Friday, June 3, 2016

THE INCREDIBLE TRUE STORY OF NBC’S 24/7 RADIO NEWS CHANNEL


NBC’s News and Information Service (NIS) began on June 18, 1975 with the boast “The Most Important Day in Radio History.” When NIS died eighteen months later, it was known as one of the biggest turds in American radio history. What happened to the 24/7 news network?

Common wisdom is that NIS failed because it “was ahead of its time” and was too expense, both of which are partially true.  According to a former NIS staffer who asked not to be named, NIS failed because of “Lack of imagination and poor execution.” Plus it sounded awful – “group-think” at its worst. (Scroll down to hear what NIS sounded like.)

Forty years later, NIS could have been a major news source that might have challenged NPR News.




THE NIS STORY
 
Jack Thayer
In the fall of 1974 NBC Radio was trailing the other big nets ABC, CBS and Mutual.  NBC’s O&O (Owned and Operated) FM stations were languishing. The radio division, run by Jack Thayer, needed a big new idea.

ABC Radio had revolutionized the business of network radio when, in 1969, they began feeding four different newscasts each hour designed for specific formats. At the time most radio stations carried network newscasts.  ABC’s bold move allowed them to quadruple its number of affiliates.

Thayer held brainstorming sessions to determine NBC’s next big thing. According to the former NIS staffer several scenarios were considered. One option, pushed by younger folks, was a live hourly version of Earth News, a counter-culture news service delivered to stations via scripts and transcription discs.

At that time FM listener penetration in many markets was beginning to top AM stations. NPR was just getting started; their only national news program at the time was a 90-minute version of All Things Considered. This was before Morning Edition – some NPR stations didn’t even sign on until Noon.

Alan Walden



In 1976 a 24/7 national news service was a new idea.  This was before CNN.  The model was local news & weather AMs such as 1010 WINS, KNX and KFWB. So NIS was breaking new ground and the eyes of the biz were on them.

Thayer decided to turn the project over to Alan Walden, an old-school AM radio personality, who was successful running WBAL-AM in Baltimore.




THE ROLL OUT OF NIS

On February 10, 1975, The New York Times broke the news about NBC’s NIS 24/7 news network that would make full use of the resources of NBC News. At a news conference Thayer said NIS would feed affiliates 50-minutes per hour of content. Stations would need to pay $15,000 per month in the largest markets, $750 per month in the smallest markets plus mandatory commercial carriage. Thayer predicted NIS would have affiliates in 75 of the top 100 markets.
Walden went to work building the NIS staff of over 200 people. Many of the founding staff came from AM news powerhouses like 1010 WINS, WCBS and KNX.

Walden crafted a format clock with something for everybody: Headlines, features, commentaries, vox pop and interviews, all sliced and diced into short chunks of time to fit in the tight clock.



When NIS debuted on June 18, 1976, it had fewer than 50 affiliates. Even some of NBC’s O&O FMs refused to carry it.  Many stations balked at the high cash fees and onerous commercial requirements. So NBC began marketing NIS as an updated version of Monitor, a weekend news service that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

By Spring 1976, most of the NIS affiliates were old beat up AM stations, many former Top 40 giants like KRUX in Phoenix, KUDL in Kansas City and WPOP in Hartford. The ratings weren’t great.

I looked up the Spring 1976 Arbitron ratings published by Duncan’s American Radio found on the American Radio History website [link], a truly amazing historical resource. At that time NIS was on 10 FM stations and 25 AM stations in rated markets.  Only 19 stations were in the top 100 radio markets.

There were also audio quality issues. Andy Denemark, now Executive VP for Programming at United States, joined NBC in 1980 to market The Source, NBC’s service for AOR stations. Some people at The Source previously worked at NIS and told Denemark about technical faults at NIS:

[NIS was] delivered on phone lines in those days... a 5k equalized line into major markets, a 3.5k un-equalized line into smaller towns. The high cost of those “webs” of wires (for which the phone company charged by mileage) was outrageous.

According to Arbitron, NIS stations had around 2,000,000 estimated weekly cumulative listeners. Most of them only used the NIS overnight. The end was in sight.

The New York Times reported on November 4, 1976, NBC had pulled the plug on NIS. There were fewer than 70 affiliated stations.  NIS had lost more than $20,000,000 (close to $400,000,000 in 2016 dollars).  Heads rolled.

UPDATE 9am  6/4/16: NIS staff found out they were :toast" at a staff meeting conducted by Dick Wald, then the head of NBC News, the morning after they covered the 1976 election.

The notion that the staff found out NIS was cancelled from the news wires is a mistaken urban legend.

