Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Vibiana Bowman Cvetkovic

Mount Holly Township, New Jersey

[caption id="attachment_29224" align="aligncenter" width="575"] Buildings representing architectural styles from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries line the streets of the Mount Holly Historic District. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Mount Holly, New Jersey, established by Quakers in 1677 and known variously in its early history as Northampton and Bridgetown, became the county seat for Burlington County through an act of legislation in 1793. Three years later the Burlington County Court House, similar in style to Philadelphia’s Congress Hall, opened to serve as the official county court facility, a position it held until a new building assumed those responsibilities in 1959. Officially renamed in 1931 as Mount Holly, the name that it had been commonly known as since the Revolutionary War, the town owed its position as county seat to its central location twenty-four miles east of Philadelphia and its agricultural and manufacturing prominence. Over time, Mount Holly played a significant, and sometimes controversial, role in the Philadelphia region, even serving as a temporary capital for New Jersey during the Revolutionary War.

Mount Holly was originally home to the Lenni Lenape people, who lived in the area for over ten thousand years—long before the arrival of the Europeans in the seventeenth century. When British settlers arrived, the Lenape not only traded with them but also taught the settlers the skills necessary for frontier survival. However, these interactions brought devastation to the Lenape through diseases like smallpox and cholera, to which the Native Americans had no immunity. The indigenous people died in shockingly large numbers, so much so that by the mid-1700s only a few enclaves of the Lenape remained.

The first white, English-speaking person credited with settling the area was Walter Reeves (?-1698), who arrived in 1677 to establish a plantation along the Rancocas Creek. As it flourished, it attracted other settlers who established grist and sawmills in support of the predominantly farm community, which was incorporated in 1688. The first gristmill in Mount Holly was built in 1723, and a sawmill situated on the Rancocas was built in the early 1700s. In the eighteenth century, the Rancocas Creek was dammed and water redirected for use by the farms and mills, an area later preserved as a recreational facility known as Mill Dam Park.

Battle of Trenton

[caption id="attachment_29252" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of Burlington County Courthouse Completed in 1796, the Burlington County Court House opened three years after Mount Holly became the county seat. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Mount Holly played a pivotal role in the Battle of Trenton during the Revolutionary War. The Battle of Iron Works Hill, also known as the battle of Mount Holly, aided General George Washington (1732-99) in his 1776 assault on Trenton by diverting a large number of Hessian troops to rout forces at Mount Holly. Over two days, December 22 and 23, 1776, a small American force of six hundred militiamen under Colonel Samuel Griffin (1746-1810) engaged some two thousand British regulars and Hessians commanded by Colonel Carl von Donop (1732-77).

In addition to the indigenous people and the European settlers, people of color played important roles in developing the region. The African American presence in New Jersey, including the area that encompassed Mount Holly, extended back at least to the late seventeenth century, when slavery served as a source of labor for agriculture and industry. That practice continued until 1804, when the New Jersey legislature passed “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.” Although this law freed children of enslaved parents when those children reached the age of majority, it did not emancipate those currently enslaved and it permitted the practice of “apprentice for life” until 1865. Members of Mount Holly’s African American and Quaker communities participated  actively in the antebellum abolition movement, and Mount Holly became one of the original stops on the Underground Railroad. The town’s historic village of Timbuctoo, a community of free African Americans founded in 1820, was such a haven for escaping slaves using this network.

[caption id="attachment_29293" align="alignright" width="300"] In this map detail, Mount Holly is shown in 1849 with nearby Timbuctoo, a free black settlement, and a railroad connection extending to Burlington. (The map's orientation is tilted, with north in the upper left corner.) (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Mount Holly’s  proximity to the transportation hubs of Philadelphia and Camden, as well as its agricultural, canning, manufacturing, and textile industries, contributed to its economic success as a regional force by the onset of the nineteenth century. Among its manufacturing endeavors were Semple’s Cotton Mill (founded in 1856) and the Ridson Foundry (1847). Travel from Mount Holly to Philadelphia and Camden was made possible by ferries, stagecoach, and a rail service that started in 1867. Mount Holly’s town center hosted many small businesses and retail stores as well as newspaper offices.

In the twentieth century Mount Holly’s economy received a boost from the Camp Dix army base, established in 1917 as a staging and training center for World War I and located approximately ten miles from the township. Construction of the camp involved recruiting and hiring eleven thousand workers from the area. During the 1930s the camp served as a base for members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and in 1939 the army made it a permanent military base, Fort Dix. In 2009 the Department of Defense merged Fort Dix with McGuire Air Force base and the Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Station to create  McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, the only tri-service joint base in the country. In 1994, Fort Dix added a low-security federal correctional institution housing over four thousand inmates to its primary mission as an induction center.

Twentieth-Century Economic Shifts

As in Philadelphia and Camden, to which Mount Holly’s economy was closely tied, the latter part of the twentieth century became a period of economic decline. National trends of mills, factories, and food-processing plants relocating to less unionized states or overseas meant a loss of blue-collar and middle-class jobs and residents. After reaching a high of 13,271 residents in 1960, the town’s population fell to 9,536 in 2010.  Additionally, the construction of nearby shopping centers and malls, notably the Cherry Hill Mall (which opened in 1961) and the Moorestown Mall (1963) changed consumer-buying habits to the point that many small shops and family-owned businesses that had dominated the commercial landscape of downtown Mount Holly closed.

As part of a redevelopment effort, in the early twenty-first century the township  designated the 320-acre Mount Holly Gardens development for demolition and reconstruction. Erected in the mid-1950s to accommodate military families at Fort Dix and McGuire at affordable prices, the community consisted of 379 garden-style apartments. The development had been a boon at a time when area housing was in demand, but problems ensued after the builder filed for bankruptcy and the project fell first into the control of a New York City real estate company and subsequently to a patchwork of absentee owners. Despite the town’s periodic efforts to enforce building codes, physical and social conditions deteriorated. By 2002, when Mount Holly authorized the project’s demolition, its affordability had attracted a mixture of  lower-income owners and renters, the majority of whom were black and Latino. Contesting the town’s effort to relocate them, the Gardens' remaining residents sued, taking their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Facing ever-mounting legal costs, Mount Holly settled the case in 2013 before the court verdict, agreeing to include units to accommodate the plaintiff’s needs in the new construction, a neighborhood called Parker Green Homes.

Less contentious was Mount Holly’s promotion of investment opportunities created after the state designated it as an Urban Enterprise Zone in 1995. Using the tax incentives available through this program, Mount Holly sought to capitalize on accessibility to Philadelphia, its historic assets, and a revitalized Main Street shopping district to draw retail dollars as well as to reestablish itself as a thriving residential community.

Vibiana Bowman Cvetkovic is a Reference Librarian at the Paul Robeson Library. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the Childhood Studies program at Rutgers University, Camden, New Jersey. Cvetkovic’s area of research and writing include children and media, intellectual ethics, and American popular culture. She is the coeditor of Fleeting Image: Portrayals of Children in Popular Culture (Lexington, 2013).

