Wednesday, June 21, 2017


This is a slightly edited version of a post the first appeared on Friday, June 3, 2016. It is one of our most popular stories. Ken.

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 failures in American radio history. What happened to the 24/7 News and Information network that seemed to have so much promise?

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.


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 big idea that would turn the ship around.

ABC Radio had revolutionized the business of network radio when, in 1968, 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 and ad revenue.

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 at the time didn’t even sign on until Noon.

Alan Walden
Thayer decided to turn the project over to Alan Walden, an old-school AM radio personality, who had great success running NBC’s WBAL-AM in Baltimore.

In 1975 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 NBC.


On February 10, 1975, The New York Times broke the news about NBC’s NIS 24/7 news network. I

t would make full use of the resources of NBC News in a new way: 24/7 continuous news and information.

At a news conference Thayer said NIS would provide affiliates with 50-minutes of programming every hour. 

Affiliates were required to pay $15,000 per month in the largest markets and $750 per month in the smallest markets. Plus stations were required to air commercials embedded in NIS programming. 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 members of the founding staff came from established AM powerhouses like 1010 WINS, WCBS and KNX.

Walden crafted a format clock (shown on the right) with something for everybody: Headlines, features, commentaries, vox pop and interviews, all sliced and diced into short chunks of time to 
fit into the program clock.

When NIS debuted on June 18, 1975, 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 carriage 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. 

(The Spring 1976 NIS carriage list is shown on the left.)

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 Stations, joined NBC in 1980 to market The Source, NBC’s service for AOR stations. 
People at The Source previously worked at NIS and told Denemark about technical faults of 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. Many of these station only used 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 at NBC.

NIS staff were told that NIS was cancelled from Dick Wald, then the head of NBC News, at an all-staff meeting. The meeting occurred the day after NIS had  covered the 1976 election, when Jimmy Carter was elected President.

After NIS folded, there was never another serious attempt by any commercial network to establish a 24/7 news service. In a few years, NBC left the radio news businesses entirely.


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 the 6:00pm hour in August 1976:


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.

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