The Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS) was an American radio network, in operation from 1934 to 1999. Of the four national networks of American radio's classic era, Mutual had for decades the largest number of affiliates but the least certain financial position. In the golden age of U.S. radio drama, MBS was best known as the original network home of The Lone Ranger and The Adventures of Superman and as the long-time radio residence of The Shadow. For many years, it was the national broadcaster for baseball's All-Star Game and World Series, and for Notre Dame football. From the mid-1930s and for decades after, Mutual ran a highly respected news service accompanied by a variety of popular commentary shows. Toward the end of its run as a major programmer, it introduced the country to Larry King.
For the first eighteen years of its existence, MBS was owned and operated as a cooperative, setting the network apart from its competitors: Mutual's members shared their own original programming, transmission and promotion expenses, and advertising revenues. On December 30, 1936, the Mutual Broadcasting System had affiliates from coast to coast when it debuted in the West. Its business structure would change after General Tire assumed majority ownership in 1952 through a series of regional and individual station acquisitions.
Once General Tire sold the network in 1957, Mutual's ownership was largely disconnected from the stations it served, leading to a more conventional, top-down model of program production and distribution. Not long after the sale, one of the network's new executive teams was charged with accepting money to use Mutual as a vehicle for foreign propaganda. The network was severely damaged, but soon rebounded. Mutual changed hands frequently in succeeding years—even leaving aside larger-scale acquisitions and mergers, its final direct corporate parent, Westwood One, which purchased it in 1985, was the seventh in a string of new owners that followed General Tire.
The three national radio networks already in operation—the Columbia Broadcasting System and the National Broadcasting Company's NBC Red and NBC Blue—were corporate controlled: programming was produced by the network and distributed to affiliates, most of which were independently owned. In contrast, the Mutual Broadcasting System was run as a true cooperative venture, with programming produced by and shared between the group's members. The majority of the early programming, from WOR and WGN, consisted of musical features and inexpensive dramatic serials. WOR had The Witch's Tale, a horror anthology series whose "hunner-an'-thirteen-year-old" narrator invited listeners to "douse all [the] lights. Now draw up to the fire an' gaze into the embers...gaaaaze into 'em deep!...an' soon ye'll be across the seas, in th' jungle land of Africa...hear that chantin' and them savage drums? WGN contributed the popular comedy series Lum and Abner. Detroit's WXYZ provided The Lone Ranger; the Western serial had been launched in 1933 and was already in demand. What WLW brought was sheer power; billing itself as "The Nation's Station," in May 1934 it had begun night broadcasting at a massive 500,000 watts, ten times the clear-channel standard.
On May 24, 1935, the network aired its inaugural live event—the first-ever night baseball game, between the Cincinnati Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies. In September, WXYZ dropped out to join NBC Blue, though contractual obligations kept The Lone Ranger on Mutual, airing three times a week, through spring 1942. The hole in the Detroit market was immediately filled by CKLW in Windsor, Ontario, just across the river. In October, the network began a decades-long run as broadcaster of baseball's World Series, with airtime responsibilities shared between WGN's Bob Elson and Quin Ryan and WLW's Red Barber (NBC and CBS also carried the series that year; the Fall Classic would air on all three networks through 1938). Mutual also broadcast its first Notre Dame football game that autumn, beginning another relationship that would last for decades. As an income-generating business, the Mutual network was a modest endeavor at the start: in the first eleven months of 1935, the cooperative garnered $1.1 million in advertising, compared to NBC's $28.3 million and CBS's $15.8 million.
In January 1937, ownership of WAAB was consolidated with that of another Boston station controlled by Shepard: WNAC was flagship of the Yankee Network, a circuit of New England radio stations whose membership partially overlapped with that of Colonial. The Texas Network soon added twenty-three more stations to the MBS affiliate roster. WGAR dropped out, but the United Broadcasting Company, part of the Cleveland Plain Dealer business, joined with its lead station, WHK. Within a few years, this new Ohio participant would become one of the network's central members, a shareowner in MBS. By the end of 1938, Mutual had 74 exclusive affiliates; though the two leading radio network companies discouraged dual hookups, Mutual shared another 25 affiliates with NBC and 5 with CBS. The total of 104 affiliates put Mutual not far behind the leaders. Because of the corporate strength behind NBC and CBS, however, and the fact that the lion's share of the most powerful stations in the country had already signed with them before Mutual's emergence (the exceptional, and soon departed, WLW aside), the cooperative network would be at a permanent disadvantage.