Public Media

Philadelphia participated early and actively in the founding and development of public broadcasting, which expanded across the twentieth century to encompass radio, television, and digital platforms. Public media organizations have given voice to local concerns, provided forums for diverse opinions, and offered programming not found in commercial broadcasting.

Precedents for public broadcasting originated in the United States in the form of noncommercial educational radio stations in the early days of broadcasting. During the 1920s and 1930s radio became America’s dominant media for entertainment and the instantaneous transmission of news. However, the Great Depression decimated stations run by educational and academic institutions, and by 1933 seventy-five percent of educational stations had ceased broadcasting. Financial problems also plagued educational television stations. In 1938, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began reserving a spectrum of channels for noncommercial educational use. By 1952, 242 such stations existed in the United States, but by 1959 the number declined to forty-three.

[caption id="attachment_25568" align="alignright" width="216"]Black and white photograph of Professor John Roberts leaning on studio recording equipment. WRTI was founded by Temple professor and broadcast pioneer John Roberts as part of the School of Communication and Theater. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Three of Philadelphia’s public media outlets had their origins in this era, two with the benefit of support by local universities. At the University of Pennsylvania, WXPN began as a student-run, campus-limited AM radio station in 1945 and gained its license as an FM station from the FCC in 1957. Temple University began its campus-limited AM station in 1948 with call letters indicative of the station’s mission: WRTI, for “Radio Technical Institute.” The FCC licensed WRTI as an FM station in 1953. In 1954 the region also gained WHYY (“Wider Horizons for You and Yours,” an educational radio station founded by a partnership of community leaders including Dr. W. Laurence LePage (1902–85), president of the Franklin Institute. Westinghouse Radio stations donated a studio for WHYY in the Architect’s Building at Seventeenth and Sansom Streets.

WHYY moved into television programming in 1957, broadcasting on an educational station, UHF-Channel 35, which operated under the auspices of the School District of Philadelphia. With support from the city’s cultural and educational institutions, WHYY broadcast news and arts programming from studios at 1622 Chestnut Street—a renowned Art Deco building formerly home to WCAU (later occupied by the Art Institute of Philadelphia). The opportunity to move to Channel 12 on the VHF television dial emerged in 1963 when a VHF license became available in nearby Delaware. WHYY sought and obtained the license from the FCC, then began broadcasting a local news program from a studio in Wilmington at Fifth and Wood Streets. While maintaining this foothold in Delaware, the station subsequently moved into WFIL-TV’s former station facility at Forty-Sixth and Market Streets, donated by media magnate Walter Annenberg (1908-2002).  

Struggle for Funding

While generally acknowledged as a public good, educational radio and television consistently struggled for funding. Public broadcasting did not become viable as a national system until 1967 with passage of the Public Broadcasting Act. Promoted by President Lyndon Johnson (1908-73) as part of his Great Society program to relieve poverty, provide educational opportunities, and address racial inequalities, the Public Broadcasting Act established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and charged it with founding the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS, established in 1969) and National Public Radio (NPR, 1970). An earlier public television network, National Educational Television (NET) merged with PBS in 1970. With support from the federal government, these entities became the cornerstones for public broadcasting throughout the United States.

WHYY became one of the first charter members of the National Public Radio network in 1970. While broadcasting primarily classical music, and some of its locally produced shows began to reach nationwide audiences, including “Fresh Air” (inaugurated in 1975) with Terry Gross (b. 1951) and “Voices in the Family” (which premiered in 1985) with Dan Gottlieb (b. 1946). In 1979, WHYY moved to Sixth Street near Independence Mall, occupying the former the Living History Center, a museum built for the Bicentennial that had gone bankrupt in 1978. The City of Philadelphia leased the building to the station for a dollar a year.

[caption id="attachment_25562" align="alignright" width="300"]Della Lazarus sits reading a thin booklet facing right, with a microphone in front of her face and controls just behind her. A soundproof window is behind the audio controls and two men sit on the other side, one sitting (likely Bill Sinrich), reading the contents of a paper into a mic of his own. Working in WXPN's Spruce Street studios in 1975 are (from left) disc jockey Della Lazarus, station manager Jamie Garner, and AM program director Bill Sinrich. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The question of whether the federal government should fund public broadcasting spurred debate by the early 1970s, followed by major cuts during the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) in response to conservative allegations of the network’s supposed liberal bias. During this era, the 1980s and 1990s, the region’s public radio stations altered their formats as they searched for expanded audiences and greater sustainability. In 1987, WHYY dropped classical music and transitioned into a mainstay for reporting and commentary on news and the arts. After a commercial station, WFLN, also dropped its classical music format in 1997, Temple’s WRTI partially filled that niche by moving from the all-jazz format it had followed since 1969 to broadcasting classical music during the day and jazz in the evening. At the University of Pennsylvania, from the start WXPN had featured an eclectic mix of musical genres. In 1986 the station repositioned itself to operate as a financially self-sufficient enterprise. Changes included hiring professional staff and initiating professionally-run fundraising drives. The station became known for innovative programming such as Kid’s Corner (begun in 1988), one of the country’s longest-running interactive children’s radio shows, and World Café (debuted in 1991), a showcase of cutting-edge and “world” music distributed by NPR.

Regional Affiliations

All three stations developed networks of regional affiliates. During the 1980s, WRTI expanded its audience to affiliates in northeast and central Pennsylvania well as New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. During the 1990s WXPN also increased it listenership by adding a number of regional affiliates throughout Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.   WHYY television, in addition to its locations in Wilmington and Philadelphia, added WDPB-Channel 64 (Seaford, Delaware) as an affiliate broadcasting in southern Delaware. The public media landscape also shifted in 2011, after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (b. 1962) directed the dismantling of NJN (the state’s public television and radio network). While public broadcasting stations in New York bought NJN stations in North Jersey, WHYY acquired WNJS (Berlin), WNJB (Bridgeton), WNJN (Atlantic City), WNJM (Manahawkin), and WNJZ (Cape May Court House).

The region’s public broadcasters augmented their original productions from a national array of sources. For radio, in addition to NPR these included Public Radio Exchange (a nonprofit content provider headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts), Public Radio International (Minneapolis, Minnesota, whose parent company is WGBH, Boston), and American Public Media a nonprofit headquartered in St. Paul, Minnesota). For television, in addition to PBS, sources of programming included American Public Television, the Independent Television Service, and the National Educational Telecommunication Association.

With the advent of computer technology, podcasting, and digital radio, public broadcasting became “public media,” with new vehicles for delivering programming and new models for economic viability and relevance. Public radio, including Philadelphia’s WHYY, embraced new media to publicize and distribute content and to reach a younger audience. In 2000, WHYY opened its Technology Center and Independence Foundation Civic Space to encourage civic participation with the station’s media content. In 2010, continuing to extending its reach beyond broadcasting, WHYY opened the Dorrance H. Hamilton Public Media Commons to promote digital skills and digital media production for the region’s residents, including students and teachers. WHYY also launched two websites, WHYY.org and NewsWorks.org, the station’s multi-platform information service.

