WOR Turns 100. Maybe This Radio Thing Worked Out After All.
New York radio station WOR (710 AM) turns 100 on Tuesday, which isn’t bad in a business that’s supposed to be dead.
When television showed up in the 1950s and big stars from Lucille Ball to the Lone Ranger emigrated to a medium where they could be seen as well as heard, it was assumed radio had become obsolete.
Funny, it hadn’t.
Then a half century later, when the Internet showed up and started offering music on your computer and your phone, it was again assumed we would no longer want or need radio.
Funny, it feels like we still do, and a century of history at WOR provides a pretty good explanation why.
Some smart person, some years ago, described good radio as theater of the mind. From Edward R. Murrow’s World War II reports in London to WABC’s top-40 rock ’n’ roll to Howard Stern, Don Imus and the talk shows of today, that’s what it delivers.
You hear the words, or the music, and at those times when you’re actually listening, you’re part of what’s going on. You have to work a little harder with radio sometimes than with television. That’s good.
When the current WOR morning team of Michael Riedel and Len Berman start in on the topics of the day, it feels like they’re right there over your breakfast table or on your dresser or in your car or at your desk, talking with you.
The conversation has a different tone and content than it did when WOR first cracked a big old clunky carbon microphone on Feb. 22, 1922, but in many it’s the same dynamic. Remarkable as radio’s changes and adaptations over the last century have been, equally remarkable is the extent to which it has kept to its mission, providing the same human company now that it provided then.
For much of its life, to almost the end of the 20th century, WOR was perhaps the country’s best example of what was called full-service radio, programming something for almost everyone. That’s not the case now, since the expansion and fragmentation of media eventually nudged almost every radio station to specialize, which is why WOR today is a talk station — a format whose roots are linked strongly to, guess where, WOR.
Still, in the wider sense, most radio formats today sell the same thing they’ve always sold: entertainment. Talk radio today adheres to the same mantra as top-40 radio of the 1960s: Entertain the listener by playing the hits.
That’s a premise early radio learned quickly, realizing listeners would tune in for the likes of music, sporting events, celebrity interviews, scripted dramas and newscasts.
Full disclosure, however, WOR’s owners hadn’t thought that far ahead when they went on the air. All they wanted their radio station to do was sell radios.
The Roaring Twenties were kicking into gear, the war was over, technology was booming, and Bamberger’s department store in Newark was selling this new-fangled tech called a radio.
Early radios, like early phonographs, were considered furniture. Large and relatively expensive, they were showcase items with beautiful and graceful designs. In real American living rooms as in Norman Rockwell paintings, the family could gather around the radio after dinner and be entertained as if they had gone out to a theater or a music hall.
Bamberger’s boss Louis Bamberger, like several of his peers, calculated that the best way to sell radios was to start his own radio station, which could seduce potential customers by letting them hear what they could expect from their new purchase.
When Louis applied for the license from the U.S. Commerce Department, he requested the call letters WLB, for reasons that aren’t hard to ascertain. Alas, WLB was taken, so he got the random letters WOR, which had previously been assigned to the Orient Lines ship the S.S. California.
Starting a radio station wasn’t a big investment. The first WOR studio, in the sixth floor furniture department of Bamberger’s at 131 Market Street in Newark, measured approximately 15 square feet.
The station launched with Al Jolson’s recording of “April Showers,” and the first hosts were clerks in the furniture department, who would play some music and then go out on the floor and sell furniture, ideally including radios.
After a year or so, Louis Bamberger felt that the WOR promotion had been so successful he no longer needed a station to sell his radios, and he talked about shutting it down and giving the 15 square feet back to the furniture department. He was convinced by engineer Jack Poppele, among others, that this broadcasting thing had a future and there might be some value in sticking with it.
By late 1924 WOR had opened a Manhattan studio and assembled a programming lineup with announcers who spoke in the tone of the day, the stentorian “voice of God.” At the same time, one element of the morning broadcast was physical culturist Bernarr Macfadden leading listeners in exercise routines, a feature that somewhere in the next 98 years was dropped.
