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NBC Network title and logos

NBC's 1948 Promotional Short, 'Behind Your Radio Dial'

The Network from Which All Others Were Spawned --and Against Which All Others Were Measured

Begun by the giants of virtually every facet of the 'non-Marconi' wireless radio transmission industry, NBC was officially formed September 9th, 1926, by The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and it's partners, Westinghouse and General Electric Corporation. As was the practice of the era, AT&T had established a practical monopoly on radio transmissions over telephone lines, and RCA had to buy out AT&T's entire broadcasting business through it's station, WEAF, to gain the ability to transmit radio over AT&T's infrastructure. AT&T agreed not to compete with RCA (NBC) in the 'network broadcasting' field for a period of seven years.

Even the term 'network broadcasting' was barely known by then. If Dr. Lee DeForrest is called the Father of Radio (though that title rightly belongs to Edwin H. Armstrong), then Dr. Frank Conrad certainly qualifies as the Father of Radio Broadcasting. The famous Westinghouse Engineer coined the term 'broad-casting' for the type of transmissions he was attempting to acheive with his HAM Radio station 8XK, transmitting the very first 'broad'-casted transmission of audio intended for any receiving device's reception (as opposed to a direct, point-to-point transmission from one HAM Radio Station to another). Pretty low-tech by today's professional broadcasting standards: Dr. Conrad simply placed a phonograph in front of his HAM radio mike and began transmitting songs of the era over his 8XK antenna from his home garage in Wilkinsburg, PA.

Dr. Frank Conrad, ca. 1937

Dr. Frank Conrad's home and garage ca. 1947

Dr. Conrad's HAM Set inside garage ca. 1923

But then again, with the advent of low power FM today, that seems much like what we're doing right now. Prior to that first 'broad-cast' transmission, HAM radio operators' transmissions were restricted to technical discussions and the transmission or relay of vital public information. His HAM Radio Station 8XK was the direct precursor of the very first radio broadcasting station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Indeed it was Dr. Conrad's own station 8XK that was on standby during KDKA's famous first broadcast of the election results of November 2nd, 1920, should the primary broadcast encounter some technical problem.

Westinghouse ad touting the first radio broadcast of election results, 30 yrs earlier. ca 1950

AT&T had constructed and licensed radio station WEAF in New York in June of 1922, and owned a completely legal monopoly selling broadcasting time over it's phone lines. It's first 'network' 'broadcast occured on January 4, 1923, between WEAF in New York City and WNAC in Boston, Massachusetts. AT&T had, by early 1924, also produced the first transcontinental network broadcast, between WEAF in New York City, and KPO in San Francisco. (All stations east of the Mississippi River were 'W' prefix stations, and all stations west of the Mississippi were 'K' prefix stations.)

KPO/KGO San Francisco ca. 1942

RCA had acquired radio station WJZ in New York and WRC in Washington, DC, and had been using Western Union's telegraph transmission lines for it's 'network' transmissions, albeit at somewhat degraded quality, compared to the superior telephone transmission lines of AT&T (apparently 'his master's voice' wasn't nearly as audible over Western Union's telegraph lines as over AT&T's phone lines). RCA solved this problem by simply buying-out the competition--a time honored American Business tradition. Thus, having acquired a monopoly of its own, RCA formed NBC two months later, in September of 1926 with an initial network of 19 stations.

711 Fifth Avenue Home to NBC, ca. 1927

Indeed, NBC operated two network monopolies: NBC Blue, headed by station WJZ, and NBC Red, headed by WEAF. This situation arose, due to NBC then owning two stations in New York City (WEAF and WJZ). WEAF and the 'Red' Network became the flagship network and offered most of the established shows--and advertisers, and the 'Blue' Network carried most of the sustaining shows (e.g., shows without regular sponsors). How did they arrive at the names 'Red' and 'Blue'? The grease-pencil marker used to trace the routes of the WJZ-headed stations was blue, and as you may have already guessed, the marker used to trace the WEAF-headed stations was red. This was a confusing situation for everyone but NBC and its advertisers, and that was just fine by NBC, thank you very much.

Still with me? Good. Because NBC also operated three other 'colored' networks (no, not that kind of 'colored'): NBC Orange, NBC Gold, and NBC White.

NBC White was NBC's Religious Programming network, also referred to as The Watchtower Network, and operated from about 1928 to 1936. That's 'White' as in 'pure', 'holy', and 'unblemished'. Those were the affiliates that were selling 'goat-gland' extract to financially obliterated, post-Depression, rural listeners during their religious programming to cure all manner of male--and female--maladies, all in the name of jah-hee-zuz-uh (His miracles to perform via goat-gland extract?). One shudders to think what NBC White Network listeners would have thought of ABC's ''The Blue Network' (further below).

NBC's Orange Network was it's West Coast affiliates, KGO, KFI, KGW, KOMO, and KHQ, beginning operations in 1931. NBC also operated a 'Gold Network' comprised of KPO, KECA, KEX, KJR, and KGA, soon after disbanded and absorbed by the Orange Network in 1933. NBC's reasoning? Aren't five monopolies better than just two? . . . well Duh . . ! Especially if one of them is a religous programming monopoly.