After NIS folded, there was never another serious attempt at a commercial 24/7 news service. Now NBC is out of the radio news businesses.

WHAT NIS SOUNDED LIKE

As I said above, I think it sounded awful. Give a quick listen to a two-minute scoped version of NIS on WNWS-FM, New York, during afternoon drive in August 1976.  

UPDATE 2pm 5/3/15: According to Jim Farley, who was at NIS and now is at WTOP, this aircheck was afternoon drive.  However my source for the audio says it was a tape of the 6pm hour.


 Direct link:
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDXXqqo4_sc&feature=youtu.be

HYPOTHETICAL “WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN”

The following is completely conjecture.

The former NIS staffer (who did not want to be identified) mentioned that one alternative plan for what became NIS was to create an alternative news service for Album Oriented Rock (AOR) stations.  Rock on FM in 1976 was becoming a major success. Stations like WNEW and WPLJ in New York, KMET and KLOS in LA and WXRT in Chicago dominated listening by folks under 40.  What if instead of an AM clone like NIS, NBC would have set up a specialized news service for AOR and other contemporary rock stations.

Suppose NBC had decided to bring in programming folks who understood the potential for FM news to reach younger listeners with a more modern presentation style and sensibility. In 1976 key creators of NPR such as Jim Russell and Jay Kernis were guns for hire.  Both had worked in commercial broadcasting and both new how to do a start up with a lean budget.

Suppose they attracted the best and brightest young reporters and storytellers.

Suppose it was still in business when MSNBC got a life in the mid 2000s.

Suppose Rachel Maddow (a seasoned radio vet with Air America) did a TV, online and FM simulcast truly using the resources of NBC News. I think it would have worked.

16 comments:

  1. I recall hearing NIS on WRC in DC. The need to share the distribution lines with the primary network resulted in this somewhat ridiculous situation: When NBC news sought to broadcast a bulletin, the "all news" station would have to "stand by" and the NIS announcer vamp -- "we interrupt our continuous news coverage to await this special bulletin from NBC News"

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  2. Ken, enjoyed your NIS review. Only serious air check I remember making on NIS was the fall of '76 when I was visiting in Palm Springs. That market had an affiliate, and as a news-junky I listened many hours every day. I remember the audio was a "from the broom closet" sound...........a problem most networks had in those days, with telephone line delivery. Our listening habits weren't used to that much information, all the time, in that era.......but if you loved Monitor and liked to keep up on info.....the NIS was a nice choice. I've often thought back to that concept, as we find stations "hunting" for unique formats in today's radio environment. Thanks for the thoughtful piece.

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  3. Lots of inaccuracies here. I was there from the beginning to the end. One example:
    "According to Denmark the NIS staff found out they were “toast” WHEN IT CAME OVER THE WIRES. Ugh." Wrong. The announcement was made in the NIS Newsroom by NBC News President Dick Wald. ---Jim Farley

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  4. That "scoped" version of NIS was definitely not afternoon drive. This sounds like overnights. Drivetimes and other weekday hours had dual anchors. ---Jim Farley

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  5. Thanks to Jim Farley! I posted his corrections as updates in the story.

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  6. I was a regular fan of NIS (via WNWS-FM New York) and used the various sounders to keep track of my schedule. I got to know certain jingles, promos and rejoiners based on where was was on my way to college (from my home in Roslyn,NY to Garden City, NY). I liked the concept, it was a departure from 1010 WINS and WCBS NewsRadio 88. I agree, had NBC given it a bit more time and thought, it would have been another CNN, but for radio.

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  7. I believe NIS was ahead of its time. The daytime quality if content was outstanding. I was a radio news director of a traditional AM station carrying NBC, but monitored NIS for hours at a time in the Newsroom. The staff quality was high and the presentation excellent. Better signals-and more of them--coupled with marketing money, might have turned the corner. NIS was a well kept secret to most of the nation.