In the twenty-first century, state, local, and federal funding for public broadcasting continued to shrink. By 2014, according to the Congressional Research Service, the share of federal funding had fallen to only about 15 percent for public television stations and 10 percent for radio, leaving public broadcasting increasingly reliant on corporate and viewer support. While funding and competition for audiences from traditional and digital media remained challenges, the region’s public broadcasters pursued innovation and new platforms to revitalize and promote public media’s mission as the electronic “vox populi.”

Vibiana Bowman Cvetkovic is a reference librarian at the Paul Robeson Library of Rutgers – The State University of New Jersey.

Radio (Commercial)

[caption id="attachment_20474" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Black and white photo depicting a department store window display with several different models of Philco radios. In 1927, the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company, or “Philco,” began manufacturing radio receivers, becoming known for its influential modernist design. Its iconic “cathedral” or arched style of radio cabinetry is featured prominently in this late 1920s window display. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

From radio’s inception to contemporary times, Philadelphia-area innovators, performers, and manufacturers contributed to shaping the industry. Like its technological forerunner, the telegraph, radio made possible the direct, real-time transmission of information. The immediacy and intimacy of radio waves arriving directly into listeners’ homes made radio revolutionary. The medium quickly became not only a technology for news and information but also a source for education and entertainment.

Soon after inventors and engineers began to experiment with wireless transmission in the last part of the nineteenth century, Philadelphia companies joined in manufacturing and distributing components for the emerging industry. In 1899, Philadelphian Gustave P. Gehring (1858-1941) established the American Wireless Telephone and Telegraph Company at 345 Arch Street. The company engaged radio engineer and inventor Harry Shoemaker (1879-1932) and, with his expertise, in 1900 the company successfully sent the first wireless message across the Delaware River to Philadelphia from Camden. Also in 1899 the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America incorporated in New Jersey and established headquarters in New York. Named for Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), the Italian widely credited with inventing the wireless telegraph, the company had radio-telegraph stations in New Brunswick and Belmar, New Jersey, and a manufacturing plant in Aldene.

[caption id="attachment_20470" align="alignright" width="300"]A diagram from a government publication depicting an assembled radio receiver that could be made at home. In response to public demand, the U.S. Bureau of Standards published a circular explaining how to build a simple, inexpensive radio receiver. The diagram above appeared in the circular, which was published in 1922 and sold for five cents per copy. (HathiTrust Digital Library)[/caption]

At the beginning of the twentieth century amateur radio enthusiasts, both men and women, constructed home sets from kits and listened to the limited broadcasts that were available (news, weather, sports broadcasts, and ship-to-shore-messages). By the 1920s, with the introduction of commercial broadcasting, manufacturers of the kits took note of the increasing popularity of the medium. The market for assembled radio receivers became a new business opportunity, and North Philadelphia and Camden became home to three of the premier manufacturers of radio sets for the consumer market.

Boost of Quality Craftsmanship

In North Philadelphia, the Atwater Kent Company became the largest manufacturer of radios in the United States from 1926 to 1929, and Philco reigned as the top-selling radio brand in the country from 1930 until the 1950s. The Atwater Kent Manufacturing Works, founded by inventor and engineer Arthur Atwater Kent (1873-1949), established a presence in 1902 at 48 N. Sixth Street in Philadelphia. The company supplied electronic components for the military during World War I before beginning to manufacture radio components in 1922. In 1924 Atwater Kent began producing assembled radio receivers inside stylishly crafted, furniture-quality cabinets (including one model ensconced in a grandfather clock). The quality of the craftsmanship helped to shift the popular perception about radio from a pursuit for hobbyists to a device for home theaters. In 1924 the company moved to a new manufacturing plant at 4745 Wissahickon Avenue in Northwest Philadelphia and eventually expanded to thirty-two acres at this location. Despite Atwater Kent’s success in the 1920s and the quality of the product, the Great Depression took a toll on the company and the Atwater Kent plant closed in 1936.

Philco originated in 1892 as the Spencer Company, a producer of carbon arc lamps. From its beginnings at 1310 Filbert Street, in 1906 the company moved to a larger facility in North Philadelphia and reorganized as the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company (or “Philco”). In 1927, Philco began manufacturing radio receivers, becoming known for its influential modernist design including its “cathedral” or arched style of radio cabinetry. During World War II, Philco suspended its commercial line to concentrate on military production. After the war, the company reentered the consumer market and invested considerable funds in research and development to expanded its line of home appliances. The market failed to keep pace with Philco’s expansions, however, and by 1960 it declared bankruptcy. After decades of changing ownership, Philco closed its Philadelphia manufacturing plant in the early 1980s, and over the next several years most of the buildings in the Philco complex were demolished.

[caption id="attachment_20475" align="alignright" width="236"]Black and white photograph of an older gentleman standing next to a large RCA Victor radio. In 1929, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) bought out the Victor Talking Machine Company and retooled its sprawling Camden plant for the manufacture of radios, including this model housed in furniture-quality cabinetry. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Radio manufacturing came to Camden in 1929, when the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) bought out the Victor Talking Machine Company and became a regional powerhouse in the manufacture of radios and phonographs for all tastes and budgets, from modest table-top radios to phonographs housed in furniture-quality cabinetry. The RCA complex eventually covered fifty-one acres. In 1940, largely due to RCA’s quest for a cheaper, rural workforce, radio production moved from Camden to Bloomington, Indiana, and by the end of the decade the Camden facility produced televisions instead. By 1991 RCA ceased manufacturing electronics in the city and the buildings were sold off or demolished. The Victor Building, with its historic stained-glass windows of the company’s mascot, remained. In 2004, after extensive renovations, the building reopened as The Victor, luxury loft apartments.

Creating an Audience

In addition to manufacturing the sets, the radio industry had to create an audience. This required establishing broadcasting networks, programming, and business models for generating revenue. In the early 1920s, large department stores across the United States established radio stations to pique consumer interest in the new technology. A year after Hamburger’s in Los Angeles established the first department store radio station in the United States, 1922 was a banner year for pioneer commercial radio stations in Philadelphia department stores. In March, the Federal Radio Commission issued radio broadcasting licenses to John Wanamaker’s station WOO, Strawbridge and Clothier’s WFI, and Gimbel’s WIP. In 1924, Lit Brothers received its license to operate WLIT. Wanamaker’s ceased broadcasting in 1929, and WFI and WLIT consolidated in 1935 to become WFIL.

[caption id="attachment_20490" align="alignright" width="225"]color photo of the WCAU Building in the 1600 block of Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, in February 2016. Completed in 1931 by the architects Gabriel Roth and Harry Sternfeld, the WCAU building was the country’s first structure built specifically for a radio station. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The era of the late 1920s through to the start of World War II is regarded by media historians as the golden age of radio. The medium’s impact on American life reached all aspects of popular culture, and New York-based networks linked Philadelphia listeners in an emerging mass audience. WFI and WLIT carried programming from the National Broadcasting Network (NBC) “Red Network,” which began regular broadcasting from New York to major East Coast cities in 1926. WCAU affiliated with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), inaugurated in 1927. At times, the networks featured Philadelphia programming, such as The Atwater Kent Radio Hour, a classical music concert show carried on both NBC and CBS from 1925 to 1934. On NBC in 1929, the Philadelphia Orchestra performed the first commercially sponsored radio broadcast of a symphony orchestra in the United States. Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) conducted Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring for a program sponsored by Philco.

