Although NBC's first President Merlin Aylesworth made significant advances establishing the network, much of this review is highly exaggerated. Some is patently false -- for example, the Queensborough Corporation commercial was broadcast over WEAF in 1922, four years before NBC was even formed, Pepsodent approached NBC about establishing Amos 'n' Andy, not the other way around, and so forth.
An original scan of this article is located at the Old Time Radio Researchers Group.
Radio Stars, January, 1934, pages 32-35, 91:
THE SAGA OF N B C
THE ADVENTURE OF THE MAN WHO YANKED RADIO OUT OF OBLIVION AND MADE IT YOUR SERVANT
By George Kent
IN THE YEAR 1926 Radio was ready to mount its little kilocycle and ride away into the night. The excitement, the novelty was over. And there was nothing to take its place. Nothing--zero! Radio was through!
People were still buying a few radios. But folks who had owned them a month or more were clipping the aerials. Set owners from coast to coast were toting them up to the attic, leaving them there between the lotto game and grandpa's mustache waxer. Radio was outward bound, going the way of mah jong, pogo sticks, diabolo and jigsaw puzzles.
Then--flash! Out of nowhere Radio crashed through the waves in the most dramatic episode of its career. Its greatest moment. On November 15th of that year, the National Broadcasting Company came on the air for the first time-and yanked Radio back from oblivion.
It's only eight years ago and many of you may remember the program. Graham McNamee was the announcer. He spoke into a WEAF mike, hung, if you please, in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria. Everybody in Who's Who was there! Radio had come a long distance from the day when studios were squeezed into cloakrooms or at the junk ends of factory buildings.
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen . . ." said Graham when the white light flashed. Historic words! Thirty-six hundred miles of telephone wire carried his greeting to nineteen stations extending as far west as Kansas City, thence out over the air to 10,000,000 listeners. If you were one of them you must remember your excitement when he introduced Mary Garden, singing from Chicago; and then Will Rogers, doing a monologue from Independence, Kansas. These great swoops of radio, commonplace today, were brand new in 1926. This, you and the rest of us decided, was romance adventure, a new world. And on that day broadcasting gave the coffin a kick and came to life.
The muscle behind the kick was a man, a minister's son named Merlin Hall Aylesworth. When he was made president of NBC he didn't know a dial from a file. When he spoke into the mike he got the jitters. He squeaked and blasted, made an awful impression. He does lots better now.
That night at the Waldorf, Aylesworth, who operates on nine or ten cylinders more than most human beings, was in the pantry with Weber and Fields. These famous comedians were so scared they could barely talk. Aylesworth was there telling them funny stories, scratching their heads, doing backflips--trying to make them laugh so that they could go on the air and make millions of listeners laugh. He succeeded, they clicked. It's an old Aylesworth custom.
Radio was on its way! But there was a big job to do. Radio was a menagerie of stations clawing the air for as much time, wave length and air possible. A free for all! The loud speakers were full of spaghetti. First job of Merlin, the magician: Iron out the air. Line up the stations. Clear the tracks. Give the listener a break. He walked, he rode, he drove, he flew. He had nineteen stations basted together that night of November 15th. A year later he had forty-eight sewed up.
The station question fixed for the moment, he gave his attention to programs. Aylesworth puts on his hat, calls on theatrical producers, bites his nails like a schoolboy. What makes people laugh? What makes them cry? He pleads for advice What makes listeners listen? But nobody seems to have the answer. Take a chance, they suggest. Try everything. Experiment. It comes home to Aylesworth that he is operating in virgin territory. It's up to him to do the pioneering.
January, 1927. NBC is not yet two months old. But Aylesworth has crossed the Rockies. A microphone is in the California sun. An announcer in shirtsleeves reports the Rose Bowl game between Leland Stanford and Alabama. Shivering occupants of New England and North Dakota farmhouses hear for the first time a coast to coast report of a football game.