In April 1938, the network picked up The Green Hornet from former member WXYZ. Mutual gave the twice-a-week series its first national exposure until November 1939, when it switched to NBC Blue. (The series would return very briefly to Mutual in the fall of 1940). MBS also provided the national launching pad for Kay Kyser and His Kollege of Musical Knowledge; Kyser's enormous success at Mutual soon allowed his show to move to NBC and its much larger audience. By May 1939, MBS was broadcasting the Indianapolis 500. That autumn, Mutual won exclusive broadcast rights to the World Series. As described in a 1943 Supreme Court ruling upholding the regulatory power of the Federal Communications Commission, Mutual "offered this program of outstanding national interest to stations throughout the country, including NBC and CBS affiliates in communities having no other stations. CBS and NBC immediately invoked the 'exclusive affiliation' clauses of their agreements with these stations, and as a result thousands of persons in many sections of the country were unable to hear the broadcasts of the games." This was the first example given in the ruling of "abuses" perpetrated by the two leading broadcast companies.
Mutual also began building a reputation as a strong news service, rivaling the industry leaders in quality if not budget. The broadcasts of WOR reporter Gabriel Heatter from the Lindbergh kidnapping "trial of the century" in 1935, heard over Mutual, were highly regarded; Heatter soon had his own regularly scheduled newscast, aired nationally five nights a week. In 1936, also via WOR, Mutual began broadcasting the reports of news commentator Raymond Gram Swing, who became one of the country's leading voices on foreign affairs. In November 1937, conservative commentator Fulton Lewis Jr., heard five nights weekly from Mutual affiliate WOL, became the first national news personality to broadcast out of Washington, D.C.; he would remain with the network until his death almost three decades later. In 1938, Mutual started rebroadcasting news reports from the BBC and English-language newscasts from the European mainland. The network also began employing its own reporters in Europe as the continent headed toward crisis, including John Steele, Waverly Root, Arthur Mann, and Victor Lusinchi. Among these was Sigrid Schultz, the first accomplished female foreign correspondent to appear on American news radio.
Until January, 1940, six groups bore the expense of the network operation in varying degree: stations WGN and WOR owned all the stock of the corporation and guaranteed to make up any deficit; the Colonial Network in New England, the Don Lee System on the Pacific Coast, and the group of stations owned by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, participated in responsibility for running expenses. A new contract effective February 1, 1940, provides for contributing membership by all the above group[s] plus station CKLW in Detroit-Windsor. These groups now agree to underwrite expenses and become stockholders in the network.... An operating board for the network is comprised of representatives from each of these groups, together with additional representation appointed by other affiliated stations.
The new cooperative structure was also joined by the owners of WKRC in Cincinnati, which had replaced Mutual cofounder WLW in that market. The MBS corporation now had 100 shares, apportioned as follows:
|Don Lee Network||KHJ||25|
|Western Ontario Broadcasting||CKLW||6|
|Fred Weber||MBS general manager||1|
In 1941, WOR's official city of license was changed to New York. Within two years, the Colonial Network's affiliate roster and shares in Mutual had been fully absorbed into the Yankee Network by John Shepard III; WNAC was the sole flagship, WAAB having been moved to Worcester, in central Massachusetts, to avoid duopoly restrictions. With WBZ taking over the slot as the NBC Red affiliate in Boston, WNAC switched to Mutual. In January 1943, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the sale of the Yankee Network—with WNAC, its three other owned-and-operated stations, its contracts with 17 additional affiliates, and its Mutual shares—to the Ohio-based General Tire and Rubber Company.
