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image courtesy Don Bayley

From The Airwaves of New York
by Bill Jaker, Frank Sulek, Peter Kanze

WCBS dates to 1924 as a 500 watt station at 920kc founded by Alfred H. Grebe, an early manufacturer of radio sets. At its peak Grebe's factory turned out one-hundred-thousand radios a year. In 1925, WAHG ("Wait and Hear Grebe") at 950kc shared time on the dial with Gimbel's Department Store, WGBS. WAHG carried the commentary of Brooklyn Eagle editor H.V. Kaltenborn. Among the early announcers was George D. Hay, who later helped to create the "Grand Ole Opry" at WSM, Nashville. By 1926, Grebe's Atlantic Broadcasting Company changed its call letters to WABC, setting up studios at Steinway Hall on West 57th Street. In 1928, WABC became the New York affiliate of the fledgling Columbia Broadcasting System. In that year, Columbia's president, William S. Paley, bought WABC for $390,000. It would confuse later generations that the flagship CBS station was called WABC, but its parentage is clear; the American Broadcasting Company would not exist under that name until the mid-1940s.

At the end of World War II the Columbia Broadcasting System's New York "flagship" was still called WABC, a remnant of its origin as A.H. Grebe's Atlantic Broadcasting Company. The media giant [CBS] felt uncomfortable bearing the letters of a new rival network. After much negotiation it reached an agreement with a station in Springfield, Ill. (an ABC affiliate), to give up call letters it had used since 1927, and WABC became WCBS.

Alfred H. Grebe was the quintessential "radio Boy." Born in 1895, he built his first wireless set at the sage of nine, was a maritime operator at age fifteen, and was manufacturing his own equipment before be was twenty years old. His first "radio Shack" was actually an old henhouse; the neighbors called his antenna "Grebe's pole." In 1922, Grebe (rhymes with "Seabee") razed his family home (and henhouse) on Van Wyck Blvd. and Jamaica Avenue in Richmond Hill, Queens, to construct a large radio factory on the site. At its peal, the plant turned out one hundred thousand radios a year. Grebe Synchrophase receives were among the best of their time and are prized today by collectors of antique radios.

Grebe originated one of America's first political campaign broadcasts, a 1921 speech by New York mayoral candidate John Hylan from the experimental transmitter in Richmond Hill. To guarantee an audience, receivers were loaned to Democratic clubhouses around the city. A.H. Grebe and Company developed a respected research laboratory, built the wireless equipment for Admiral Richard Byrd's Arctic expedition, and went into the broadcasting field.

WAHG ("Wait and Hear Grebe") was the principal Grebe station. Its share-time partner was Gimbel's WGBS, which occupied 950kc for most of the broadcast day. WBOQ -- the call letters stood for "Borough of Queens" -- was a secondary transmitter in Richmond Hill, which for a while was programmed separately from WAHG. There was also a 100-watt mobile unit installed in a Lincoln sedan operating on 63 meters shortwave with the call WGMU, as well as the maritime transmitter WRMY aboard the yacht MU-1. Among the pioneering events and horse races (the later service was said to have ruined business for some bookies).

In 1925 WAHG carried the commentary of Brooklyn Eagle editor H.V. Kaltenborn direct from the newspaper's own studio. Among the early announcers were George B. Hay (who later went to the Nashville and created the "Grand Ole Opry") and a sixteen-year-old named Nancy Clancy.

Sunday, 17 January 1926
11:55 A.M. Time signals, weather
12:03 P.M. Grebe Matinee Trio
Off for WGBS
7:30 Maude Mason, piano; vocal duets; Synchrophase Trio; H.J. Taylor, recitations
9:30 "The Land of the Pharaohs," Maj. D. Atkinson
9:45 Jean McGregor, soprano
9:53 Time signals; weather
10:03 Jean McGregor, soprano
10:20 Zimmerman's Orchestra
12:00 Utopia Orchestra
12:30 Ukulele Bob MacDonald

Not surprisingly, WAHG had one of the clearest signals among early stations in the New York area; its first 5,000-watt transmitter was referred to as "super-power" (it operated with only 2,500 watts at night). WAHG was a leader in the industry at a time when broadcasting seemed imperiled by rapid technical change and lax regulation. A.H. Grebe took a bold step in 1926 and reorganized his broadcast operations as the Atlantic Broadcasting Company, moved the studios from Richmond Hill [Queens] to Manhattan, had the call letters changed to WABC, and developed what would become one of America's most important radio stations.

[As noted above] The Alfred H. Grebe Radio Company of Richmond Hill put a secondary transmitter, WBOQ, on the air after five months after its primary broadcasting station, WAHG, began operation. In the fall of 1928, the Atlantic Broadcasting Company was sold to the fledgling Columbia Broadcasting System. WBOQ was in the package with CBS affiliate WABC; the call letters were officially hyphenated as WABC-WBOQ. The FCC eliminated dual call letters in 1940. For more details about WBOQ refer to The Airwaves of New York.

