Saturday, November 16, 2013

Talking on the Radio With Mary Margaret McBride

Think of her as a kind of stone age Oprah Winfrey without the car giveaways. In a day time talk show career that spanned more than 40 years on radio she almost invented the interview program and a folksy, conversational style.  She was so popular that when her New York home station wanted to celebrate the 15th anniversary of her program they had to rent Yankee Stadium and every seat was filled.
Mary Margaret McBride was born to a struggling farm family on November 16, 1899 in Paris, Missouri.  Her large family had to move frequently in search of rented land so her early formal education was frequently interrupted.  But she was bright an ambitious and entered the University of Missouri in Columbia at the age of 16.  She graduated in 1919 with a degree in journalism.
Newspaper careers were hard to come by for women and when they did get work they were usually assigned to “women’s pages”, society coverage, or at best human interest feature writing.  McBride was accomplished enough to get employment, but was limited by those restrictions.
Right out of school she was hired at the Cleveland Press, the city’s progressive afternoon newspaper.  After only a year there she moved on to the troubled New York Evening Mail.  That paper was bought and merged into the Evening Telegram in 1924.
McBride discovered that she like the Big Apple just fine and rather than pursue newspaper work that might have required her to relocate, she embarked on a very successful career as a freelance writer contributing regularly to top magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, and Good Housekeeping.
She also collaborated with others on book projects.  Typically she was the primary actual writer.  Her first such project linked her with pioneering orchestra leader Paul Whiteman on Jazz in 1927.  She followed up with Charm a year later with Alexander Williams.  In 1928 she began teaming with Helen Josephy on a series of four very popular travel books highlight Paris, London, New York, and Germany.
In 1934 she was back in print journalism when she was named women’s page editor of the Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicate.
McBride’s foray into radio began the same year when WOR hired her to do a daily advice show for women focusing on the usual topics—cooking, housekeeping, shopping, and a dollop of marriage advice.  Taking advantage of her still pronounced nasal Missouri twang, the station presented her as Martha Deane, a kindly grandmother.  They provided her with a mythical family, including several grandchildren.  She was supposed to weave stories about the family into her chatty advice, but kept mixing up the names of the grandchildren.  In exasperation one day on the air she admitted to the fraud and jettisoned the mythical family.  It did not hurt her ratings, however, and she continued her broadcasts as Deane through 1940.
After leaving the press syndicate, McBride picked up a second job on the CBS Radio Network which hired her to helm a daily talk show under her own name.  This program, and virtually identical shows that migrated with her from network to network, is what she is best remembered for.
The program was aimed directly at women who were still largely at home doing housework during the day.  It was broadcast in the early afternoon and executives pictured women washing up the lunch dishes as they listened to a friendly voice.  McBride knew her audience to, but respected them.  She believed that they craved more than the domestic tidbits she was serving up as Martha Dean.  They were starving for stimulation and eager to learn about the world.
McBride set out to satisfy that need by presenting a fresh interview every day.  She drew her guests from the worlds of politics, literature, popular entertainment, news makers of all kinds.  As her popularity and fame grew, so did her ability to attract big name guests.  Eleanor Roosevelt regularly visited when she was in New York.
She meticulously prepared for each guest.   If it was an author, she would stay up half the night to read the book to make sure she could discuss it intelligently.  She combed clippings, biographies, and did library research.  Her skills as a reporter and her open, friendly demeanor made her an excellent interviewer.  Guests felt comfortable and opened up.  To listeners it sounded like to interesting people chatting over coffee.
McBride’s twang and informal manner contrasted sharply with pear shaped tones and stiff formality of male radio announcers of the day.  She also insisted on doing her own commercial, inserting them seamlessly into the discussion, seemingly off the cuff and almost rambling.  She let it be known that she would not endorse any product she did not personally use or believe in and refused to do beer or tobacco ads at all.
McBride never announced her guests in advance.  She believed listeners were motivated to tune in to find out just who she might have on when they might avoid a program they knew in advance they had little interest in.
Whatever the formula, it worked.  McBride became an institution in many American homes. 
In 1940 McBride moved her show to NBC where it drew even larger audiences over the next decade.  During the years of World War II she added top military officers to her guest roster and she successfully broke a rigid color line, inviting Black guests and treating them with the same down home friendly respect she showed everyone else.  She was becoming known as the First Lady of Radio.
In 1948 NBC brought McBride to Television with a half hour weekly program on Tuesday evenings.  The show mimicked her radio broadcasts, right down to the rambling first person commercial.  But the time and audience were very different.  It turned out men made the viewing choices in most households and they were definitely not amused.  On the whole, they would rather watch wrestling.  He show was met by scathing reviews—written by men—and was cancelled after only three months.  It was one of McBride’s few failures as a broadcaster.
Through all of these years her closest friend, business partner, and advisor was Stella Karn who was often described as her companion.  The close relationship continued even after she married radio actor and Disney movie voice actor Bill Thompson in 1950.  Karn died in ’57 and Thompson in 1971.
From 1950 to ’54 McBride’s show aired on ABC before returning to its familiar home on NBC.  It was also syndicated by the New York Herald Tribune’s radio service.  But as the decade wore on, her audience aged, radio was transitioning to a medium dominated by disc jockeys and her quaint style seemed antiquated.  Her long running show finally went off the air in 1960.
McBride and her husband moved to Upstate and lived comfortably.  She returned to freelance writing and hosted local programs.  Her last show, Your Hudson Valley Neighbor was broadcast from the comfort of her living room three times a week on WGHQ in Kingston.
She died at the age of 76 on April 7, 1976 at West Shokan, a village in the Catskills.  Her ashes were buried in her beloved rose garden.

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