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Thursday, June 19, 2003 02:20 pm

“The Last Great Radio Show”

You might not remember it--the show last aired more than 25 years ago--but for those who do recall Monitor the memories are vivid. Depending on the listeners, they'll cite the celebrity hosts, the improvised comedy sketches, or the nonstop flow of news, sports, and music. Most recall the theme--a series of beeps and tones known as the "Monitor Beacon"--hard to describe, but difficult to forget.

For nearly 20 years, from June 1955 to January 1975, Monitor was a weekend marathon on the NBC Radio Network. It was born out of desperation. In the mid-1950s, network radio--with its staples of series and soap operas--was withering under the onslaught of television. No one was sure of what would take its place, or even if the medium would survive.

Into this uncertainty stepped Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, the NBC programming genius who created Today, The Tonight Show, and other innovations that continue to influence TV. He turned his creative energies to radio and came up with Monitor. It was a huge roll of the dice. Had it failed, it almost certainly would have taken NBC Radio with it. But it didn't. Monitor was a hit.

Despite its success and considerable influence, Monitor's place in broadcast history has gone largely unnoticed. Now Dennis Hart has stepped in to remedy that slight. A veteran of 20 years in broadcast news and currently a communications instructor at California State University in Fresno, Hart turned his devotion to Monitor into the "Monitor Tribute Pages" Web site and, from there, a book Monitor: The Last Great Radio Show (Writers Club Press).

From a studio complex known as Radio Central in New York City, Monitor debuted on June 12, 1955, originally airing for 40 continuous hours each weekend, from early Saturday morning to midnight Sunday. Defying the tradition of timeslots, Monitor let the content determine the form. Realizing listeners were no longer inclined to set aside time for a particular radio program, Weaver designed a service that "caught" listeners whenever they happened to tune in. It was fast-paced enough that if one item didn't catch your interest, another one was on the way. The format allowed listeners to jump in anytime; they were sure to hear something interesting.

The show's format was widely imitated by many local stations, and NBC, for a time in the late 50s, even expanded Monitor to weeknights. It influenced everything from talk radio to a certain public radio program--yes, there are those who have compared Monitor to National Public Radio's All Things Considered. Longtime Monitor writer Charles Garment agrees with that, up to a point. "They call it All Things Considered? They don't have all the things that we considered 'all things.' We had music, we had everything."

Even some high-brow journals loved Monitor. After the show's demise, The Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television saidthe program "had that ants-in-the-pants mobility and immediacy of the American weekend it was designed to enlighten. . . . Monitor had the beginnings of something long needed in American life: a relaxed yet perspicacious criticism of the popular arts" through its mix of music, comedy, book, film, and theater reviews.

The wide variety of Monitor's hosts illustrates the shows far-reaching diversity. Most were from other NBC programs--Hugh Downs, Dave Garroway, Gene Rayburn (at 12 years, the longest-lasting host), Ed McMahon, and Bill Cullen, to name a few. News was presented by the likes of Frank Blair, David Brinkley, and Frank McGee, whose Sunday night Monitor in the early 1960s reviewed the week's top stories. There were actors (James Daly, David Wayne, and Barry Nelson), sportscasters (Mel Allen, Curt Cowdy, and Joe Garagiola), local New York radio personalities (Jim Lowe, Al "Jazzbo" Collins, Ted Brown, and "Murray the K" Kaufman), and comedians. Henry Morgan began on Monitor reviewing other radio and TV shows in his acerbic style and became the show's host. Bob and Ray, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Ernie Kovacs, and Jonathan Winters contributed witty and usually improvised comedy sketches.

Monitor itself evolved over the years. From its original magazine-style format in the 1950s, the show changed to three- and four-hour blocks of a feature-laden show overseen by a DJ. The program retained such a high caliber of material few local stations could have reproduced it.

But in the 1960s rock 'n' roll overtook the airwaves, and by the early 70s increasing numbers of NBC affiliates, even network-owned stations, refused to carry the show. To its credit, NBC tried just about everything to keep Monitor alive. It focused on contemporary music and teamed Don Imus with Wolfman Jack, tweaking the format, hoping to find something the network's stations would carry. Nothing worked. Monitor expired on January 26, 1975. Only about 120 stations, just under half of NBC's lineup, were carrying Monitor at the end, and most of these were in smaller cities.

Without Hart's determination, Monitor might well have remained an overlooked footnote in broadcast history. He wrote his master's thesis on Monitor and credits the show with inspiring him to pursue a career in broadcast news that took him to San Francisco, Detroit, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

When he started the Monitor Web site at www.monitorbeacon.com two years ago, he was unprepared for the overwhelming response. There, you can read more about Monitor and hear a little of what it sounded like. Dave Garroway interviews Marilyn Monroe. Frank McGee talks to Martin Luther King. You can also hear comedy bits by Nichols and May, Bob and Ray, and Kovacs, as well as a commentary by regular contributor Al Capp, newspaper cartoonist of Li'l Abner.

Monitor: The Last Great Radio Show is an interesting and entertaining history of a program that spanned two completely different eras in broadcasting. In the words of another Monitor host, Monty Hall, "This is what live radio is all about. [Monitor] should be carried by some network today instead of endless hours of talk, talk, talk--most of it angry nonsense."

You can now hear re-broadcasts of Monitor every Friday night from 10 to 11 p.m. EST on the Internet site of WALN Radio from Allentown, PA, at http://www.polkas.com/waln/.

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