A.H. Grebe's Atlantic Broadcasting Company changed call letters from WAHG to WABC following an agreement with the Asheville Battery Company station in North Carolina. The new WABC set up studios in the seventeenth-floor penthouse of Steinway Hall at 113 W. Fifty-seventh Street (a thoroughfare that would act as New York's first "Broadcast Row") and begin operation as a "toll broadcaster." It also was heard on shortwave through station W2XE at 58.5Mc. The secondary transmitter, WBOQ, was relicensed. In all, it was a very impressive operation that was well-publicized with one of New York radio's first printed logos.

It was Grebe's hope to expand the Atlantic Broadcasting Company into a network operation, now that NBC has shown the way. But in September 1928, an opportunity arose that would make this station one of the major players in radio history. The Columbia chain did not own an outlet in New York. Its local affiliate was Bamberger's WOR, which was sure it could produce local programs of equal quality. When WOR refused to clear additional time for the CBS network, WABC stepped in to become the second affiliate, a move it hoped would justify a power increase. For a few weeks in 1928, WABC was the CBS station on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday, with WOR carrying the network on the other four days, but soon WOR dropped CBS completely.

In November 1928, Columbia offered to buy either of its New York area affiliate, and President William S. Paley negotiated with both Grebe and Bamberger. WOR's facilities were superior, but Paley chose the less-expensive WABC, and in December [1928] the Atlantic B broadcasting Company became a subsidiary of CBS. The sale price was $390,000, though the appraised value of the studios and transmitter was just $130,000. Grebe had apparently let the WABC studios go to seed, for Paley reported a mess on the seventeenth floor of Steinway Hall. Among the assets were goods accepted as payment from sponsors; jewelry, kitchenware, and reportedly even some live chickens.

Until that transaction the Columbia Broadcasting System was merely a program service providing entertainment features to a string of stations connected by an AT&T line. With the purchase of WABC, CBS itself was on the air.

In July 1929, CBS and WABC moved into six floors of a new building at 485 Madison Avenue. The network would eventually occupy the entire building as well as across the street and various other locations around town. The local station was a very small part of this expanding empire. Shortwave station 2XE relayed all of WABC's programs to a worldwide audience.

The CBS contract provided affiliates with unsponsored programs free of charge all day long with the understanding that they would clear the time for all sponsored shows. It made sense for WABC to carry a good portion of the network feed. Soon programs of purely local interest -- including a few ethnic broadcasts aimed at Jewish and African-American listeners -- were displaced by enjoyable but undisguinished hours of music and talk for the national audience. Some of these, such as Rudy Vallee's program, had been on the local WABC schedule earlier, but the Columbia network soon added new national performers to its fold: Bing Crosby, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Kate Smith, "Street Singer" Arthur Tracy, plus such irresistables as "Buck Rogers in the XXV Century." It was no surprise that WABC became one of the city's most popular stations and 485 Madison one of the nation's most important production centers.

As radio's news-reporting developed, CBS made a major effort to become "The News Network." There were as many newscasts as radio-newspaper agreements would allow and new analysis by the first generation of CBS commentators, including H.V. Kaltenborn, Elmer Davis, and Edwin C. Hill. "The World Today" brought in reports via shortwave from overseas news centers -- a radical invention for the time. All this news enhanced the value and prestige of CBS, but it added little in the way of local news in the New York area.

At 10:00 P.M. on Saturday, 2 November 1946, WABC changed its call letters to WCBS.

[New York's oldest call letters vanished overnight at the end of April 1953 when WJZ signed off and returned the next morning as WABC. This also marked the reappearance of letters that had identified the city's CBS station for nearly twenty years, which didn't seem to bother anyone. For details about the transition from WJZ to the "current" WABC refer to The Airwaves of New York.]

Most CBS production in New York at that time was destined for the network. WCBS didn't even have a local news department. Metropolitan reports were prepared by network news writers; WCBS staffers sourly commented that if someone were shot on the sidewalk in front of 485 Madison Avenue, news personnel looking out the window would run to the teletypes to learn what happened. Network brass recognized this deficiency. At the end of 1945 CBS hired a recently discharged U.S. Navy radioman named Bill Leonard to lead into Arthur Godfrey's Washington-based wakeup show with an offbeat local public-affairs and feature program. At first, the 6:00 A.M. "This Is New York" reported to the waking city on events that had transpired overnight -- often a melange of interviews from bars and police stations -- and there was an afternoon edition that attracted listeners and further exhausted Leonard and company. "This is New York" was both softened and sharpened and was rescheduled for once a day at 9:00 A.M. But it never lost its way, finding "the feel and smell of the city." Interview guests ranged from Harry Truman to Tennessee Williams (who mumbled through an interview after Leonard had just panned his newest play).

