Few media companies offer the time-honored pedigree of CBS Radio, which launched in 1928 as the Columbia Broadcasting System by William S. Paley. Now, as the sun sets on the iconic brand—amid its merger with Entercom—Inside Radio looks back on the mighty empire that ultimately grew into 117 radio stations in 26 markets coast-to-coast.
Technically, CBS Radio was born out of a deal engineered by artist manager Arthur L. Judson. He lined up investors, rented studio space at WOR New York and ultimately convinced 16 stations to sign on. His new network would pay stations for carrying its programs, with its own expenses paid for by advertising. The Columbia Phonograph Company agreed to provide cash, and so, on-air, it was called the Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System.
In September 1927, the network went live with an orchestra broadcast, and then provided 10 hours of arts programming each week, contracting to pay each station $500 per week. But a few months in, Columbia Phonograph pulled out, while salesmen also struggled to sell airtime. In peril, Judson sold his fledgling radio company to the Levy brothers, who owned the successful WCAU Philadelphia. They brought in additional investors, including Sam Paley, owner of the Congress Cigar Co.
Within a year, his son, William S. Paley, took charge, and changed the name to the Columbia Broadcasting System, while signing dozens of new stations and major advertisers, tripling revenue over a few months. An empire was born.
Paley shifted programming to be more mainstream, signing the Paul Whiteman Band and a young singer named Bing Crosby. Vaudeville entertainers and comedians appeared on the network, including Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, and Fred Allen. Announcer Ted Husing was sent out to broadcast sporting events.
CBS then bought New York’s WABC—now WCBS—and moved the studios out of WOR to a new headquarters on Madison Avenue, close to major New York ad agencies. According to various online retrospectives of the company, by 1931, at the bottom of the Depression, Columbia had 400 employees, 79 affiliates and a net profit of $2.3 million.
In 1935, CBS went public on the New York Stock Exchange, as it continued to rapidly expand—particularly on the news side. As America entered World War II, the nation tuned in to hear on CBS Radio the likes of H.V. Kaltenborn, Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer, Eric Sevareid and Robert Trout.
During this period, CBS acquired many of its flagship O&O stations, including KMOX St. Louis, WBBM Chicago, KNX Los Angeles and KCBS San Francisco. And it bought the Columbia Phonograph Company, which became CBS Records. By 1950, CBS had 3,000 employees and annual sales of $100 million—helping it become an immediate powerhouse as the television age dawned.
CBS Radio: The Mel Karmazin Era
Then, of course, there is the famed Mel Karmazin era of CBS. Among Karmazin’s first jobs was selling ads for CBS’ radio division. In the late 1960s, he went to work for Metromedia, overseeing New York's WNEW-AM and WNEW-FM. In 1981, he was drafted to run the fledgling Infinity Broadcasting which he built into a powerhouse, due in no small part to the runaway success of Howard Stern.
After some 15 years, he sold Infinity to Westinghouse—then the parent of CBS. As part of the merger, Karmazin headed CBS Radio as chairman and CEO. Within a year, he was named Chairman and CEO of the CBS Station Group, commandeering both its radio and TV properties. By 1998, he rose to President and Chief Operating Officer of CBS Corp. In 2000, media behemoth Viacom took over CBS Corp.—and Karmazin, not amused by Viacom chief Sumner Redstone, left to run Sirius Satellite Radio in 2004.
In 2005, Viacom spun CBS and Infinity Broadcasting back into a separate unit and the division was renamed CBS Radio. From that point on, the iconic brand began selling assets. In 2006, it sold 15 radio stations in Cincinnati, Memphis, Austin and Rochester to Entercom, and several smaller outlets to the likes of Border Media Partners and Peak Media.
Two years later, it shed 50 stations in 12 mid-size markets, swapped seven stations with Clear Channel Communications and sold off its three-station Denver cluster. This trend continued until 2016, when, as Inside Radio readers know, CBS CEO Les Moonves stated that the company was exploring selling or spinning off CBS Radio. And here we are.
For those that feel sentimental, while the merged company will be known as Entercom, it can still use the name CBS Radio Inc. for 12 months after the deal closes. And Entercom can continue to use the “CBS Sports Radio” name for the CBS Sports Radio Network until Dec. 31, 2020. Meanwhile, legendary call letters, including WCBS and KCBS, will continue to fly high as the branding, domain names and call signs for the radio stations they’re synonymous with–long after the merger closes. Under licensing terms spelled out in the merger agreement, “NewsRadio 880” WCBS and classic hits WCBS-FM New York; news KCBS San Francisco and adult hits “Jack FM” KCBS-FM Los Angeles can keep using those storied call letters for 20 years after CBS Corp. hands the keys to its radio division over to Entercom.