Already by 1940, MBS was on a par with the industry leaders in terms of affiliate roster size. Still, because Mutual affiliates were mostly in small markets or lesser stations in big ones, the network lagged way behind in advertising revenue—NBC took in eleven times as much as Mutual that year. In 1941, the FCC, calling for NBC to divest one of its two networks, observed that the company "has utilized the Blue to forestall competition with the Red.... Mutual is excluded from, or only lamely admitted to, many important markets. On January 10, 1942, Mutual filed a $10.275 million suit against NBC and its owner, RCA, alleging a conspiracy "hindering and restricting Mutual freely and fairly to compete in the transmission in interstate commerce of nation-wide network programs. The FCC's Supreme Court victory in 1943 led to the sale of the Blue Network and Mutual dropping its lawsuit. These developments appear to have been of more symbolic than practical value to MBS—the transfer of the NBC Blue stations to the new American Broadcasting Company did little to help Mutual's competitive position. In 1945 it reached 384 affiliates, and by December 1948, Mutual Broadcasting was heard on more than 500 stations in the United States. But this growth did not reflect any ability on Mutual's part to attract leading stations from the corporate-controlled networks. Rather, the FCC had eased its technical standards for local stations, facilitating the establishment of new outlets in small markets: between 1945 and 1952, the number of AM stations rose from around 940 to more than 2,350. It was these new, relatively weak stations Mutual kept picking up. Though by now it had many more affiliates than any other U.S. radio network, for the most part they remained "less desirable in frequency, power, and coverage," as the Supreme Court had put it. For instance, in the postwar era CBS and NBC covered all of North Carolina each with only four stations. MBS needed fourteen affiliates to deliver comparable statewide coverage.
Late in the decade, there was a brief exploration into the idea of launching a Mutual television network, serious enough to prompt talks with MGM as a potential source of programming talent. The plans never got off the ground and Mutual thus became the only one of the "Big Four" U.S. radio networks not to start (and eventually be dominated by) a television network. While there was no Mutual TV network, this did not mean the group did not have an influence over commercial television's early development. The cooperative held the rights to a number of valuable radio properties that made the transition to the new medium, including two of the era's most popular variations on what would later become known as the tabloid talk show and "reality" programming: the crabby gabfest Leave It to the Girls and, in particular, Queen for a Day, which both started on Mutual radio in 1945. Referred to by some as a "misery show," Queen for a Day "awarded prizes to women who could come up with the most heart-stabbing stories told by the sick and the downtrodden.... On one show, a mother of nine requested a washing machine to replace one that broke when it fell on her husband and disabled him—and who, by the way, also needed heart surgery. In May 1947, a simulcast version began airing on the Don Lee system's experimental TV station in Los Angeles, W6XAO (later KTSL). It was a smash hit, and by the turn of the decade TV stations all along the coast were broadcasting it to high ratings. In the 1950s, Mutual would stare down NBC for four years as the mighty network sought to take control of the show.
In the field of entertainment, Mutual built on the incomparable success of The Shadow. WGN's The Theater of the Air, featuring hour-long opera and musical theater productions before a live audience, was broadcast for the first time in May 1940. By 1943, the weekly show was being recorded in front of houses 4,000 strong, gathered to see performances featuring a full orchestra and chorus. The Theater of the Air would run on Mutual through March 1955. Mutual provided an early national outlet for the influential, iconoclastic satirist Henry Morgan, whose show Here's Morgan began its network run in October 1940. Though The Lone Ranger moved over to NBC Blue in May 1942, within a few months Mutual had another reliable, and no less famous, action hero. The Adventures of Superman, picked up from WOR, would run on the network from August 1942 to June 1949. In April 1943, Mutual launched what would turn into one of its longest-lasting shows: debuting as The Return of Nick Carter and later retitled Nick Carter, Master Detective, it would be a network staple through September 1955. From May 1943 through May 1946, Mutual aired The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. An earlier incarnation of the show had run briefly on the network in 1936; a less starry version would return to MBS from September 1947 through June 1949. The Mysterious Traveler, a proto–Twilight Zone anthology series, aired every week on Mutual from December 1943 until September 1952.