When Macfadden didn’t show up for jumping jacks one morning in 1925, his emergency fill-in was a British-born WOR engineer named John B. Gambling. For the rest of the 20th century, the morning host on WOR would be a John Gambling — John B. until 1959, John A. until 1991, then John R. until 2000 with an encore from 2008 to 2013.
The Gamblings helped define the modern style of radio conversation, replacing the voice of God with the voice of regular people. They talked about whatever they felt would interest their listeners in news, culture, sports, weather, human behavior or plain old interesting curiosities.
For the rest of the day, WOR offered something for as broad a spectrum of listeners as possible, a sensible strategy in the days when radio was the average person’s go-to daily entertainment.
That made radio the go-to spot for celebrities to stop by and fan their fame, so WOR from the beginning routinely hosted the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Harry Houdini. For a time, Orson Welles hosted a show.
Long before television, WOR had an extensive lineup of quiz and audience participation shows like Twenty Questions. For 15 years it carried twice-daily reports from Albert Mitchell, “The Answer Man.”
The station offered daily live music, with its own orchestra led by Morton Gould, and the WOR studios originated an extensive drama and soap opera lineup that most famously included The Shadow.
In 1928 WOR launched the Uncle Don children’s show, which ran until 1947 and was both the most popular and most imitated children’s radio show in America.
Unfortunately, Uncle Don — real name Howard Rice — later got tagged as the guy who once ended a broadcast, when he thought the microphone was off, by saying something like “That’ll hold the little bastards until tomorrow.”
It’s a great “gotcha” story, except it never happened. The alleged scenario was actually an apocryphal radio tale that had been around since the late 1920s, and because Uncle Don was the country’s best-known kids’ show host, a “re-creation” on the popular 1950s album series Bloopers pinned it on him. While Uncle Don was reportedly a bit of a drinker and a party guy off the air, he was not an idiot.
Meanwhile, as the 1930s and 1940s moved on, WOR started carrying more conversational talk shows throughout the day. Husband-and-wife teams were particularly successful, including columnist Dorothy Kilgallen and her husband Dick Kollmar, Ed and Pegeen Fitzgerald and Alfred and Dora McCann.
While these shows covered a wide range of topics not confined to happy news, the tone ran strongly toward pleasant and cheerful. Their appeal helped make WOR consistently one of the top stations in the city for decades, and the eclectic range of talk later continued with hosts like psychologist Dr. Joy Browne, Joan Hamburg and financial advisors Ken and Daria Dolan.
The talk got a little different late at night. Long John Nebel ventured into the occult. Joey Reynolds talked about whatever was on his mind.
Perhaps the best remembered night talker was Jean Shepherd, whom the world knows from the classic movie A Christmas Story, but who enchanted a generation of New Yorkers with campfire stories, long and riveting tales rooted in his childhood.
“Shep” personified theater of the mind, inviting his radio friends to imagine and explore the world he was painting.
Political talk came later in WOR’s life, with hosts from Bob Grant, Jay Diamond, Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh through Mark Simone, John Bachelor and Sean Hannity.
At the same time, WOR long maintained a link to the news coverage that was one of its signatures from the beginning. For decades it ran news every hour and 15-minute newcasts five times a day, sometimes mixing commentary into the reporting. In 1934, New York Mayor Jimmy Walker threatened to bar WOR from covering municipal events because he resented remarks by WOR newscaster H.V. Kaltenborn. When long-time news director Joe Bartlett retired in 2020, he had been with WOR for 40 years.
There’s more. In 1934 WOR was part of the group of stations that formed the Mutual Broadcasting System. WOR was one of the first New York stations with a high-fidelity music broadcast and a stereo broadcast. Its FM sister station was a pioneer in free-form FM.
All in all, WOR hasn’t done badly for a department store promotional gimmick. Like most of radio, it often gets taken for granted, maybe because it is always there.
And maybe lasting a hundred years sounds easy, until you try to do it.
(Some of the historical information here was shamelessly cribbed from the fascinating 1998 book “The Airwaves of New York” by Bill Jaker, Frank Sulek and Peter Kanze.)