Those of us who catalog our Golden Age Radio collections, generally refer to NBC Red as NBC, and simply include NBC Blue as NBC up until NBC sold the Blue Network to the American Broadcasting Company. Indeed, NBC's Blue Network became ABC in 1943, due to a landmark Supreme Court Ruling that held that NBC had specifically maintained the two parallel networks for the express purpose of stifling competition (Say it isn't so! Weren't they just early free-market 'trickle-downers' while actor Ronald Reagan was still only 'winning one' for 'the Gipper'?).

NBC subsequently extricated itself from this 'sticky' situation by selling 'NBC Blue' to . . . what else? . . . A candy mogul! Edward Noble of the Lifesaver Candy Company, who first called his new network, simply 'The Blue Network' (eloquent in its simplicty perhaps, but God only knows how well that name sat with the morally erect listeners of the era), followed by 'The Blue Network of the American Broadcasting Company' (a 'cosmetic' improvement . . . like 'lipstick on a pig'), and eventually in 1945, dropped the 'Blue Network' appellation altogether, after which time 'Old Blue' was simply called the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

The Blue Network logo c.1944

There was a time when I'd wondered whether The Playboy Channel might acquire 'The Blue Network' as it's moniker and thus preserve yet another lost remnant of The Golden Age. (Not to mention the kind of hip, Mort Sahl-ish, Lenny Bruce-ish, Richard Pryor-ish, jazzy, profane appeal such a network name might evoke.) To this day I can't but wonder what Mr. Noble was thinking to name any national broadcasting network 'The Blue Network'.

Note the ironic title--ironic, not cynical. This is one for Ripley: Believe It or Not . . . it was sincere! . . . then.

NBC had a number of guidelines for what radio shows could and could not contain. This volume "Broadcasting in the Public Interest", from 1939, outlines those rules. This first 'Standards and Practices' booklet soon became yet another standard throughout the industry. It was 6 by 9 inches and is 80 pages long.

  • 1921 Westinghouse owned and operated WJZ radio in Newark from 1921 - 1923.
  • 1922 WEAF radio, owned and operated by AT&T, was founded in New York.
  • 1923 RCA, a subsidiary of Westinghouse, operated WJZ radio from 1923-46 in New York.
  • 1926 RCA announced the formation of the National Broadcasting Company on September 13, 1926 upon the RCA purchase of WEAF radio from AT&T.
  • November 1, 1926 NBC established with both a Blue and a Red network.
  • 1926 NBC began radio broadcasting on November15, 1926.
  • 1926 NBC formed the Red and Blue radio networks, with WEAF as the flagship station of the Red network and WJZ as the flagship station of the Blue.
  • 1928 The first permanent coast-to-coast network in the United States was established by NBC on December 23, 1928.
  • 1928 NBC received its first television station construction permit.
  • 1936 - 1939 NBC investigated the possibility of separating Red and Blue Networks (See NBC folder numbers 301-304)
  • 1939 NBC televised the opening ceremonies of the New York World's Fair.
    May 1939 Chain Broadcasting Report stated "no license shall be issued to a standard broadcast [AM] station affiliated with a network organization which maintains more than one network." (Quoted in Sterling and Kitross, Stay Tuned, p.191.)
  • October 30, 1941 Both NBC and CBS filed suit against the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for its new regulations.
  • January 1942 The U.S. Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against NBC and CBS (Sterling and Kitross, Stay Tuned, p. 236)
  • January 9, 1942 RCA president David Sarnoff announced that the Blue Network had been separated from the Red Network and subsequently was wholly owned by RCA.
    May 1942 The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the FCC right to regulations outlined in the Chain Broadcasting Report.
  • July 10, 1943 Edward J. Noble, the owner of the American Broadcasting Company, purchases the Blue Network for $8 million.
  • October 12, 1943 The FCC approved the sale of the Blue Network to Noble.
  • June 14, 1945 The Blue Network was changed to the American Broadcasting Company.
  • August 1946 The FCC authorized CBS to change the name of WABC to WCBS.
  • 1946 NBC changed the name of WEAF to WNBC
  • August 26, 1987 NBC Radio (the old Red network) was purchased by Westwood One.
  • 1993 Westwood One agrees to be managed by Infinity Broadcasting.
  • 1999 NBC Radio is cremated forever. Westwood One discontinues use of NBC Radio's 'brand name'. Chalk up another one for Westwood One. NBC Radio joins the Mutual Broadcasting System as another historical, landmark broadcasting network Reaganomically obliterated by Westwood One and Infinity with no attempt whatsoever to preserve the merest remnant of it's legacy or history--via trickle-down or otherwise. Thus, coming full circle, Ronald Reagan in his dotage win's yet another one for 'The Gipper'

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. . . and remained the Goliath of the radio broadcasting industry well into Television's own Golden Age years.