In February 1946, MBS introduced a quiz show, Twenty Questions, that would run for more than seven years. In October, the detective series Let George Do It, starring Bob Bailey, launched as a Mutual/Don Lee presentation; it would also run into the mid-1950s. For two years, starting in 1946 as well, Steve Allen got his first network exposure on the Mutual/Don Lee morning show Smile Time, out of Los Angeles's KHJ. In February 1947, the religiously oriented Family Theater premiered; with frequent appearances by major Hollywood stars, the series aired on Mutual for ten and a half years. That March, Kate Smith, a major star on CBS since 1931, moved over to Mutual. During most of her initial run at the network, which lasted until September 1951, she had two distinct weekday shows, each 15 minutes long: Kate Smith Speaks, at noon, and Kate Smith Sings, later in the hour. The network gave an outlet to radio dramatist Wyllis Cooper and his highly regarded suspense anthology Quiet, Please, which ran on Mutual from June 1947 to September 1948. It also aired actor Alan Ladd's similarly lauded drama about a crime-solving mystery novelist, Box 13, which ran for precisely a year. Its 52 episodes, which aired every Sunday beginning August 22, 1948, were produced by Ladd's own company, Mayfair Productions.
Toward the end of 1950, the executors of the estate of Thomas S. Lee (the son of Don Lee, who had died in 1936) decided to liquidate the estate's interests in the broadcasting field. The Don Lee Broadcasting System, with its major station groups KHJ in Los Angeles and KFRC in San Francisco and its shares in the Mutual Broadcasting System, was sold to General Tire (which already had a stake in Mutual via its Yankee Network holdings). Around the same time, MBS acquired the television broadcast rights to the World Series and All-Star Game for the next six years. Mutual may have been reindulging in TV network dreams or simply taking advantage of a long-standing business relationship; in either case, the broadcast rights were sold to NBC in time for the following season's games at an enormous profit.
Early in 1952, General Tire purchased the Bamberger Broadcasting Service from R.H. Macy and Company. With the deal, General Tire acquired the WOR radio and TV stations and the rights to the name General Teleradio, under which the company merged its broadcasting interests as a new division (Bamberger had previously sold its TV station in the nation's capital, WOIC, to CBS and the Washington Post). Most importantly, as far as the future of the Mutual Broadcasting System was concerned, WOR's founding shares in the network, when added to the Yankee and Don Lee holdings, gave General Tire majority control of MBS. That same year, NBC began its attempts to win the television rights to Queen for a Day from Mutual. As a measure of the afternoon show's success, its audience at its new Los Angeles home, General Teleradio/Don Lee's KHJ-TV, was triple that of the city's six other stations combined. Mutual might not have had a TV network, but it controlled one of the most profitable properties in the early history of commercial television.
Mutual was at this point the largest U.S. radio network in affiliate numbers, by far—it had 560, almost three times as many as its most powerful competitors, CBS (194) and NBC (191). In 1955, General Tire expanded its media holdings by acquiring RKO Radio Pictures from Howard Hughes, only to close the movie studio a year and a half later (General Teleradio, renamed RKO Teleradio after the acquisition, would soon be known as RKO General). General Tire also decided to spin off its holdings in Mutual and sell it as a programming service even as it retained the stations that had given it control. Indeed, in 1956, General purchased a governing interest in yet another Mutual shareholder, Western Ontario Broadcasting, and its station in Windsor, CKLW. In July 1957, General Tire sold the Mutual Broadcasting business to a group led by Dr. Armand Hammer.