The broadcasting industry created a template later duplicated by television, including sponsored programming and commercials performed by the shows’ stars and announcers; genres such as “soap operas” and situation comedies; the segmentation of the broadcast day to appeal to different segments of audience (adult/child,  male/female); and ratings systems to gauge the popularity of shows. Serials from the broadcast networks were extraordinarily popular. Local affiliates tended to produce more cost-effective shows (news, music, talk, and sports) that did not require the staff and talent of the radio comedy and dramatic show, but they also produced long-running shows that drew large audiences. The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour, launched in Philadelphia in 1927 and later broadcast from New York, had a second incarnation as a television series and achieved a record as broadcasting’s longest-running talent show by the time it ended in 1957.

In Search of New Audiences

As radio began permeating the consumer market, station owners and broadcasters took note of untapped potential audiences, including burgeoning immigrant and African American communities in urban markets. Foreign-language news and music shows for the Jewish, Polish, and Italian communities (to name a few) became prominent in the 1920s and 1930s. In Philadelphia, Dannenbaum and Steppacher (cloth retailers) launched WDAS, featuring shows in Yiddish and Polish. The long-lasting and influential Irish Hour hosted by Patrick Stanton (1907-76) began on WDAS’s predecessor, WELK. Italian-American radio programs emanated from the studios of Angelo (1901-72) and Rose Fiorani (1902-92) in Scranton and Reading. Philadelphia gained an African American-focused station when Lenning Brothers, a radio supply company at 827 Spring Garden Street, obtained a license for WNAT (“We Never Are Tired”) and began broadcasting in 1922. In 1929 the call letters changed to WHAT, a station that grew into an important African American voice in subsequent decades. WHAT produced Standard Theater’s Kiddies Radio Revue, sponsored by The Philadelphia Tribune, and an African American history program.

[caption id="attachment_20477" align="alignright" width="270"]Black and white photograph of radio announcer Christopher Graham. During radio’s golden age, local radio personalities became celebrities, including Philadelphia’s Christopher W. Graham, better known as “Uncle WIP.” (Image courtesy of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Archives)[/caption]

During the golden age of radio, local radio personalities became celebrities. They included the much-beloved “Uncle WIP” (Philadelphia-born Christopher Graham, 1893-1932), who read children’s stories on WIP; Taylor Grant (1913-98), whose career as a reporter and analyst spanned decades; and newscaster Alan Scott (1909-78), who went on to be a successful local television personality. Nationally, politicians and activists recognized the power of the medium. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) reached millions of Americans with his “fireside chats.” Philadelphians listened to radio evangelists such as Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944) and political personalities such as Father Charles Coughlin (1891-1979), who established wide followings. In the Philadelphia area, the Rev. Carl McIntire (1906-2002), founder of the Bible Presbyterian Church (Collingswood, New Jersey), became a nationally known Fundamentalist preacher. Firmly anti-Communist, during the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s McIntire achieved prominence through his syndicated radio show advocating Christian Fundamentalism and a radical right political agenda.

Radio Reinvents

After World War II, television found a foothold with American home audiences and many local radio celebrities transitioned to the new medium. Radio broadcasters began looking for ways to reinvigorate the flagging industry. Music soon became the default programming of choice, and disc jockeys developed into hit-makers with the power to promote artists, singles, and styles of music.

By the mid-1950s, changes in radio technology, programming, and demographics made Philadelphia an epicenter of a new genre of music: rock and roll, the music of 1950s American teen culture. Programming managers took note of the teen audience emerging from the post-war Baby Boom as Japanese-made transistors and the popularity of car radios made broadcasts more portable. Local radio stations promoted home-grown performers like teen idols Frankie Avalon (b. 1940), Fabian (b. 1943), and Bobby Rydell (b. 1942) and early rock pioneers like Chubby Checker (b. 1941), who created a dance craze with “The Twist.” Bill Haley (1925-81) of Bill Haley and the Comets, who grew up in Boothwyn, began his career performing in the Philadelphia area and worked as a music director at WPWA in Chester. Philadelphia stations also furthered the careers of local musicians who produced the nationally known “Sound of Philadelphia,” a form of rock infused with smooth jazz and orchestrated with the lush sound of strings and horns.

[caption id="attachment_20479" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photograph depicting six of the Famous 56 "Boss Jocks" posed around a WFIL sign. From the 1960s until the 1980s, WFIL produced a series of albums featuring the station’s top hits. The WFIL “boss jocks” pose here for the first album cover. (Image courtesy of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Archives)[/caption]

Some of the best-regarded rock DJs of the era worked in Philadelphia AM radio. At WIBG, the area’s top rock station from the late 1950s through the late 1960s, star DJs included Hy (Hyman) Lit (1937-2007) who began his career on the “black music” station WHAT, Joe Niagara (1927-2004), and Bill Wright Sr. The rock music stations changed as the music changed, from the “British Invasion” (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Hollies, and The Who) to the folk music revival movement and the “California Sound” (The Beach Boys, Dickie Dale, and The Ventures). In 1966 WFIL challenged the supremacy of WIBG with “The Pop Explosion,” a new format with a shorter, research-driven playlist and fewer commercials per hour. Its DJs (“the boss jocks”) included Jim Nettleton (1940-2009), George Michael (1939-2009), and Dave Parks (193?-2015).

[caption id="attachment_20476" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph depicting Jazz legend Count Basie with members of the WHAT staff. Jazz great Count Basie (left) poses with WHAT staff as part of a publicity tour in 1947. WHAT became an important African American voice in the Philadelphia region. (Image courtesy of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia Archives)[/caption]

This era of radio renaissance also provided new opportunities for African American voices to be heard on-air and for a large audience of white teens to experience “race music”: rhythm and blues, juke joint music, and gospel. Philadelphia had two of the country’s most successful African American radio stations, WDAS and WHAT. During the 1940s, under the ownership of William Banks (1908-79) and the directorship of his sister Dolly Banks (1914 -1985), WHAT cultivated Philadelphia’s increasing population of African Americans as an audience. In the early 1950s the station began to carry National Negro Network programming and became an important media outlet for African American civil right leaders. WDAS-FM, launched in1959, featured black music and black artists.

In Camden, WCAM-AM, founded in 1926 as the city’s first radio station, played a notable role in the region’s broadcast history as home for emerging talent. In the 1950s and 1960s, the station employed such Philadelphia radio greats such as Hy Lit, Jerry Blavat (b. 1940), and Gene Hart (1931-1999). The famous Camden haiku poet Nick Virgilio (1928-1989)–whom Blavat christened “Nick-a-phonic Nick”–also worked at WCAM.