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  8. There's a lot here to chew on. Much of it ridiculous. The quote "biggest turds in American radio history" should really destroy any credibility of the article to start with. Who the hell writes something like that? Compared to what? The 3 stations that signed up for ABC's SuperJock format that folded the Friday before it was supposed to go on the air? Ed Wynn's Amalgamated Broadcast System, the network that folded in 5 weeks? A turd, by nature, is shitty. NIS wasn't. The quality of NIS, where I was a weekend and substitute anchor, was amazing. Describing Alan Walden as old-school and only mentioning WBAL instead of the industry leading and award wining newsrooms at WNEW and WNBC is disingenuous on a good day. As for the sound, it was equal to all network broadcasts at the time, and yes, in just a few years after RKO pushed everyone to jump into satellite broadcasting it would have sounded a hell of a lot better.
    The idea that going young would have been better is just ignorant. Having been the first anchor hired at ABC News to change ABC-FM News from beautiful music sounding to AOR rock youth oriented I know the trajectory of that all too well. It would have worked for a few years but as the FCC allowed stations to drop news requirements it would have met the fate of NBC's The Source and other young news formats in that it would have lacked clearance and the low commercial inventory demands of FM music stations would have doomed affiliations. NIS really fell victim to a change in leadership at RCA that didn't like long range investments [they would have dropped TV early too. For a similar case history see SNC, The ABC-Westinghouse TV cable news channel that was killed because some idiot thought only one such channel could make money] and the usual problem with all 24/7 formats including music. Stations for the most part use such plug and play formats as a set it and forget it and did not build on it with local news. Also, as with so many such formats they did nothing to market it. I think only KQV in Pittsburgh really put in any sort of effort. As for people finding out from the wires it was over, maybe if someone was away at the time [remember it was before cell phones, e-mails, texts and the internet] but I got calls both from Alan Walden and Jo Moring, so that claim just wasn't true for the vast majority of us who were proud to be any part of NIS.

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  9. I loved working at NIS (Jim Farley hired me). There was one other technical issue that helped kill it. Just as the net was about to break 100 affiliates - rumor had it that Westinghouse was going to join us - NABET went on strike. Engineering was critical to our operation, and nobody but the engineers knew how to do it. So the quality we delivered to stations was dreadful. Also, I was not there when the shutdown was announced; I had worked on election coverage all night and was home in bed. But I was told that Dick Wald came to the newsroom and told the staff in person.

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  10. You never forget this stuff. NIS was a challenging but amazing experience for me as a journalist. I got to delve into topics in depth in ways no other radio format - including NPR would allow. We produced thirty part series on major public policy issues, case in point, "The Cost of the Campaign Promises" in which we analyzed the economic costs of the campaign pledges made by the candidates. No one did that. We did. And yes, I was the editor on the morning after election coverage when Dick Wald walked into the newsroom and tapped his clipboard on the producer's turret, saying something like, "Boys and Girls, last night NBC had the best radio coverage of an election since the advent of television. But NBC is getting out of the all-news radio business." And that was how it really went.

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  11. The original W-CAR AM 1130 in Detroit ran it for a time. That was before Hy Levinson, W-CAR's original owner sold it to Gene Autry's Golden West Broadcasters. If I'm remembering correctly, the late Cliff Mosley, who worked as a reporter at W-CAR when I started in September of 1977, had worked in New York at NIS, and told me it was before its time. W-CAR had to come up with their own news/talk format when the plug was pulled on NIS. It struggled, and then after Autry bought it, switched to an AC format where we struggled, eventually going Country hiring Deano Day and a couple former WDEE jocks with new calls as WCXI AM 1130 Country Pure 'n Simple. That worked well for a few years with good numbers. The news department stayed solid and won awards - some of the news people moving eventually to WWJ and WJR.

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  12. A few reasonable conjectures have been advanced to explain the short life of NBC, but failure cannot be attributed to the quality of service. Outstanding reporting was routine. Edward Brown, ex NIS staffer

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  13. Alan Walden is running as the Republican candidate for Mayor of Baltimore in the Fall election. I don't think a Republican has ever been elected Baltimore mayor in modern history.

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  14. You can download the full unscoped version of the WNWS-FM New York aircheck here:

    http://jeff560.tripod.com/sounds/wnws_aug_9_1976.mp3

    Sounds like overnights to me. The unscoped version of this aircheck includes a local weather break (at the 13:50 minute mark) which starts with; “And a pleasant good morning everyone”.

    You can’t really argue about the audio quality without knowing what kind of device the aircheck was recorded on. Obviously, there were reception issues creating some FM noise at the time of this recording. Did NIS originate from Rockefeller Center? Is it possible that WNWS-FM would have received a direct audio feed from upstairs?

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  15. I remember NIS in Norfolk over WKLX 1350 (later rebranded WNIS migrated to 790 AM) and retained all news format after demise of NIS. I was a teen who was obsessed with radio under the hood stuff. Was always taken back why it failed to catch on till i read this article. Yes - ahead of time. CNN tried Headline News feed -- but that eventually was pulled. I think radio is so "personal" and local that a national live feed that filled the hour would have challenges. For its time, I thought it was top notch NBC quality. FM News has only been a reality in past 10 years or less. Yes -- ahead of time. The fact NBC O & O's never bought in was definately a bad omen from corporate. It needed some big powerhouses (WMAQ, WNBC, WRC, KNBC, KPRC, KSD affiliates to help). Enjoyed this article and comments from insiders! Thank you.

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