The network soon changed hands again: in September 1958, it was acquired by the Scranton Corporation. Scranton was under the control of the F.L. Jacobs Company, whose chairman, Alexander Guterma, envisioned a media empire uniting Mutual with another recent purchase, the Hal Roach movie studio. After being questioned by federal investigators in February 1959 about financial improprieties, Guterma stepped down. Mutual, by this point, was floundering. For some years it had been run by owners who were either uninterested (General Tire, Armand Hammer) or now, as a growing amount of evidence would show, criminal. Mutual was also confronted with the situation the entire industry was facing: major advertisers were abandoning radio for television. Commercial rates had been cut. Limited sponsorship packages had been introduced, in which an advertiser could back a show for an abbreviated period rather than an entire season—but there was no reversing the trend. The networks were left with the bills for an increasing number of nonsponsored programs, known as "sustaining" shows in the industry. The loss of mainstay advertisers was accompanied by what historian Ronald Garay describes as the "mass desertion of network radio talent, management and technicians for television.... [T]hese people were taking with them the programming that had popularized the radio networks.
Under its new chairman, Hal Roach Jr., F.L. Jacobs put Mutual into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In September 1959, Guterma, Roach, and Garland Culpepper, a Scranton Corp. vice president, were indicted for failing to register as "foreign agents"; they were charged with secretly accepting money from Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo that previous January in return for favorable coverage of the country and its government on Mutual news programs. It was never proven that Guterma, who was identified as the primary player on Mutual's side and pleaded no contest to the charge, actually fulfilled his part of the deal and arranged for slanted coverage. Nonetheless, the incident led to a reported 130 stations cutting their affiliation with Mutual. Whether precipitated by the scandal or not, among the stations cutting its ties with Mutual in 1959 was one of the network's two original flagships, WOR. Businessman Albert G. McCarthy, meanwhile, had taken over the network, arranging to settle its debts while seeking an owner interested in running it on an ongoing basis.
By the end of the 1950s, Mutual had forsworn original dramatic programming. Early in the decade, however, it picked up the adventure series Challenge of the Yukon, which had originated at MBS cofounder WXYZ in 1938 after the station's departure from the network. The show, subsequently renamed Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, ran on Mutual from January 1950 until its finale in June 1955. In 1950 as well, Mutual introduced radio listeners to adult science fiction with 2000 Plus, which first aired on March 15, almost a month before the premiere of NBC's similarly themed Dimension X. The Shadow's long run finally ended in December 1954. In November 1957, Mutual aired the final episodes of its last two remaining half-hour original dramatic shows, Counterspy and Gang Busters, both picked up from other networks earlier in the decade. It would be almost sixteen years before the network again aired a new dramatic series. In 1955, the famous comedy team Bob and Ray came over from NBC for a five-day-a-week afternoon show. Kate Smith returned in 1958 for her final radio series, which ran from January to August. Sports began to occupy an increasing portion of Mutual's schedule: the network began regularly airing a Major League Baseball Game of the Day, every day except Sunday. This expansion into daily sports programming would run well into the 1960s. While baseball's World Series and All-Star Game would go to rival NBC in 1957, MBS secured exclusive radio network rights the following year to Notre Dame football, which would remain a cornerstone for the rest of Mutual's existence.
In the spring of 1960, the 3M Company stepped in, purchasing Mutual and restoring much-needed stability to the operation. Despite the recent scandal, MBS still had 443 affiliates, easily the most of any network. By this time, as historian Jim Cox describes, both Mutual and ABC "had largely wiped their slates clean of most of their network programming—save news and sporting events and a few long-running features. This would characterize Mutual's essential approach for the next three and a half decades, through a further series of ownership changes.
In July 1966, 3M sold the network to a privately held company headed by John P. Fraim. The following month, after the death of Mutual stalwart Fulton Lewis Jr., his son Fulton Lewis III took over his Monday-to-Friday, 7 p.m. slot. When ABC Radio "split" into four demographically targeted networks on January 1, 1968, Mutual unsuccessfully sued to block the move. Four years later, under new president C. Edward Little, Mutual began its own niche programming services, taking advantage, like ABC, of the prevailing FCC requirement that all radio stations, of whatever primary format, regularly air news and public affairs (a responsibility that would be eliminated in the early 1980s). On May 1, 1972, the network launched the Mutual Black Network (MBN) and Mutual Cadena Hispánica (aka the Mutual Spanish Network); each provided 100 five-minute-long news and sports capsules a week, along with other programming. While the Spanish-language service would be short-lived, by 1974 MBN had 98 affiliates. It was eventually spun off and acquired by the Sheridan Broadcasting Corporation, leading to the creation of American Urban Radio Networks. Additional targeted services, such as the Mutual Southwest Network and Mutual Lifestyle Radio, followed from MBS.
