You’re on the Monitor Beacon

Given the monotonous mishmash American radio has become in the past 10 years or so, 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.

Fifty years ago this month, Monitor premiered on NBC. Monitor 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. In the 70s, my first exposure to Don Imus (before he became a crabby talk-radio pundit, he was a theater-of-the-mind genius) came on Monitor, where Wolfman Jack and Robert W. Morgan were also hosts. 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 program formats that have proliferated across the dial today. 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 30 years after its demise, if today’s formats won’t be? For one thing, Monitor was the opposite of many of today’s formats, which are designed to be consumed passively, as background. Monitor assumed a level of active listener engagement that’s rare today outside of talk formats and public radio. And where today’s formats 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 formats is that in most cases, there was always somebody sitting in the local studio to play the local commercials and handle the local newscasts. (Today, many radio stations are 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, that interest in public issues began to erode. Today, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of radio stations in this country whose idea of transcendently important news is the latest on Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, and who couldn’t tell you the difference between John Bolton and Michael Bolton if you spotted them four clues. In the end, Monitor remains important because of its small-d democracy–and the way it lived up to Pat Weaver’s belief 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

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4 responses

  1. From your description, “Monitor” sounds a lot like the programming at financially shaky NPR. I’ll have to check out the sound bytes at the tribute page… Dave P.

  2. Well, sort of like NPR, but in smaller bites. Kind of like a DJ show, except instead of playing records all the time, they’d play a three-minute news feature or run a sportscast or have Bob and Ray do a bit.

    More egalitarian, too. Instead of trying to talk about and play music that’s hipper-than-thou (I’m talkin’ to you, Liane Hanson), they’d play Sammy Davis Jr.

  3. […] during, their TV runs. Gene Rayburn, famed host of Match Game, was hosting weekend shows on the old Monitor service all the while he was on […]

  4. Jeff Missinne | Reply

    Monitor was great radio and great fun to listen. They hopscotched across the country (or around the world) for spot reports where sports or other events were happening (for some weird reason I have vivid recollections of their coverage of Evel Knievel’s canyon jump!), mixed with news and a music blend of the light side of the top 40 with the uptempo side of MOR music; and with personality and more personality. It had style and class missing from today’s radio.

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