AM / FM

Until the 1960s AM (amplitude modulation) broadcasting dominated commercial radio. FM (frequency modulation) technology had been available since the mid-1930s, and the country’s first commercially licensed FM station, WFIL-FM, went on-air in Philadelphia in 1941. (In 1971 the station was sold to Richer Communication and became WIOQ.) The Philadelphia classical music station WFLN-FM, one of the country’s first FM stations with an all-classical format, began broadcasting in 1949 (its AM sister station came on-air in 1958). In 1956, Philadelphia’s WHAT-FM became the first twenty-four hour jazz station in the United States. Sid Mark, a featured host and one of the station’s first DJs, in 1957 introduced Friday with Frank, the first of his decades-long music series featuring Frank Sinatra.

FM broadcasting became more commercially viable by the mid-1960s after two rulings by the Federal Communications Commission loosened restrictions on FM licenses. By 1960, Philadelphia had at least fifteen of the 741 FM stations operating in the United States. After the FCC required FM stations to produce original programs rather than merely simulcasting with the affiliated AM stations in 1964, FM stations looked for ways to differentiate themselves from their AM counterparts and attract new audiences. David Kurtz (1932-2005), a Philco engineer, inaugurated WDVR-FM, which featured adult-oriented “beautiful music” (“easy listening” instrumental and soft pop musical selections) as an alternative to hit-based FM stations. This local station’s groundbreaking marketing and promotion techniques propelled it to Philadelphia’s top FM station within four months of its launch. The station’s original announcers included Joaquin Bowman (b. 1944), who later served as public relations manager for transit agency SEPTA, and career broadcaster Dave Shayer.

Since FM disc jockeys were not locked into the “top hits” lists of AM formats, they had more freedom to showcase progressive rock, emerging artists, and alternative music. They could also feature extended-length songs or entire albums. Many FM DJs expanded their repertoire to include comedy or spoken-word albums. In 1968 Philadelphia boasted three progressive rock FM stations: WDAS, WIFI, and WMMR. Early pioneers of this format in Philadelphia included Gene Shay (b. 1935), Ed Sciaky (1948-2004), Michael Tearson (b. 1958), and Lyn Kratz.

On both AM and FM, from the 1960s through the 1990s Philadelphia radio stations sought new niches by departing from music to feature news, sports, and call-in programs. KYW (1060 AM) was one of the first all-news stations in the United States, inaugurating the format September 21, 1965. In 1975 WWDB became the first all-talk radio station in the country, and from the 1980s through 2007 WHAT moved to a talk-show format and became known as the “Voice of the African American Community.” Philadelphia’s historic WIP 610-AM adopted an all-sports format in 1988, one year after WFAN-FM in New York became the nation’s first twenty-four-hour all-sports radio station. The station was the home to local sports broadcasting notables Howard Eskin (b. 1951), Bill Campbell (1923-2014), and Tom Brookshier (1931-2010). In the 1980s and 1990s, commercial radio also targeted “drive-time” commuters with “shock jocks” like New York-based Howard Stern (b. 1954) and humorous “morning zoo” shows, including the locally produced John DeBella Show (WMGK) and The Preston and Steve Show (WMMR).

[caption id="attachment_20497" align="alignright" width="300"]color photograph of a large crowd facing the stage as musicians perform during the XPoNential Festival In 2004, WXPN held the first XPoNential Festival. Pictured above in 2014, the music festival became a three-day event, held across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in neighboring Camden, New Jersey, that features nationally-known musical acts as well as local groups and family-friendly activities. (Photograph by M. Kennedy for Visit Philadelphia)[/caption]

Other Philadelphia stations catered to less commercially-oriented musical formats such as classical, jazz, folk, and world music. WXPN of the University of Pennsylvania, which was granted a full college radio license in 1957, became known for such critically acclaimed programs such as Kids Corner and World Café. Temple University’s radio station, WRTI, began as an AM station in 1948 and obtained an FM license in 1953. Founded by Temple professor and broadcast pioneer John Roberts (1920-2012) as part of the School of Communication and Theater (the call letters reflected the station’s mission, “Radio Training Institute”), WRTI became a public radio station specializing in jazz and classical music. At the same time, many local stations relied on syndicated programming and some dropped longtime formats, particularly classical music. The Philadelphia classical station WFLN, founded in 1949, was one of the country’s first FM stations with an all-classical format and featured dulcet-voiced commentators such as Ralph Collier (1922-2013) and Taylor Grant (1913-1998). Much to the dismay of classical music lovers in the region, the station ceased its all-classics format in 1996.

Twenty-First Century Radio

In the early twenty-first century, radio and other “old media” such as network television and print newspapers, sought niches on the new digital frontier. While radio broadcasters faced competition from subscription and satellite services such as XM and Sirius, digital services such as iHeartRadio and TuneIn Radio also made Philadelphia programs and stations available to vast audiences beyond the reach of traditional airwaves. Radio not only survived, but also thrived. In 2015, according to Forbes magazine, 91 percent of all Americans listened to radio for at least one hour a week. Radio held the appeal of being free, simple, and straightforward to use, and widely available in the car, on the sidewalk, at home, and at work. In the Philadelphia area, listeners could choose from more than eighty AM and FM stations offering a range of formats and music, including a half-dozen Spanish language and multicultural stations.

With changes in tastes and technologies, radio continued to reinvent and remain financially solvent, as it had for nearly a century. Philadelphia’s commercial radio industry, long a technological leader and popular culture trailblazer, continued to develop nationally recognized shows and personalities and consistently ranked as one of the top ten radio markets in the United States.

Vibiana Bowman Cvetkovic is a reference librarian at the Paul Robeson Library of Rutgers – The State University of New Jersey. 

(Editor's note: Public radio and television will be covered in a separate future essay.)

Television

The Philadelphia region had a key role in the ascent of television in American popular culture. From the manufacturing of television sets to the production of innovative programming, researchers, technicians, and creative talents in the region produced many of the “firsts” that propelled television to success as a new mass medium in the twentieth century.

Philadelphia’s role in the development of television began in the 1930s when solitary inventors and corporations began investigating the possibility of transmitting moving images over the air to a home receiver. The two figures widely credited with developing the modern electronic television set—Philo T. Farnsworth (1906-71) and Vladimir Zworykin (1888-1982)—had close ties to the Philadelphia region. Hired by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in Camden, New Jersey, in 1929, Zworykin served as associate director of its fledgling electronics research lab. In the early 1930s he and his team performed field tests for television transmissions. In 1933, they successfully transmitted an image of Mickey Mouse to a test site in nearby Collingswood, New Jersey.

