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The Transition Years ( 1948-1955 )

By Rich Brother Robbin

The greatest period of evolution in radio's history happened during the years 1948 through 1955, beginning with the mass-scale introduction of television in '48 through the advent of rock & roll in the spring of '55.

Even though TV was born in the twenties and poised to make its national debut in the late thirties (it was a hugely popular exhibit at the legendary 1939 New York World's Fair), World War II intervened and diverted the country's attention. TV's bow-in had to wait until the postwar recovery period when the country's manufacturing and developmental capabilities could shift back to peacetime endeavors.

It may seem inconceivable to anyone born after 1955, but once upon a time, radio was a "stage of sound" ... it presented "shows" just like television does today. Radio back then was "TV without the pictures."

In 1948, radio was King while TV was in less than 10% of the nation's households but by 1951 nearly everybody had TV and radio's crown was threatened. Radio executives were beginning to notice the erosion of listeners in the evening when TV stations were on the air (they didn't sign on until 6 or 7 PM in the late forties). The problem grew for radio as TV schedules lengthened. And when the old radio show "My Favorite Husband" starring Richard Denning and Lucille Ball was reworked, recast with Desi Arnaz replacing Denning, title-changed to "I Love Lucy" and premiered on CBS-TV in the fall of 1951, the writing was on the wall: the public had no reason to listen to radio when they could watch television and get both sound AND pictures! To make matters worse, big shot network executives, particularly William Paley of CBS and David Sarnoff of NBC embraced television as the wave of the future and, while still striving to continue to make radio profitable, basically turned their backs on it.

As the early fifties progressed, radio ratings and revenue continued to slip as television stations expanded their schedules and ABC introduced a third TV network joining CBS and NBC. There was more and more high-level gulping in radio boardrooms. It had now become obvious that radio would bleed to death; that unless (and until) radio reinvented itself and was able to offer some other form of entertainment which was unique and compelled people to listen, its days were numbered.

Two radio station group owners who were acutely aware of this impending disaster were legendary broadcasters Gordon McLendon and Todd Storz, and as history would record it, they were the men responsible for literally saving radio, bringing it out from behind the shadow of TV and into the sunlight of its own reborn greatness.

One day in the early fifties, McLendon and Storz were together enjoying a beverage or two, and while they chatted they noticed the waitress kept playing the same song over and over again on the jukebox (legend has it that the tune was Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy"). When they asked her the simple question "why do you keep playing that song over and over again" she gave them an answer that has provided the solution for radio right up to this very day. She replied "because I like it."

Gordon looked at Todd, Todd looked at Gordon, and it came to them: play records! Play the most popular records of the day ... the ones people "like" over and over. Forty seemed like a good number (based on a reasonable time before the tunes came up again). So they began playing the "Top 40" hits of the day on McLendon's KLIF/Dallas and Storz's KOWH/Omaha.

The results were nearly immediate - beyond Gordon's and Todd's ... and everyone else's ... wildest dreams. People came back to the radio by the millions. Here was the listener's opportunity to hear his favorite recordings (not non-originals sung by other artists on programs like "Your Hit Parade," but the actual popular versions!).

Stations everywhere jumped on the bandwagon, seizing the idea as the drowning seize a lifeboat, spreading it like wildfire across the country. It didn't take long for station owners oriented to other music styles to offer Country, Cclassical and Rhythm and Blues (soul) music on their airwaves. Radio had transitioned from "shows" to "formats" - formats specializing in a variety of music genres for various audience tastes.

The concept of radio's use of music formats solidified further in the spring of 1955 when Bill Haley & The Comets "Rock Around The Clock" hit the charts and was permanently cemented when Elvis Presley came onto the scene in March 1956.

By playing his records (and those of other new, young performers), radio took another phenomenal quantum-leap by grabbing countless millions of teenagers in search of their own heroes, their own music - the rock & roll era had begun, radio's transition from shows to formats was complete ... and its future assured ... by an idea sparked by a simple remark from a cocktail waitress and molded into reality by two of radio's greatest geniuses all those years ago!

Rich Brother Robbin is a national known radio personality and Program Director, who has been instrumental over the years in the development of several formats.