by Larry Miller
It was 40 years ago this month that the world’s first 24-hour television news service, the Cable News Network, went on the air from Atlanta. It became better known simply as CNN. Created in by business tycoon Ted Turner in 1980, the fledgling network initially reached fewer than two million homes in the United States.
Today, CNN is seen in more than 89-million homes across the United States and over 160-million homes around the world. There’s an abundance of other 24-hour news and information services around the world, too.
Thayer was a midwesterner. Born in Chicago in 1922 and raised in Minnesota – but he also had lived and gone to school in Chadron, Nebraska.
Jack Thayer’s father, Harley, was a railroader. He started his career back in 1897 as a “Station Helper” in Ridgefield, Illinois. He worked his way through the ranks as a Brakeman, Conductor, then Trainmaster by 1930, Assistant Superintendent, and finally – by the late 1930’s – Superintendent for the Western Line Division of the Chicago & Northwestern Railway headquartered in Chadron.
But son Jack remained with his mother in Minnesota in 1939-40 so he could finish his senior year at Winona High. He was active in choir and drama, was a cheerleader for three years, but also developed a keen interest in radio, “haunting the local station, KWNO.” The chief announcer at the station was a fellow named Jack London, a graduate of the Beck School of Radio in Minneapolis, where Thayer would later enroll. In early May 1940, about three weeks before graduation, Winona High scheduled vocational conferences on a variety of jobs. One was “Radio Broadcasting,” and the student chairman for that session was “Glover” Thayer.
|The Thayers in Chadron - 1941 - Harley, Jack, and Martha|
(Photo courtesy of Tracie Ireland)
Thayer was in good company at CSTC. Among his classmates was a bright young fellow from Gordon, Nebraska named Val Fitch. They were also fraternity brothers in Delta Pi Sigma, a popular social fraternity. Four decades later, Fitch would gain fame as a professor at Princeton University – and a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics.
While Fitch was preparing for a career in science, Jack Thayer was more focused on the arts. As a freshman, he won Second Award in short story competition and became active in the Pi Kappa Delta, the national forensics honorary fraternity. He would serve as its vice-president his sophomore year. The CSTC varsity forensics team, comprised of Thayer and Harold Mitchell, ranked at the top of competition in Omaha and at the State Tournament.
Another fellow freshman at CSTC was a well-known “local boy,” Don Rickenbach, who later became a highly regarded and successful area rancher. Rickenbach was also a “brother” in Pi Kappa Delta, and they were pictured together in the 1941-42 CSTC Anokasan yearbook.
Thayer’s two academic years at college in Chadron were chock full of activity. He was particularly active in drama, serving as president of the Thespians his sophomore year and performing in at least three plays.
There was no radio station in Chadron in the 1940’s, so in the spring of 1942, Thayer departed for the Black Hills of South Dakota and was hired as an announcer at KOBH in Rapid City. The station later became KOTA, flagship station of what later became Duhamel Broadcasting Enterprises, operating five radio and three television stations across South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming.
|First radio job - KOBH Rapid City|
(Photo courtesy of Tracie Ireland)
Apart from a photo of the 19-year-old Thayer as a new staff member, there’s little information about his short tenure at KOBH.
By 1943 Jack was seeking his fortune in Minneapolis, first by attending the Beck School of Radio, followed by a job at WLOL Radio. He also found a wife. Marjorie Gossman and Glover “Jack” Thayer were married in 1944. Later that year, son Terry Lee Thayer was born. Meanwhile, Jack’s career as an announcer/salesman for WLOL began to blossom.
In April 1945, he was elected as an officer of the Twin City Radio Announcers IBEW Local 1331 union. He would remain with the station nearly three years – but during that time his marriage ended.
Television came to the Twin Cities in 1948 when KSTP-TV went on the air in St. Paul. Across town, Joe Beck’s old “School of Radio,” became “Beck Studios,” adding a television school and with plans to build a commercial television station. The Star Tribune noted that Beck was “even opening a store on Nicollet Avenue to sell television sets” and that Jack Thayer and WLOL colleague Bob Bouchier had quit the station to run the store for Beck.
After WLOL fired a popular host of its “Swing Club” show, they invited Thayer back into the fold. Minneapolis Tribune columnist Will Jones wrote, “To capture the undershirt and beer listener, WLOL has rehired Jack Thayer. Thayer, a former salesman for the station, left to sell television sets. He’s giving up the television business to spin records.”
“Jack’s Record Shop” on WLOL Radio became exceptionally popular and picked up a sizable new audience.
Local newspaper ads showed “WLOL Disc Jockey Jack Thayer” in a spiffy new Groshire suit from Grodnik’s haberdashery, proclaiming “I go for Groshire…You’ll go for Groshire, too!” He also endorsed footwear for Bob’s Shoes for Men. Such ads bolstered Jack’s newfound celebrity – and likely were a welcome supplement to his income.
