Local Voices: The Don Lee and Yankee Networks

By Elizabeth McLeod


Regional networks were an important part of broadcasting for many years -- and their story ties in closely with the development of the national networks that would eventually crowd most of them out of existence. But in their prime, regional networks were strong, independent, localized voices -- and are worthy of a closer look.

Here are the stories of two of the most important -- and longest-lasting --- regional chains.

The Don Lee Network -- Voice of the West

The tale begins with Don Lee himself -- the California franchisee for Cadillac Motor Cars. In the late 20s, Lee branched out into radio, dispensing some of his ample fortune in the purchase of stations KHJ in Los Angeles and KFRC in San Francisco. In December 1928, Lee set up a wire-line connection between his two stations and the McClatchy Newspapers stations, KOIN, Portland, KOL, Seattle, KVI, then in Tacoma, and KFPY, Spokane. This was the first line up of the "Don Lee Network."

In December 1929, Lee entered into a deal with CBS -- one personally negotiated by eager young Bill Paley -- and the Don Lee stations became the western outlets for CBS, as the Don Lee-Columbia Network. (Notice who got top billing!) Although Lee died of a sudden heart attack in 1934, the network remained a part of the family business, run by son Tommy Lee, and the arrangement with CBS continued thru the end of 1936.

At that time, the McClatchy stations broke away to affiliate with NBC. CBS then terminated its relationship with Don Lee,Inc. and affiliated directly with four of its former stations. CBS also took over KNX in Hollywood as its LA-area outlet  -- the network's purchase of that station earlier in 1936 hinted at the friction that had developed between the Lee organization and Columbia over programming control issues -- in essence, Lee wanted greater programming autonomy, and CBS didn't want them to have it.

Don Lee then associated itself with Mutual, which was looking to expand into a coast-to-coast network after two years of regional growth. The Mutual-Don Lee Broadcasting System held its gala inaugural on the night of December 30, 1936.

Despite all the hub-bub, though, there was one very important difference between this new coast-to-coast hookup and the established networks. Technically speaking, Mutual had only a single affiliate west of the Rockies: The Don Lee Network itself. No contractual connections whatsoever existed between Mutual and the Don Lee stations -- the affiliation was with the Don Lee Network, which then fed selected Mutual programs to the stations as ITS affiliates.  And there really weren't that many of those, at least not early on: in 1938, only 16 to 20 per cent of commercial programs heard over the Don Lee Network originated with Mutual. The majority were still produced by Don Lee itself, at KHJ or KFRC.

This deal was the best of both worlds -- the freedom and local flavor of a regional chain, combined with the resources, when needed, of a national hookup. This was the philosophy of Mutual itself, and it tied in well with the way Don Lee had always tried to do business in the past, even though frustrated by the strictures of CBS.

This arrangement continued even after the Don Lee Network became a stockholder in Mutual in 1940 -- in fact, the Mutual-Don Lee symbiosis continued right up until the end of the Lee dynasty itself.

In 1951, the Don Lee Network was sold to General Teleradio, the broadcasting arm of the General Tire Company. While the Don Lee logo continued, the spirit was gone, a nd it disappeared entirely when General Teleradio was merged into RKO Pictures to form RKO General.

In its prime, Don Lee was one of the two most impressive regional networks in the country -- the Yankee Network in New England was the other. And Don Lee, the man,  did pretty well for himself -- considering broadcasting was just a sideline.  One wonders what else he might have achieved in radio had he not died at 53.

Yankee and Colonial: New England's Hometown Networks

The story of regional broadcasting in New England begins with Boston department store magnate John Shepard III. An aggressive, innovative businessman, Shepard became interested early on in the advertising potential of radio. In 1922, Shepard opened station WNAC in Boston, and saw the station quickly become one of the region's most popular.

Always interested in new ideas for the station, Shepard began to experiment with the idea of networking long before it became common -- WNAC joined with AT &T's station WEAF in New York for the first chain broadcast in early 1923, and thereafter was a frequent participant in WEAF's network activities.

Shepard's broadcasting activities expanded rapidly thru the twenties,  adding station WEAN in Providence, Rhode Island. The two stations often shared programming, and inspired the creation of the Yankee Network in early 1930. Stations from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut linked with WNAC to provide programs of region-wide interest -- and most importantly, one of the earliest full-time radio news operations.

The Yankee News Service (also known as the Mobilgas News Service for a time, in deference to its sponsor) was the focal point of Yankee's operations. Beginning in 1934, in the wake of a bitter conflict between radio and the print media,  part time reporters, or "stringers," were hired in each state -- and contributed stories thru their local Yankee affiliates. These stories, in turn, would be relayed to WNAC, where they would be edited for on-air use by the Yankee news staff. Fifteen minute newscasts were scheduled twice daily, at noon and six pm -- and quickly became a habit for listeners across New England. The Yankee News Service was the most elaborate radio news operation in the United States during the mid-1930s -- dwarfing the efforts of even the major national chains.

Colonial was formed in 1936 for one reason: Shepard had contracted with AT&T for 16 hours per day of broadcast line service, but Yankee was only using an average of five hours a day. Rather than waste his money, Shepard inaugurated Colonial on August 5, 1936 to fill the remaining eleven hours.

This was possible because the two networks overlapped on most of their affiliates. As of December 1938, Yankee consisted of these stations:

WNAC, Boston
WEAN, Providence
WICC, Bridgeport
WLBZ, Bangor
WNBH, New Bedford
WFEA, Manchester
WLLH, Lowell
WSAR, Fall River
WRDO, Augusta
WTIC, Hartford
WTAG, Worcester
WCSH, Portland
WLNH, Laconia
WNLC, New London
WHAI, Greenfield
WCOU, Lewiston/Auburn
WTAR, Waterbury.

Colonial included all of these stations with the exception of WNAC, WTIC, WTAG, and WCSH -- and used WAAB, Boston as its key station.

Colonial filled most of its eleven hours with Mutual programs, and served as that network's primary outlet in New England, in a manner similar to the Mutual-Don Lee affiliation on the West Coast. In 1940, Colonial became a Mutual stockholder, further strengthening that link.

Yankee, on the other hand, had no affiliation with any national network, although nine of the Yankee stations were associated on their own with NBC. The primary thrust of Yankee's programming  remained news, and Yankee also maintained a meteorological bureau, providing complete regional weather forecasts for its affiliates. Coverage of Red Sox and Braves baseball was originally a Yankee Network mainstay, but by the late 30s, these games were being shared with Colonial depending on scheduling demands.

Yankee and Colonial operated together thru the 1940s, with the Yankee News Service reaching the peak of its popularity during the WW2 years. The 1940s also saw expansion into the new field of FM broadcasting -- with a  Yankee FM network in operation as early as 1941, under the technical supervision of Major Edwin Armstrong himself.

In 1943, the General Tire and Rubber company bought into the Yankee Network, eventually acquiring a controlling interest from Shepard -- who had by this time dropped his department store business in order to concentrate fully on his broadcasting activities. General Tire established a General Teleradio division to handle its broadcast interests, and eventually, both networks were absorbed into this new division. Colonial was discontinued, but Yankee remained in operation into early 1967 before it too signed off, a victim of changing times and changing formats.

Regional networks still exist today, especially in the realm of public broadcasting. But there's no question that the 1930s and 1940s were the golden age of the regional chains -- thanks to the innovation and drive of men like Don and Tommy Lee and John Shepard -- men who defined the term "Independent Broadcaster."

Text Copyright (c) 1998 by Elizabeth McLeod