[caption id="attachment_13143" align="alignright" width="300"]black and white photograph of Sally Starr in full cowgirl costume "Our Gal Sal"—Sally Starr— was one of Channel 6's pioneers of local programming and one of the few women with their own shows in the early days of television. (BroadcastPioneers.com)[/caption]

In Philadelphia, meanwhile, Farnsworth similarly engaged in television experimentation. He relocated to the Philadelphia area (Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania) from California in 1932 to pursue his research under a contract with Philco Radio Corporation (founded in Philadelphia in 1892 as Helios Electric Company). Like RCA, Philco was a pioneer of early television manufacturing and broadcasting. In 1932, the company established an experimental station, W3XE, at its manufacturing plant at C and Tioga Streets. Farnsworth and Philco parted ways in 1933, but Farnsworth continued research under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania until he left the region in 1938 and established the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The television industry developed slowly during the 1930s. By 1941 there were approximately 7,000 television sets in the United States and fifty hours of combined national and local weekly programming available to home viewers. The production of television sets ceased for the most part when the United States entered World War II, although limited program broadcasting continued. At war’s end, commercial production began anew. With the rise of postwar consumerism in the 1950s, the television industry hit its stride. By the end of the decade almost ninety percent of American households had at least one receiver and the average person watched approximately five hours of television each day. A new and powerful medium was born.

The Rise of the Affiliates

In the early days of commercial television in Philadelphia, from the mid-1940s through the late 1960s, national programming was limited, for the most part, to the three broadcasting systems—ABC (American Broadcasting Company), CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System), and NBC (National Broadcasting System). The DuMont Network also had a presence in Philadelphia in these early days (from 1946 until the network’s demise in 1956). The networks did not broadcast shows until the evening, so the bulk of the broadcast day consisted of locally produced programming. Thus, the story of the creative and experimental “Golden Age of Television” is fundamentally the history of the local affiliates of the national broadcasting networks.

[caption id="attachment_13256" align="alignright" width="200"]photograph of the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society Skyscraper and Antenna The broadcast tower atop the PSFS Building had the advantage of being in the heart of downtown Philadelphia, but as the television audience grew and expanded to the suburbs, stations erected more powerful transmitters outside of Center City. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Philadelphia affiliates were key players in this new industry. The Philadelphia viewing area represented the fourth-largest market with regard to advertising revenue during the first decade of commercial television. The local stations, Channels 3, 6, and 10, developed innovative, nationally trendsetting programs. They also pioneered and refined techniques such as color broadcasting, “green screen” special effects, and on-location remote broadcasts. These three original VHF (Very High Frequency) band stations have complicated corporate histories, including changes in ownership, network affiliation, and call letters. From the late 1940s until the early 1960s Channels 3, 6, and 10, were the only providers of television programming for most homes in the Delaware Valley. The educational/public television station WHYY, inaugurated in 1957 as an experimental UHF educational station (Channel 35), did not receive its VHF designation as Channel 12 until 1963. UHF (Ultra High Frequency) band stations did not become commercially viable until the end of the 1960s due to a number of technological and regulatory issues. For similar reasons cable television did not find its consumer market until the 1970s. Thus, viewer choices were limited and local affiliates were responsible for the majority of the broadcast day.

Channel 3 (later CBS 3), which began as Philco’s experimental station in 1932, is one of the oldest television stations in the world. When the station received a commercial license from the FCC in 1941, it became WPTZ-Channel 3. As an affiliate of NBC, whose parent company RCA was developing commercial color television technology for the consumer market, WPTZ stood in the forefront of color broadcasting. In 1947, RCA researchers debuted the company’s own simultaneous color system before the scientific community at the Franklin Institute. Research and development continued throughout the early 1950s.

WPTZ broadcast one of the nation’s earliest color-programming events on December 18, 1953: “Skinner’s Spotlight,” an interview show starring local host George Skinner. During the 1950s, the station changed hands from Philco to Westinghouse. In 1956, NBC gained control. At that point the station’s call letters became WRCV-TV (for RCA-Victor). In 1965, after lengthy legal negotiations, the station again became part of Westinghouse’s broadcasting division and the call letters were changed to KYW-TV, although the station retained its affiliation with NBC.

During the industry’s early era, a number of important shows and personalities made their home at Channel 3. In 1940, WPTZ broadcast the entirety of the Republican National Convention held in Philadelphia. This on-site political reporting represented a television first. Ernie Kovacs (1919-62), a comedic genius, began his television career on WPTZ and had a number of different shows from 1950 through 1952, when he left for WCBS-TV in New York. Channel 3 was also home to a number of much-beloved, locally-produced children’s shows such as Lunchtime with Uncle Pete, which ran in various incarnations during the 1950s and starred “Uncle” Pete Boyle (1903-67), father of Academy Award-winning actor Peter Boyle (1935-2006). Bertie the Bunyip ran from 1953 to 1960 under the creative helm of Lee Dexter (1905-91). The award-winning Mike Douglas Show, which aired from Philadelphia from its debut in 1965 until it moved to Los Angeles in 1978, featured a diverse range of guests, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, William Shatner, and Moe Howard (of Three Stooges fame). This top-rated daytime show hosted by Douglas (1920-2006) helped to promote to a wider viewing audience and fueled the burgeoning careers of new artists such as Barbra Streisand and Aretha Franklin.

Channel 3 (KWY-TV) changed affiliation to CBS in 1995 as a result of a multistation deal negotiated between Westinghouse, CBS, and NBC. The station has been a CBS affiliate since, although it has changed parent companies from Westinghouse to Viacom (2000) to CBS Corporation (2006).

The origins of WFIL (later WPVI) were in radio. In the 1920s two major department stores in Philadelphia owned and operated radio stations. Strawbridge & Clothier operated WFI and Lit Brothers operated WDAR (changed in 1924 to WLIT). The two radio stations merged in 1935 and assumed the call letters WFIL. WFIL was purchased by Triangle Publications (owned by publisher and philanthropist Walter Annenberg) in 1947. Originally an affiliate of the DuMont network, in 1948 WFIL became the first affiliate of the newly inaugurated ABC Network. Channel 6 is unique among Philadelphia’s three original TV stations by virtue of sustaining a single network affiliation since its founding.

Channel 6 was a showcase for groundbreaking shows and performers of the new medium. Arguably one of the most influential was American Bandstand, which helped to define post-World War II American teen culture. The show, called Bandstand before it went national in 1957, was broadcast from Philadelphia from 1952 to 1964. The station also developed programs with local celebrities who became pioneers in developing the format of the hosted children’s show. Channel 6’s lineup included one of the few female hosts with her own show (Sally Starr) and the only children’s show host in the region who was an ethnic minority—Chief Traynor Ora Halftown, a member of the Seneca nation, who was on Channel 6 from 1950 until 1999.

WCAU-TV, the region’s third television station, came online in 1948 as a CBS affiliate owned by the Philadelphia Bulletin. CBS bought WCAU-TV in 1958, and from 1965 through to 1986, WCAU was the only network-owned station in Philadelphia. During the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s WCAU produced memorable and intelligent local children’s shows including Pixanne, Cartoon Corners, The Gene London Show, and an early 1960s puppet show, Tottle. WCAU also gained notice during this era for its news department. As an affiliate of CBS, the “Tiffany Network,” home to legendary journalists such as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, WCAU had the most respected anchor, John Facenda (1913-84), and was a local ratings leader.

As in the case of Channel 3, in 1995 a series of negotiated acquisitions and divestitures of stations resulted in Channel 10 changing networks, becoming an NBC affiliate.