Some stability seemed to have arrived for Thayer. His career was going well, and he met a young lady named Donna Marchand. That summer, they may have talked marriage, because Jack posted an ad in the Star-Tribune on August 18th, simply saying: “…need 3 to 4 room furnished apartment. No children - Call AT 0406 8 a.m. to 12 noon except Sun.” Three weeks later – In early September 1949 – Jack and Donna applied for a marriage license and were married two months later on November 12th.
Two nationally-recognized performers would host Jack’s popular WLOL radio show while the couple was getting hitched. Star-Tribune columnist Will Jones wrote that singer June Christy and actor/comedian Billy DeWolfe were in town for club appearances and agreed to do the show for Jack.
Thayer remained with WLOL for the next two and one-half years, moving across town to WTCN Radio and Television in 1952.
More big changes were in the offing.
First came the birth of Jack and Donna’s daughter, Tracie Nan, in 1952, followed in 1953 by a son, Todd Neal.
Also in 1953, Thayer launched “Jack’s Corner Drug Store” on WTCN-TV. The show was a “dance get-together” for teens, replete with popular music of the day and dance contests. The studio set was a replica of a drug store, and area high school and college students were invited to participate in the fun. This was a full four years before Dick Clark and “American Bandstand” would sweep the country. It was another early indication Jack Thayer was an innovator and had a knack for knowing what audiences would like.
In February 1956. Jack was lured to WDGY Radio in Minneapolis, which had been bought by Omaha-based Storz Broadcasting. Young Todd Storz was the instigator of a “revolutionary” radio program format of “Top 40” music that would sweep the country. Thayer had already gained a reputation as the most influential disc jockey in the Twin Cities – credited with getting hit records started locally. He would become the new General Manager of WDGY.
In September 1956, Donna Thayer gave birth to their second son, Timm.
The next three years brought many new professional challenges for Thayer, including the firing of a popular disc jockey. These were valuable management experiences for Jack, and he gained stature as a good manager. The station fared well – and so did Jack Thayer.
In 1958, Jack was elected President of the Minnesota Broadcasters Association. By the following May, after 16 years in in Minneapolis-St. Paul, he left the station to become Vice President and General Manager of KFRC Radio in San Francisco. It was another short stay, followed by a five-year stint at yet another major market station, WHK in Cleveland, where – among other things – he lured the Beatles to town as part of their legendary 15-city tour of the United States. Jack said their fee was “the highest entertainment price ever paid to bring a group to Cleveland.”
Thayer was lured back to California by Metromedia in 1965 to take the reins of KLAC in Los Angeles. The Thayer family – after five years in Cleveland and an earlier brief stay in San Francisco – was ready to settle down. They went to church at Brentwood Presbyterian Church, where Jack would become an elder.
At KLAC, Thayer began moving the station more and more from music to what was dubbed “two-way talk radio.” The call-in programs with expensive hosts such as Mort Sahl, Joe Pyne and Les Crane were extremely popular – and often quite controversial. Within two years, according to the Los AngelesTimes, Thayer had “built a big winner out of a perennial loser – the best balanced talk station.” The Times recognized KLAC for its news and special events coverage. Jack Thayer was honored as “Radio Executive of the Year.”
Audience ratings for KLAC continued to hold strong, and all seemed well. But in late 1968, cross-town rival KABC Radio began leading in some charts, and – as LA Times columnist Don Page noted – even “high ratings yield to economics.” Too, the budget for KLAC’s talk radio format was “enormous.” KABC was owned by the ABC network, while KLAC’s owners, Metromedia, seemed to be diversifying itself “out of the radio business,” wrote Page.
Rumors of change abounded at KLAC, and in very early January of 1969, Jack Thayer was fired.
By April, Donna and Jack Thayer divorced, just a few months shy of 20 years of marriage. Donna would raise the children as Jack departed KLAC and began pursuit of new opportunities in broadcasting.
Within weeks, Thayer – the “architect of ‘two-way’ talk radio” – had formed Radio Consultants, Inc. to assist struggling radio stations. He was credited with turning around floundering stations in major markets, including WMCA Radio in New York, fixing what was described as a “terminal case of no listenership.” WMCA’s ratings spiked and its morning audience doubled within just two months. He found similar success at WGAU in Philadelphia.
“It’s all in the planning and promotion and careful audience control,” he was quoted as telling the Los Angeles Times.
|A young Don Imus - On the Air|
Imus’ early “shock jock” strategy generated criticism from inside and outside broadcasting – but gained enormous audiences. His is also an interesting career, but – alas – Imus had no ties to Dawes County, Nebraska, so we’ll bypass his story!
By early 1971, Jack Thayer had moved to Ohio with Nationwide Communications in Columbus, a subsidiary of Nationwide Insurance Company. He served as Vice President/General Manager. The company owned seven broadcasting stations, including WRFD-Columbus and WGAR- Cleveland, among others. Shortly after arriving, Thayer brought Don Imus from Sacramento to help bolster ratings.
Jack Thayer’s career of frequent moves was not atypical for broadcasters, but what seemed to set him apart was his ability to land on his feet – almost always in jobs with greater visibility and responsibility. And he was ever the innovator.