"This is New York" would remain on the WCBS lineup for seventeen years, capping its run as part of the evening schedule. It was one of the first first programs to take wire and tape recorders into the field. Among the memorable features was "The Other Fellow's Shoes," in which Bill Leonard (who would go on to become president of CBS News) brought listeners the day-to-day life of an elevator operator or window washer. There were also solid documentary reports on subjects like drug addiction. In the best CBS tradition, it was an authoritative and craftsmanlike hour and an affectionate reflection of both extraordinary and everyday life "here in New York."

In March 1949 the CBS network passed NBC to lead the national ratings.

When [Arthur] Godfrey left the early-morning show in 1948 to concentrate on his network programs, he was replaced by Jack Sterling, then program director of CBS's Chicago station. WCBS also developed a lineup of literate afternoon talk shows, including author Emily Kimbrough and Texas storyteller John Henry Faulk (whose defense against black-listing during the "red scare" of the 1950s made legal history and brought that sorry episode to an end).

Singer Lanny Ross had a chat-and variety show in the 1950s. Galen Drake's "Housewives' Protective League" program was one of many local broadcasts of that title heard with other hosts on other CBS-owned stations. (The program was itself a separate division of CBS.) American Airlines' all-night program "Music Till Dawn" premiered on 13 April 1953. WCBS announcer Bob Hall was the model for hosts on that program around the nation

Network entertainment shows, including some of radio's most beloved soap operas, were canceled by the block in the early 1960s. WCBS continued to maintain a staff orchestra and programs hosted by vocalist Martha Wright and folksinger Oscar Brand.

WCBS tried to build up its local news coverage in 1955 by hiring WOR news director Dave Driscoll, who brought in newscaster Lou Adler and Westbrook Van Voorhis, the muscular voice of "The March of Time." In the mid-1960s, WCBS began an afternoon drive-time news-and-information program called "Up to the Minute," anchored by Adler and Kenneth Banghart. CBS Chairman William Paley was impressed by the program (and admired the all-news-and-information format that WINS instituted in April 1965) but was concerned about his flagship's otherwise low ratings. Despite management warnings to Paley that an all-news operation would lose $5 million dollars a year, "Up to the Minute" was the prototype for what would become "Newsradio 88." Joseph Dembo was hired away from NBC to develop a format that would build on CBS's respected world news operation and provide a service to the metropolitan area."At 4:21 P.M. on Sunday, 27 August 1967, the day before it was to start its continuous news service, WCBS found itself in the headlines when a light plane crashed into the High Island tower that it shared with WNBC. The news format was temporarily switched to WCBS-FM (which had to delay the premier of its "Young Sound"), and the AM signal returned weakly via WLIB's old transmitter and antenna in Astoria. (Stations can put aside rivalry in an emergency. WOR offered WCBS the use of its old Conelrad transmitter in Carteret, N.J.) Two weeks later the High Island site was back in operation at 10,000 watts into a temporary 200-foot tower; Newsradio 88 didn't reach 50kw. tell the end of the year.The original anchors at Newsradio 88 included Lou Adler, Robert Vaughn, and Steve Porter from Philadelphia, former WMCA "Good Guy" Jim Harriot, and ABC newsman Charles Osgood. Sportscaster Pat Summerall -- who had replaced Jack Sterling on the wakeup show in 1966 -- reported sports in the morning; Harvey Hauptman reported in the evening.

But it was still "all news, part of time" until WCBS canceled Arthur Godfrey's weekday variety show. "Music Till Dawn" played its last record at dawn on Sunday, 4 January 1970. Fittingly, the record was the series theme song, "That's All," composed by WNEW deejay Bob Haymes in a haunting arrangement by the Sy Mann Orchestra. Although WINS had been all-news for nearly five years and frequently led WCBS in the ratings, Paley's gamble with Newsradio 88 seemed to pay off. The only discrete program to remain was "Let's Find Out," a Sunday discussion slot that had premiered in 1956.

While Newsradio 88 might provide a constant flow of news and information the service is actually formatting as tightly as events permit. According to Harvey Hauptman [retired staffer], anchoring Newsradio 88 was not unlike disc-jockeying, demanding than an announcer always be alert to breaking news and a few steps ahead of live feeds, newsroom cues, and commercial breaks, all the while operating the control console.

WCBS has usually been ranked number two in the all-news ratings, only occasionally coming in ahead of its Westinghouse rival WINS. In 1995, Westinghouse and CBS merged, and New York's two all-news stations continue to compete under the same corporate leadership [now Viacom].

© McFarland & Co. 1998. Adapted from The Airwaves of New York by permission.

- Transcript of co-author Frank Sulek's speaking engagment about The Airwaves of New York on September 16, 2000 at Frank Croft's Web Site.

- Listen to a nearly thirty-minute mp3 broadcast with co-authors Bill Jaker, Frank Sulek, and Peter Kanze on WNYC-AM, host Leonard Lopate. 11/20/98 (29:26). The Airwaves of New York.

- Purchase The Airwaves of New York from McFarland Publishers.

- For an online history of WCBS, with additional detail, from Jim George, go to: New Jersey, NY, Philly History Pages

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