndicated radio talk show.

"Mutual never had the stature of the NBC networks or CBS," says Joe Franklin, who worked at Mutual as a teenager. "They were a distant fourth. But they worked hard. I was hired to supply records for Kate Smith. In their heyday, they were substantial."

"They'd try to do things the big networks couldn't," says broadcast pioneer Guy Lebow. "You'd call them with an idea, they'd tell you to do it and they'd send you a check. I did a story for them on the assassination of Malcolm X. I was one of the first white reporters allowed on the site."

The seed for Mutual was planted in late 1932, when Detroit's WXYZ decided to launch a Western series with a hero who was "the embodiment of answered prayer."

On Jan. 31, 1933, the noble, unsmiling Lone Ranger debuted over eight stations called the Michigan Radio Network.

Tonto was added in the 12th show, so the Lone Ranger would have someone to talk to, and within a year WGN in Chicago, WLW in Cincinnati and WOR in New York signed on.

On Sept. 15, 1934, this new alliance became the Mutual Broadcasting System, with WOR as a flagship, "The Lone Ranger" as its cornerstone and expansion as its grand hope.

Mutual soon became known for controversial news commentators like Drew Pearson, the arch-conservative Fulton Lewis and Gabriel Heatter, who covered the trial and execution of Bruno Richard Hauptmann for the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby..

Mutual also pioneered syndicated interactive talk shows with John J. Anthony's melodramatic "Goodwill Hour" in 1937.

Always low on money, Mutual's European correspondents sent telegrams to be read by announcers, saving the cost of transatlantic phone calls.

But Mutual was the first on the air with the news of the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor, six minutes ahead of CBS and NBC. And Mutual found Neville Chamberlain at Munich and covered the first German air strikes against France.

From the '30s to the '50s, Mutual was the only place to hear the World Series.

But in the '50s, TV started to alter the radioscape. "The Lone Ranger," with Brace Beemer as the masked man since 1941, rode into the radio sunset in 1954. Mutual eventually went through various owners. But it lived to retirement age and left fond memories.

Hi-yo, Silver, away.

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