So it likely surprised few in the industry when in July 1974, Jack Thayer had been appointed president of NBC Radio. His responsibilities would give him authority over the NBC Radio network and its owned-and-operated stations in San Francisco, Washington, New York, and Chicago. Those stations hadn’t been profitable for years. The Chicago station, WMAQ, hadn’t seen a profit since 1963. In just 16 months at the helm of NBC Radio, Jack Thayer was able to announce a profit for the station in December 1975. Optimism abounded.
Jack also wasted no time in forging ahead with planning a new project – something that could transform radio news across the country. He envisioned a 24-hour radio news service. There were several all-news stations in major markets, but such a resource was unavailable to medium and smaller markets. Plans were developed for what was called the NBC News and Information Service (NIS) with a start-up budget of about $10 million.
In February 1975, NBC announced the venture, hoping to attract about 75 of the top 100 markets in the country by mid-April.
Thayer told Broadcasting magazine, “The widespread success of all-news radio in this country is testimony to the information explosion we are experiencing.
He said that the NBC 24-hour service would, ”offer local radio stations the unique opportunity to go all news – practically overnight – backed by the manpower and resources of the world’s largest broadcast news organization.” And many smaller market stations did sign up, including KLNG in Omaha and KVOC in Casper.
The round-the-clock service was scheduled to begin June 1, 1975, but fewer than 50 stations had signed up by mid-April. The start-up date was pushed back to June 18th. Larger markets like Los Angeles already had two all-news stations – KNX and KFWB – and it was unlikely another could survive.
Thayer traveled the country meeting with stations to encourage their interest and participation, but the number of stations lagged behind the number needed. At start up time, there were only 47 stations.
Reviews of the service were mixed. Some markets loved it and did well, others complained about the quality of the terrestrial microwave distribution system. Satellite service for the networks had not yet arrived. After one year of operation, the NIS all-news service had 63 subscribers.
By late 1976, it became apparent that the News and Information Service (NIS) wasn’t going to be viable in the long run. On November 3, 1976, Thayer announced that the service would be discontinued by mid-1977.
“Recent projections demonstrate that NIS will not reach satisfactory levels in future years. The unavoidable conclusion is that there is no long-term future for NIS as a national service,” he told reporters.
Some supporters of the all-news service claimed it was simply “ahead of its time.” Within just a few years after NIS pulled the plug, satellite delivery systems began distribution of high quality audio and video signals that far surpassed the fidelity of the old terrestrial microwave. Too, improved audio and video compression techniques accommodated multiple channels of content, rather than just one.
There was also criticism that NBC had not invested itself enough in the project. Even some of the NBC owned-and-operated stations did not participate. And a labor strike at NBC certainly didn’t help.
|Jack Thayer ~ NBC Radio|
Commenting about Jack’s role in the initiative, one NBC executive observed “He’s done a good job,” and noted that Thayer was brought in as president of NBC Radio to do two things: “Turn the O&O stations around” and “to bring the radio network out of a loss,” and that, they concluded, is exactly what he did.
Jack Thayer continued to oversee NBC Radio into 1978, but left the network in 1979 to become General Manager at WNEW Radio, the “Big Band Station” in New York City. Managing WNEW would be Thayer’s last stop on a remarkable career of managing radio and television broadcasting stations. In 1980, Jack's peers honored him again by electing him President of the New York Broadcasters Association.
In 1983, WNEW was preparing for its 50th birthday in 1984.
The station had been mainstay in the Empire State since the early 1930’s. Luminaries from Frank Sinatra to Dinah Shore had performed on the 50,000-watt radio powerhouse of New York.
Thayer was on the board of the National Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Foundation. Some of his friends had been afflicted by the disease, so he went to the board and pledged all proceeds from sales of the book would go to help fight ALS, “Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
At about the same time WNEW was celebrating its 50th year, Thayer received the sad news that his son, Todd Neal Thayer, an account executive for a Los Angeles radio station, had been killed in a glider accident near Los Angeles. He was 30 years old.
Jack Thayer departed WNEW for what would be his last-known job. He served as Chief Operating Officer/Executive Vice President of Gear Broadcasting International, a communications company in Providence, R.I., delving into a relatively new technology: wireless cable, which was growing in popularity during the mid 1990’s.
He had homes in both Providence, Rhode Island and New York City. While with Gear Broadcasting, he suffered a stroke and lived a few years in Morningside House, a New York nursing home. He died of a heart attack in Providence on January 1, 1995. Jack Thayer was 72 years old.
Jack daughter Tracie, who still lives in California, says her father was cremated. Some of his ashes were spread over his son Todd’s grave at Forest Lawn in the San Fernando Valley of California.
(Editor's Note: My sincere thanks to: Tracie Ireland (Jack Thayer's daughter), John Miller, Con Marshall, and Terry Sandstrom for their assistance in helping me gather information and photographs for this story. In 2013 Jack Thayer entered the Minnesota Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Visit our "Thayer Photo Gallery" to see additional images related to this story.
~~~~~ Larry Miller / Spearfish, SD