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Howard Clothes "Bulldog Drummond" ad listing, circa 1942


Formed in September of 1934, the Mutual Broadcasting System aspired to be the largest radio network in history, as much in defense against the competition from CBS, NBC's 'Red' and 'Blue' networks, and ABC as for any other economic reason. The other three competitive networks of the day were very well funded, very politically connected, and had already carved out a huge chunk of the American Radio Market for themselves.

'The Mutual' was the David to the other stations' 'Goliath' in those days, but the scrappy, resourceful amalgamation of four of the larger independent radio stations (WOR, WGN, WLW, and WXYZ) began to set their sights on both a larger audience and the opportunity to expand out of the Northeast and into the Heartland. Detroit's WXYZ, especially, had 'The Lone Ranger' to contribute, and this early Western Adventure Serial already provided a lot of advertising and growing popularity to the expanding markets. And it's no coincidence that the same station later produced The Green Hornet. Both serials were written by Fran Striker and George Trendle, hence the rumored connection between The Lone Ranger's true identity (John Reid) and that of his 'grandson',  Britt Reid, alias 'The Green Hornet'.

Brace Beemer atop Silver



By the early 1940's, Mutual Broadcasting was indeed arguably the largest true 'network' of radio stations for its time, but with few exceptions most of those 200 - 300 radio stations were small, low-wattage, local stations. This economic fact necessarily limited it's appeal as a 'Network' due to most stations' inability to extend their influence beyond the 250 - 1000 Watt range of their transmitters.

Advertising revenue has always been the only means for a radio station of any size to expand it's broadcast reach, and with the vast majority of Mutual's stations serving small, local communities--and markets--the network wasn't necessarily 'the sum of its parts' just yet. Some might argue that it never really was.


It didn't take a great deal of resources in those days to produce local radio dramas, comedy, adventure and variety, and since that's about all most of Mutual's smaller stations could compete with, they came up with some wonderfully innovative and enduring programming to make up for their lack of resources, especially in the juvenile adventure series genre.

While its true enough that Mutual was 'owned by its stations' and not the other way around, a few of those stations were real powerhouses. WOR (New York), WGN (Chicago), and the West Coast collection of Don Lee stations held most of the controlling shares in the System.

WOR's Home Towers Installation c. 1922

Click for Full-Size Superman Spot Ad
Mutual/Petri Wines "Sherlock Holmes" ad listing, circa 1943

WOR and WGN in particular more than paid their way for their controlling shares, providing a great deal of the better shows and material that was picked up and distributed throughout the Mutual System in the late 1930s and through the 1940s.



Thomas S. Lee, circa 1942; Sportsman, Entrepeneur, Telecommunications Pioneer, and sole heir to the Don Lee
Empire after the fluke choking death of his father in 1934.

Don Lee, the California distributor for the Cadillac Motor Car Company, purchased his first station, KFRC, San Francisco, in 1926. Lee's extraordinary 20-year success in the automobile business had netted him a considerable fortune, and as was the fashion among other wealthy entrepreneurs of the era, felt that radio would be an exciting and challenging new 'diversion'.

He'd found and purchased the license for the City of Paris's KFRC and promptly announced the beginning of a dramatic new era in West Coast broadcasting. He installed his first studios in his Cadillac Dealership building in San Francisco, a practice he repeated in 1927 a year later, in Los Angeles, with his acquisition of KHJ from The Los Angeles Times. KHJ's station and its studios were, as well relocated to his Cadillac dealership building at 7th and Bixel in Los Angeles, some 5 blocks away (literally within eyesight from where I write this, btw).



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Mutual Broadcasting Tower logo, circa 1940s

As sole owner of two of the West Coast's most prestigious early radio stations, he found himself poised to leverage his broadcasting power and its influence to rapidly expand his telecommunications holdings. Indeed, only two years later, in 1929, it was reported that both of his young radio stations had full complements of organic engineers, performers, two Don Lee Symphony Orchestras--one for each station, and "dance band and organ, plus all of the musical instruments that can be used successful in broadcasting." Thus, both KHJ and KFRC could "operate continuously without going outside their own staffs for talent," and still appeal to a highly competitive and growing West Coast market, head-to-head with any other broadcaster west of the Rockies.

Meanwhile, back on the East Coast, William S. Paley of the fledgling Columbia Broadcasting System, was poised to expand his network to more robust stations on the West Coast. Since Don Lee already had two successful, powerful stations blanketing half of California, Paley viewed Don Lee as the most readily accessible resource to help CBS compete with rival National Broadcasting Corporation's voracious appetite for new affiliates. NBC was pushing hard to expand and consolidate it's '"Orange Network" of west coast affiliates and Don Lee knew Paley needed him more than he needed Paley and CBS.

And so it was that the Don Lee-Columbia Network was established in 1930, adding San Diego's KGB and Santa Barbara's KDB in the process. Lee added the McClatchy Newspaper station, Fresno's KMJ, and three other McClatchy stations, KFBK in Sacramento, KWG in Stockton and KERN in Bakersfield to the chain. The rapidly expanding network then added Northwest stations KOIN Portland, KOL Seattle, KVI Tacoma and KFPY Spokane to the chain.

Thus, within two years, Don Lee had consolidated his West Coast network holdings, while creating a powerful new, nationwide market for his local origination programming . West Coast listeners now had the luxury of CBS feeds running throughout the day until 8 p.m., Pacific Coast time, and then enjoying top-notch local origination programming over the evening hours' schedules.


Don Lee-Mutual's KFRC, San Francisco logo
circa 1940s


Don Lee Mutual "Red Ryder" ad listing, circa 1943
Don Lee Mutual "Red Ryder" ad listing, circa 1943


Mutual-Don Lee's Radio City, Hollywoodland HQ

The War Years saw the transition of The Mutual Broadcasting System away from the control of hundreds of smaller stations and into the control of a succession of corporations; General Tire and Rubber, in the early 1950's, then Armand Hammer, the Hal Roach Studios, and Albert G. McCarthy. Then in 1960, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) purchased the Network. In the end it transferred to the Amway Corporation, and then to Westwood One on the West Coast, where, alas, it finally resides as a network entity without even it's name to remind us of it's rich heritage. Ironically, Westwood One is ViaCom's (Infinity Broadcasting) Radio Content Marketing and Sales company now. Yes, that means the old MBS has become the 21st Century's CBS Radio. And the circle is complete. The Don Lee-Columbia Network comes home to die an ignominious death. The Lee's must be spinning in their graves.




WOR "Superman" ad listing, circa 1940
WOR "Superman" ad listing, circa 1940


The Lone Ranger, November 1, 1948. The Flashing Light


The Green Hornet, October 31, 1939. Episode # 390 Parking Lot Racket


Let George Do It, October 31, 1949. Episode# 158 Every Shot Counts


Johnny Madero, Pier 23, June 26, 1947. Fatal Action


Radio Station WOR's 1944 Year In Review


The Shadow, in "Death House Rescue", with Orson Welles as Lamont Cranston, 'The Shadow', and Agnes Moorehead as Margot Lane, from September 26, 1937.


Link to Bay Area Radio's KFRC History PagesMarie Brenn Crane's 'Development of Commercial Radio in San Diego'Elizabeth McLeod's 'Some History of the Mutual Broadcasting System'Economic Expert .com's Mutual Broadcasting System synopsisGeorge Washington Univ's "Mutual Broadcasting System Records Archive"Barry Mishkind's Mutual Broadcasting System History