On September 30, 1977, Amway bought the network. Soon after the purchase, Mutual began developing what would become the first nationwide commercial broadcast satellite network, leading to the end of decades of reliance on telephone lines for the broadcast industry's transmission capacity. In 1979, Amway purchased WCFL from the Chicago Federation of Labor to serve as Mutual's flagship. For the first time, the network that had been founded by radio stations directly controlled a station of its own, and in one of the country's largest markets. Mutual also reached its greatest number of affiliates that year—950. This was fewer than ABC, whose multipronged approach had proven very successful, but far in front of NBC and CBS. It appeared that Amway was ready to pose a major challenge to the industry leaders.
Westwood One, a major radio production company and syndicator—a budding network, in short—was looking to expand its operations. Westwood and Mutual were a good match: The demographics of Mutual affiliates tended to be adult; most of the stations that bought Westwood's programming, much of it in the pop music field, had substantially younger audiences. Mutual had the news operations that Westwood lacked. And there was Mutual's size; though down from its peak, it still commanded 810 affiliates, a strong second among the Big Four. In September 1985, Amway sold the network to Westwood One for $39 million. "It's a perfect fit," declared Westwood head Norman J. Pattiz. Referring to the united company's ability to give advertisers access to a broad demographic sweep, he called it "a classic case of two plus two equaling five. In 1987, the number got even bigger: Westwood One snapped up Mutual's long-time competitor, the NBC Radio Network, for $50 million. Mutual was now part of a much larger programming service, and its identity was slowly phased out. In 1993, when Larry King switched his radio show to the daytime a year before giving it up, the late-night call-in slot went to WCFL alumnus Jim Bohannon; within a few years, it was a Westwood One–branded show. Westwood One was itself taken over by Infinity Broadcasting in 1994. In a deal announced in June 1996 and completed that December, CBS's new parent company, Westinghouse, acquired Infinity for just shy of $5 billion. The direct descendants of the three original U.S. network companies had merged.
At this point, Mutual was little more than a brand name for certain news and sports programming provided by the new conglomerate's Westwood One division. Mutual and NBC Radio newscasters sat back to back in the Westwood One studio, the former main MBS facility in Crystal City, Virginia. In April 1999, Westwood One announced it was dropping the Mutual brand in favor of CNN Radio—yet another acquisition. A former member of the news team described the end: "Official time of Mutual Radio's death was Midnight 4/17/99. No tribute, no mention it was the last newscast...it just died. The Crystal City facility was closed in March 2001, and Westwood's primary operations were transferred to the CBS Broadcast Center in New York City.
As of 2007, some Westwood One programming can still trace its lineage directly to Mutual. Jim Bohannon remains on the air, hosting a call-in show tracing directly back to Herb Jepko's 1975 launch on MBS. A simulcast of TV's Larry King Live continues to run. Bohannon's staff also produces the Lars Larson Show and Bohannon's morning news magazine, America in the Morning. Country Countdown USA, founded as a Mutual program after the Westwood One purchase, still airs in its original form.
Mutual founding stations WOR and WGN now each have radio networks of their own. The WOR Radio Network syndicates general interest programs, while WGN's smaller Tribune Radio Network, a division of Tribune Broadcasting, broadcasts Orion Samuelson's farm reports and Chicago Cubs games. In addition, WLW syndicates many of its in-house hosts through its parent company, Clear Channel Communications.
Mutual Broadcasting System LLC, based in Spokane, Washington, uses the Mutual and Liberty names on its two stations, KTRW AM 970 Spokane, and KTAC FM 93.9 Ephrata, Washington. These stations have no connection with the original network. They present adult standards, nostalgia, and some Christian programming, using the Mutual name as part of their old-time radio branding.