Thousands of letters pour in. Approval from his people. This is what they like. All right, we'll give them more just like it. Radio stunts don't happen, they have to be planned far in advance. All through January, and most of February they plan for President Coolidge's Washington Birthday broadcast. Where shall we place the mikes, who will be the announcers, how many stations . . .? Countless questions find countless answers. And the President reaches 20,000,000 over a forty-three station hookup.
The carbon mike--in use in those days--is a bad actor. Spoils good broadcasting. Memos to the engineering department: Work on the mike. Hire experts. Improve it. Make it more reliable. Today, there are mikes for every purpose.
Aylesworth calls on Otto Kahn, lord of the Metropolitan House. The minister's son wants grand opera for his millions. He argues and loses. Back to his office, but not black with discouragement. There are other opera companies almost as good. When does the next plane leave for Chicago? He grabs it and a day later he arranges the first broadcast of grand opera. In late January, the arias of Faust flow into sheet-iron shacks and under leaking roofs from coast to coast for the first time--broadcast from the stage of the Civic Auditorium in Chicago.
Radio has to stand on its own feet, must pay for itself. No British system for America under which every set owner is taxed so much each year. How about advertising? He sends a salesman to an advertising agency. Pooh, says the agent. Pooh yourself, says the salesman. The upshot: The Queensborough Corporation goes on the air for fifteen minutes. The first advertiser in radio! Hundreds of letters reach the corporation. Proof that the air is worth money. Radio advertising has arrived.
The Goodrich Tire people follow with the Silvertone Band and their masked tenor. Aylesworth has another idea. He charges out of the office into the street. Up he goes to a building, hurdles clerks, office boys and secretaries and at last stands before the power behind Pepsodent. No, says the power. Yes, says Aylesworth. And yes it is. Yes to Amos and Andy. And this pair begin their march into the hearts of the radio public.
Another day he bags General Motors. No without sleepless nights and long planning. He spins a web for Lucky Strike and last year's Metropolitan Opera broadcasts were paid for with cigarette money.
What to do next? It is 1927. Radio must advance along three fronts. It must go ahead technically. It must pay for itself. Most important of all it must maintain a high entertainment standard. Millions are homeless because of the floods in the Mississippi Valley. Money, clothes and food are needed. It is an opportunity for Radio to perform a real public service. Secretary of Commerce Hoover comes to the mike and broadcasts an appeal. An appeal heard by the greatest audience in history. The response is overwhelming.
Lindbergh flies the Atlantic. He turns homeward A reception huger than anything hitherto imagined is planned for him. Radio must be there. Aylesworth and his engineers conspire. Six mikes are scattered along the line of march, at the White House, at the Cupola, at the station on Pennsylvania Avenue, other places. Set owners in Wyoming applaud with the onlookers. Three days later the same thing is repeated in New York City.
The Peace Bridge over Niagara is dedicated in August and the NBC mikes catch and share with the nation the voices of the Prince of Wales, Prince George, Premier Baldwin, Vice-President Dawes and Al Smith. Dempsey and Tunney go into the ring at Soldiers' Field in Chicago. Graham McNamee sits by the ringside, mike to his face. He sends the blows out on the air as fast as they are delivered.
The year comes to a close. Aylesworth examines the result. Money earned through advertising: $3,760,000. Still in the red, but not bad for a beginning.
Politics crashed through in 1928. The air is yours, says Aylesworth to all political parties. Democratic and Republican conventions on the air. The listeners hear Franklin D. Roosevelt at Houston, Texas, put Al Smith's name in nomination. They hear him described as "the happy warrior," a name he will always bear.
A Democrat complains that NBC shut him off the air in the midst of a speech denouncing the Republicans. Aylesworth laughs and investigates. It's true the wire was cut--but not by NBC. Three boys hunting a length of wire for a chicken coop did the clipping.
Norman Thomas, Socialist candidate for Governor comes to the NBC president. He lays his speech on the table to be censored. Aylesworth throws it back at him. "You can tear up the speech, so far as I am concerned. Go on and speak whenever you are ready."