Local stations increased their presence in the 1950s and 1960s with new broadcasting facilities. While Channel 3 maintained television studios in Center City Philadelphia, Channel 6 and Channel 10 each built broadcasting facilities on the city’s boundary at City Avenue. The Channel 10 facility, built in 1952, was the first structure in the United States built specifically for television broadcasting and production. Channel 6 built a state-of-the-art television studio directly across the street from Channel 10 in 1963.

Industry Changes and Challenges

The 1970s and 1980s brought dramatic changes to the television industry and to the local affiliates. Competition for advertising dollars and audience share increased with the inauguration of commercially successful UHF (Ultra High Frequency) stations and cable networks. The paradigm shift began with the rise of local UHF stations, which can be traced to several factors. In 1964, with the passage of the All-Channel Receiver Act, built-in UHF tuners became standard for television sets manufactured in the United States. Before this, many experimental UHF stations across the United States had gone bankrupt. However the late 1960s and early 1970s represented an era of growth for UHF programming, including three new UHF stations in the Philadelphia market: Channel 17 (WPCA—later WPHL) in 1960, Channel 29 (WIBF—later WTXF) in 1965, and Channel 48 (WKBS—later WGTW).

Also in the late 1960s, parents and educators began voicing concerns to the FCC about the prevalence of advertising on children’s shows. In 1973, in response to public pressure, the National Association of Broadcasters agreed to voluntary changes in its code. One of these changes precluded children’s show hosts from serving as spokespersons for products. This had a direct impact on the economic viability of these shows as local advertisers began to pull sponsorships. With the loss of the local celebrities to pitch their products, sponsors began to look at other options. Advertising on the burgeoning UHF stations was cheaper and reached the same local audiences. The 1970s saw the demise of the hosted children’s shows produced by the local network affiliates. As children’s programming declined, for the most part news departments took their place as generators of locally produced programming and competitors for audience and advertising dollars.

By the 1980s cable television networks and providers became increasingly commercially viable and found major new markets, including the Philadelphia area. Cable television originated in the 1940s primarily as a means of providing programming through coaxial cables to areas too remote to receive broadcast signals. When the Supreme Court upheld the regulatory authority of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over cable systems in 1968, a number of regulations followed to govern programming (particularly with regard to non-duplication and syndication of programs), technical standards, and franchise and ownership standards. In the 1970s, however, the FCC began to relax or eliminate many of these restrictions. Within this new regulatory environment, in 1972 HBO (Home Box Office), headquartered in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, launched its fee-based television enterprise. Federal legislation in the 1980s further deregulated the industry and positioned cable television as competitive with the legacy broadcast networks.

[caption id="attachment_13119" align="alignright" width="300"]Philadelphia skyline with Comcast towers, one completed, the other (and taller) one inserted digitally at time of announcement in 2014 that it would be built. Besides making television history, Philadelphia-based cable giant Comcast put its stamp on the city's skyline, erecting the tallest building in town. Work began on new tallest (center) in 2014. (Comcast Corp.)[/caption]

Greater Philadelphia contributed to the cable industry in significant ways. In 1983, Philadelphia’s City Council awarded three cable franchises: Comcast, Cablevisions Systems of Philadelphia, and Philadelphia Inner City Cable (a minority-owned business). Wade Cablevision (also a minority-owned company) was awarded the fourth franchise in 1987. Of these original four, Comcast rose to become an industry leader (it acquired Cablevision in 1999; Time Warner acquired Wade in 1995 and Inner City in 2005). Comcast, founded in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1962 and incorporated in Pennsylvania in 1969, became one of the world’s largest mass media companies. Comcast Tower, the company headquarters in Philadelphia, became the city’s tallest skyscraper at the time of its completion in 2007. Comcast acquired NBCUniversal in 2013 and was pursuing a merger with Time Warner Communications in 2014.

Philadelphia was influential with regard to cable programming as well. PRISM (Philadelphia Regional In-Home Sports and Movies), a regional cable service, operated as a premium channel from 1976 to 1997. Its main offerings were televised sporting events of Philadelphia’s major franchises (as well as college Big 5 basketball and World Wrestling Federation events held at the Spectrum) and first-run movies. In 1996, Comcast acquired a controlling interest in PRISM. Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia became a provider of coverage of Philadelphia’s sports teams and regional sports to the area’s local cable systems. QVC (“Quality, Value, Convenience”), a “shop-at-home” cable network, opened in West Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1986. Founded by Philadelphia-area entrepreneur Joseph Segel (b. 1931), QVC, with its international affiliates and a strong digital presence, became one of the world’s largest retailers.

Local News and Sports

News departments became a staple for local stations, with Channel 10’s local newscast leading in the ratings from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s. From 1948 through 1973, under the leadership of legendary anchor John Facenda (nicknamed “The Voice of God” for his elegant delivery), the news team’s innovations included the introduction of a late-night (11 p.m.) newscast in 1948; the hiring of an African American woman news reporter, Edie Huggins, in 1966; and the region’s first African American news anchor, Jack Jones, in 1971. Facenda, who went on to be the voice of locally-based NFL films from 1965 to 1984, is also credited with pioneering the format for the thirty-minute local newscast: news, sports, weather, sign-off.

In the mid-1960s, Channel 10 was displaced from its top spot by Channel 3 and its innovative Eyewitness News format. Al Primo (b. 1925), the station’s news director, developed the format’s personality-based, on-site reporting style. Although critics dismissed it for its “sensational” style of reporting, Eyewitness News was a ratings success, and the format spread. By the 1990s stations throughout the United States and Europe adopted this pioneering approach. A challenger to Eyewitness News came in 1970 from Channel 6 and its Action News team. Channel 6 news director Mel Kampmann took the Eyewitness News style to the next level by tightening the pace of the segments, expanding suburban coverage, and featuring young talent.

Beloved local TV anchorman Jim Gardner (b. 1948) joined WPVI in 1976 and became the station’s main anchor in 1977. That year Channel 6 became the top-rated local newscast and remained the solid leader in local news ratings into the twenty-first century. Like Eyewitness News, the name and the style of Action News quickly spread nationwide to other stations. Closely associated with Action News, and arguably a factor in its success, was its theme song, “Move Closer to Your World,” written by composer Al Ham (1925-2001) and introduced in 1972. Another innovation in local news occurred when WKBS Channel 48 premiered a 10 p.m. newscast that lasted from 1968 to 1969. WTAF- Channel 29 (now Fox 29) launched its successful 10 p.m. news show in 1986 and expanded it to an hour-long format in 1990.

With the success of Eyewitness and Action News, television moved from the journalistic, “news reader” style of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley to an on-location, visual style of reporting. This era also marked the debut of local newscasters in the Philadelphia market who went on to gain national profiles, including Jessica Savitch (1947-83), correspondent for NBC from 1977 to 1983; Maury Povich (b. 1939), syndicated talk show host; Andrea Mitchell (b. 1946), foreign news chief for NBC News; and Larry Kane (b. 1942), journalist, author, Beatles chronicler, and cable news analyst.