NBC was wildly successful with it's programming throughout the Golden Age of Radio, and not only attempted to monopolize all of the markets it penetrated, but also ensured that it could control the costs of its talent. NBC--and later CBS--maintained its own talent service which acted as 'talent agents' for the artists that appeared on its radio programs. Indeed, when the Columbia Broadcasting System became established, it wisely followed NBC's business model and provided it's own talent service for the majority of it's own performers as well. This obviously worked very well for NBC and CBS, but perhaps not so much for it's performers--or the competition.

President Warren G. Harding's Innaugural Address over NBC-dominated radio c. 1929
(note the stark absence of other network logos
on the early microphones)

NBC had deep pockets, and provided some of the most enduring and popular programming of the Golden Age of Radio. To say they dominated Golden Age Radio broadcasting isn't much of an exaggeration--by any measure. Thankfully, the legacy they left behind was in large measure donated to the Library of Congress, and is in the process of being safely preserved for posterity . . . and the bequeath came well in advance of Westwood One's butchery of the remainder of NBC Radio's rich legacy.

NBC controlled its program distribution through it's vast network of affiliates--most wholly owned by NBC. While no NBC affiliate stations were necessarily 'required' to carry all of NBC's national programming, most of them did carry almost all of the Network's major programming, giving NBC huge leverage with it's sponsors, advertisers and talent.

NBC's Radio City, at Sunset and Vine, Hollywood, ca. 1947

No discussion of NBC's rich history would be complete without mention of NBC's famous 'chimes'. Those three little notes have acquired an almost cult-like following, with any number of alleged sources of attribution for them. In fact, at the end of a program an NBC announcer would read the call letters of all the NBC affiliate stations carrying the program. Naturally, as the network added more stations this became impractical and would cause some confusion among the affiliates as to the conclusion of network programming and when the station break should occur on the hour and half-hour. Some means was needed to signal the affiliates for these breaks and allow each affiliate to identify.

Three men at NBC were given the task of finding a solution to the problem:

  • Oscar Hanson, from NBC engineering.
  • Earnest LaPrada, an NBC orchestra leader.
  • Phillips Carlin, an NBC announcer.

Note the faint 'N' 'B' 'C' on the chimes . . .
(nexus of the inaccurate timbre order cited further below.)

They acquired a set of hand dinner chimes from the Lesch Silver Co. of Manhattan for $48.50, and between 1927 and 1928 they experimented with a seven-note sequence of chimes, 'G-C-G-E-G-C-E'. In practice, this proved too complicated for announcers to consistently strike in the correct sequence, so the original sequence was reduced to four notes--'G-G-G-E'. Shortly after, two 'G's were dropped and a 'C' added to become the three notes G-E-C (some maintain, to appease General Electric Corporation, one of the principal owners). The three note sequence was first broadcast on November 29, 1929, every 59 minutes 30 seconds, and 29 minutes 30 seconds past the hour.

Click to play

Please indulge me for a moment . . . I have to get this out of my system once and for all. It's been sticking in my craw since I first saw the NBC chimes logo on television. Feel free to gloss over this to the NBC Christmas shows below if you think this is a little too nit-picky . . . but shouldn't the chimes logo have looked like this? [below] Email me here if you agree--or not so much:

Ahhhh . . . That's much better.
Thanks for letting me get that off my chest.

Learn more about the NBC chimes at Bill Harris' Radio Guy site

Epilogue: Fast forward 60 years to a resurgence in demand for period-authentic, Vintage Fittings:

The classic 1946 Rittenhouse '520 Beverly', 3-note Door Chime. The three notes? --'G' - 'E' - 'C'. Today's price? $275.00

Note that if a door chime manufacturer of today tried that, their customers would undoubtedly end up paying a nominal residual to Westwood One or Infinity for the 'G' - 'E' - 'C' note sequence, everytime a visitor rang their doorbell. And if they refused to pay? The RIAA would inevitably raid those homes for copyright violation, seizing all their real and personal assets and tying their possessions up in court for 15 years.

Harold Peary

Jimmy Durante

Robert Young

Phil Harris and Alice Faye

NBC Studio Tour

The Great Gildersleeve, 'Christmas Eve at Gildersleeves', from December 22, 1948

NBC's 40th Anniversary Program with Bergen & McCarthy from Nov 13, 1966

The Jimmy Durante Christmas Show, from 47-12-24

The Six Shooter, 'Brit Ponset's Christmas Carol', from 53-12-20

Phil Harris and Alice Faye Annual Christmas Program, from 49-12-25

Forhan's Toothpaste "Stories of the Black Chamber" spot ad from 1935

Vince Mouth Freshener "Youth Versus Age"
ad listing, circa 1939

Early "Maxwell House Good News" announcement, circa 1937

"Maxwell House Good News" spot ad inset (from above)

Oldradio's Radio/TV Station Call Letter OriginsSujan Hallikainen's Saving History from the Dumpster PagesDeb Lawson's Historical Internet Research Page linksLink to The History of RadioLink to The Museum of Broadcast TelevisionThe John R. Hickman Digital CollectionOldradio's Radio/TV Station Call Letter OriginsSujan Hallikainen's Saving History from the Dumpster PagesDeb Lawson's Historical Internet Research Page linksLink to United States Early Radio History