Son of a Protestant minister, Aylesworth sweats with his staff working out a solution to the religious problem. All denominations are welcomed. With two provisos. They must not try to make converts. They must not abuse another religion. Aylesworth himself overcomes the reluctance of the Catholics and brings Cardinal Hayes to the mike.
His father twinkles as he tells you: "I never dreamt that a son of mine would introduce the country's greatest Catholic to the radio public."
That year the Farm and Home hour and Walter Damrosch came to the mike. The number of stations has grown to fifty-six, a powerful harmonious network connected by 14,000 miles of wire. Aylesworth groans as he looks at the telephone bill: $2,000,000. As yet it is not possible to send the broadcasts from station to station by wireless. But the income from advertising is up, almost to $9,000,000.
In comes cyclonic 1929, year of stunts and technical advance for NBC. Aylesworth, looking yearningly across the sea, cranks up the engineering department. In February, they are ready. Stand by. There is a silence. Nobody believes it is possible. They wait pessimistically. Then clearly comes a British voice from Queen's Hall, London, a symphony orchestra. International broadcasting has been brought to the American people by NBC.
The following month Hoover mounts the White House steps. Bill Lynch, aloft in an airplane, armed with a portable transmitter, flies over the line of march, reporting the inauguration. Thirty million listeners heard him talk to Graham McNamee stationed on Pennsylvania Avenue, Milton Cross on the steps of the Capitol, John Daniel on the White House steps. It's old technique now but it was shiny new in 1929. Then came the inauguration with three presidents at the mike: Hoover, Taft and Coolidge.
THAT year Floyd Gibbons, transmitter strapped to his body, crawls around on the Graf Zeppelin, telling NBC listeners what he sees. Buddy Bushmeyer, mike in his teeth, jumps from an airplane and as his parachute opens up recounts his impressions. The Schneider Cup races in England come through perfectly and Christmas brings carols and greetings from Germany, England and Holland.
With the year 1930 came no let-up, but it was plain that Radio had entered a new era. The rough pioneering was over. Three years of almost superhuman effort had laid a solid foundation from which broadcasting could grow. In these years the prestige of broadcasting was established. In 1930 even the Pope capitulated, breaking the Vatican's century old silence to ad dress America over the NBC networks. But he was the last. The mike had captured all others of any distinction--captains and kings and convicts.
The exploration of life and the world was still going strong, but employing a technique and proceeding on a momentum imparted by the NBC President. Portable mikes had gone down in submarines, in diving bells; they had caught the shot fired at Roosevelt, the tales yammered from the lips of Morro Castle survivors. Symphony orchestras and grand opera were routine.
Technically, broadcasting had advanced beyond all dreams. The great system of stations, coming in and out of the trunk-line broadcast, operated with the split second precision of a railroad. Delays were no more. The mike grew daily more sensitive. The objective of engineers was to make the system, from the technical point of view, as fool-proof as possible. And they have succeeded.
Financially, it was becoming self-sufficient. In the last few years, it has paid all of its enormous expenses--which, brother, is saying a great deal!
For Aylesworth, gazing in his mind's eye out over the web of eighty-seven stations spun out of his own vision and great energy, broadcasting is at the beginning of its power. These eight years have seen the construction of the machine. The machine for bringing song, story and wisdom to millions. Henceforth, the machine will go forward--in the direction of perfection and high quality, possibly to give greater emphasis to education.
Television is but one of many fantastic possibilities the future holds for NBC but whatever it is, Aylesworth will be there with his Merlin touch to give it all the quality of a thoroughbred performance.
Bruce Barton wrote that ministers' sons do one of the three things: one third of them end in obscurity; another third, get along fairly well; and the final third rule the world. This minister's son is apparently of the last third. The people who work for him describe him as "just like radio." As quick, as precise, as powerful--as overwhelming!