In recent years, due to factors such as the rise of the twenty-four-hour news networks and digital delivery of the news, weather and sports gained new prominence for local television stations. Allowing for specialization and target marketing, severe weather and sports-related stories often led the news. Digital applications for computers and smartphones added immediacy and interactivity for viewers. Local meteorologists such as Cecily Tynan (6ABC) and Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz (NBC10) became active on social media and encouraged viewers to participate in broadcasts by sending photos and videos of the weather.

The Digital Age

In the first decades of the twenty-first century, new technologies and new platforms for delivering “television” programs radically changed viewer expectations for interactivity and control over viewing schedules and options. VCRs, DVR technology, video on demand, and streaming video freed the viewer from a broadcast schedule. Cable and the Internet broke the monopoly on programming choices once held by legacy broadcast networks.

On a local level, with rare exceptions, only newscasts and news talk shows survived as locally produced programs. The three local network affiliates all developed robust Web presences and encouraged audience engagement through social media and mobile apps. Public Broadcasting System stations also engaged with communities through websites, podcasts, and educational outreach such as WHYY’s Public Media Commons. Local affiliates continued to feature locally produced original documentaries (for example, Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, shown on WPVI, and WHYY’s The Barnes Collection), but with the exception of the news and local sports, most televised content originated with national network production companies. Philadelphia’s contributions to the television industry continued through the creative achievements of native sons and daughters like David Boreanaz (son of former Channel 6 weatherman Dave Roberts), Bill Cosby, Tina Fey, Seth Green, and Bob Saget, who perpetuated Philadelphia’s long tradition of television innovation.

Vibiana Bowman Cvetkovic is a reference librarian at the Paul Robeson Library of Rutgers – The State University of New Jersey. 

Children’s Television

Local children’s programming in the Philadelphia area flourished during the “Golden Age of Television,” from the rise of commercial broadcasting after World War II to the early 1970s. During its heyday the hosted children’s show was a mainstay of locally produced programming. In the Philadelphia area, original children’s shows were produced by the three local broadcast affiliates – WPZT (later KYW), Channel 3 (NBC, now CBS), WFIL (later WPVI) Channel 6 (ABC), and WCAU Channel 10 (CBS, now NBC) – and reached viewers throughout Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Delaware, and even northern Maryland. The Philadelphia shows were not only financially successful, garnering large audience shares for their time slots and generating substantial advertising income for the stations, but were also critically well-received by reviewers, children, and parents.

When commercial television began, national networks typically did not begin their weekday broadcasts until after seven o’clock at night. Local stations had to fill the rest of the air time during each weekday.  Children’s shows became a popular choice for economic reasons. The local children’s programs kept their production costs very low: the sets were minimal; there were no writers (most shows were ad-libbed); and the star (the host) performed live.

From Radio to TV

[caption id="attachment_3129" align="alignright" width="300"]An image of Bill Webber speaking in front of cameras and an audience full of sitting and standing children. Bill Webber interacts with the "Peanut Gallery" live audience on "Wee Willie Webber's Colorful Cartoon Club" on WPHL-TV, Channel 17. (Photograph published with permission of The Webber Family, Copyright 2012, The Webber Family.)[/caption]

Most of the shows followed the same formula. The role of host was similar to the role of a disc jockey on the radio. Indeed, several of the popular children’s show hosts in the Philadelphia area were originally radio personalities. The host introduced cartoons or film shorts (such as Popeye, Little Rascals, and The Three Stooges), which program directors purchased in bundles from the controlling motion picture studios or from brokers such as King Features Syndicate.  Hosts filled the time between the segments with singing, improvised “dialogue” with the child-viewer at home, and story-telling often accompanied with drawings by the host done in real time. The host also served as the spokesperson for the show’s sponsors. Inexpensive to produce and popular with the child-viewer, these shows became attractive vehicles for local businesses eager to tap into the new advertising medium of television.

[caption id="attachment_3140" align="alignright" width="205"] Jane Norman as “Pixanne” in the Enchanted Forest. (Photograph published with the permission of Jane Norman.)[/caption]

Hosts such as Sally Starr (Popeye Theater) and Bill “Wee Willie” Webber (Breakfast Time), whose personalities transcended the shows’ limited production values, attracted the children who tuned in daily.  Many program directors felt that since there was so much time to fill, they could afford to give any reasonably good idea a chance. This atmosphere fostered creativity and encouraged experimentation. Children’s entertainers had the opportunity to land their own shows if they could craft a unique concept. In addition to Starr and Webber, some of the most popular hosts—based on both the longevity of the shows and market share of viewing audiences—were Jane Norman (Pixanne), Gene London, “Uncle” Pete Boyle, Traynor Ora Halftown (Chief Halftown), and W. Carter Merbreier (Captain Noah).

By the early 1970s, the heyday of children’s programming in Philadelphia had ended. New Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations prohibited the hosts from performing commercials for the sponsor’s products, thus making them less attractive to local businesses. The rise of educational programming, UHF stations, and the introduction of the Saturday-morning cartoon block resulted in increased competition for the locally produced shows on the network affiliates. Thus increased government scrutiny and regulation in conjunction with major industry changes reduced the financial viability of these shows and helped to bring about their demise in stations across the country.

Host Bill Webber

By decade’s end, most of the local hosted children’s shows were gone. Some hosts, like Bill Webber, made a successful transition to UHF. From the mid-1960s through to the end of the 1970s, Webber hosted cartoon shows for local stations Channel 17 (WPHL) and Channel 48 (WKBS). Captain Noah and His Magical Ark (which began in the late 1960s) sailed its final voyage in 1994. Chief Halftown’s weekend show continued on the air until 1999, although the format had changed from a cartoon show to a children’s talent showcase.

Even though the hosts of the shows were no longer on television they continued to personal appearances and draw crowds of former child-viewer fans at local parades and amusement parks throughout the area. Bill Webber, Ora Halftown, and “Uncle” Pete Boyle are now deceased. Many of the remaining hosts have reinvented themselves and have had second careers. Jane Norman has had a highly successful career as an author and currently tours and records as an interpreter of the Great American Songbook and jazz standards. Sally Starr was a radio show host (WVLT Vineland, N.J.) until her retirement in 2011. Gene London is a historian and curator of movie costumes. His collection has been featured in museums nationally and internationally. Although now retired, W. Carter Merbreier continues to write for children and is active in professional organizations such as the Broadcast Pioneers. (The set of Captain Noah is on permanent display at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia.)

Though their reign over the “Golden Age of Television” was brief, children’s television show hosts in the Delaware Valley left an indelible mark on the children of the era who were comforted by the hosts’ warmth and charm. Television stations produced inexpensive yet high-quality programming, and Baby Boomer children in the Philadelphia region reaped the benefits.

Vibiana Bowman Cvetkovic is a reference librarian at the Paul Robeson Library of Rutgers – The State University of New Jersey. Brandi Scardilli graduated from Rutgers University–Camden with an M.A. in history.

Share This Page: