Sullivan, Glascock, Croninger, Mounty and paulsen
By Alan Walden
Most of the people about whom you read on this site are those who were on the air; the music hosts, newscasters, reporters, sports guys, et al. But WNEW wouldn’t have been nearly as successful for as long as it lived without the guidance and talents of those in the corner office; the GMs who put the pieces together, hired the talent, directed the sales force that generated the income and, when necessary, made the hard decisions.
I didn’t know all the general managers of WNEW-AM, but I knew five of them quite well and it is of them I choose to write.
First and foremost was John Van Buren Sullivan who “found me” out there in Cleveland on one fine day in 1964 and decided that I would be a worthy addition (God bless him!) to the already legendary news staff of the World’s Greatest Radio Station. Jack was a little guy, ruddy and rotund, with the map of the Ould Sod all over his almost always smiling face; a smile that effectively camouflaged a volcanic temper when he was provoked. Jack Sullivan was the ultimate cheerleader, quick to compliment when he thought it was appropriate, but equally quick to criticize in no uncertain terms when things weren’t going as he thought they should. He demanded the ultimate in professional behavior both on and off the air, and his philosophy regarding WNEW was simple and straightforward: “We don’t attempt to overpower the listener,” he once told an interviewer.” And, about the news product, he said, “We seek a human, adult, vital sort of comment: not a ponderous world-shaking attitude.” That he knew what he was about was reflected in the station’s earnings. In 1962 WNEW grossed over 7.1 million dollars, more than any other radio station in the nation. In 1968, when Metromedia bought the station, Jack was kicked upstairs to become the first president of Metromedia Radio, then the parent company, Metromedia Inc. Publishing Division whose publications including Playbill, the bible of theater magazines. But wherever he went and whatever he did, Jack always regarded WNEW as the Polar Star of the business. I’ll never forget his greeting the first time we met in person. “Hi, Kiddo,” he said. “Welcome to the family.”
When Jack became president of Metromedia Radio he was succeeded at WNEW by Harvey L. Glascock who had, until the shift, been general manager of WIP in Philadelphia. Harvey was, if you’ll forgive the cliché,(and even if you won’t) a whole different breed of cat. He had little of Sullivan’s people skills and virtually none of his charm. Harvey almost immediately began to make changes in how WNEW operated and was perceived. The competition in the New York market was becoming tougher; WINS and WCBS had switched formats to all-news, and the ratings were falling. A former sales executive, Harvey placed great faith in ratings and consultants rather than his own instincts and the sound of WNEW became more “contemporary” based on some changes in music personalities and the selection of the music itself. It didn’t help much: WNEW’s market share continued to shrink. But so powerful were the name and reputation of the station income was still very strong and it wasn’t unusual for major advertising agencies and sponsors to plan their budgets around what they would spend on WNEW first and only then deal with the rest of the stations in the market. Harvey was not very well liked by the “old guard,” partly because he was always being compared to Jack Sullivan, partly because almost no one is comfortable with change, but mostly because he was rather closed up and difficult to approach. He also had the most distracting and annoying habit of flexing his arms and shooting the cuffs of his heavily starched and monogrammed shirts whenever he was talking to you. After a relatively few years at WNEW Harvey decided to become an owner-operator and bought WTSU in Stuart, Florida. I’ll always be grateful to Harvey Glasock for having made me news director of WNEW and allowing me plenty of leeway in running the news department. But he also reduced the size of the news staff and, for that, I was less grateful.
Enter David Cherington Croninger. Hoo boy! Talk about energy. Dave gave new meaning to the word and hit the ground ready to run. He was just about everything Harvey Glascock was not. Dave was slim and fit, quite handsome, always accessible, and had a thunderous laugh that was instantly infectious and made it sound as though the whole room was laughing. Another Metromedia transplant, this time from Kansas City via Philadelphia (Where else?), Dave was also inclined to make changes among which was an increasing emphasis on the FM station which, until then, had been regarded as the stepchild of WNEW-AM. He made changes in music policy including a shift of personalities from one day part to another and took a lot more interest than had Glascock in news department operations. Dave’s background made him uniquely suited for the job of general manager. Although he, too, had worked in sales he was also an excellent on-air performer as we discovered when those represented by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) struck the company in 1969 and management personnel became performers, first in New York, then at KLAC, WNEW’s sister station in Los Angeles. Dave had a tough row to hoe: ratings were still a problem and he was confronted with the job of trying to adjust to a rapidly changing industry. He also had to deal with a major tragedy when music host Pete Myers, whose on-air schedule he had changed, committed suicide. It fell to me to advise Dave of Pete’s death and he took the news very hard and very personally even though we knew that Pete, for all his affability on the air, was plagued by all sorts of demons. It was Dave who approved the creation of Metromedia Radio News, a short-lived syndicated service for independent stations, born of the assassination of Robert Kennedy prior to the Democratic National Convention of 1968. By then, Croninger’s meteoric rise through the management ranks of Metromedia had culminated in his appointment by Chairman of the Board John Kluge as president of the radio division. In 1970, when the SEC rejected a proposed merger between Metromedia and TransAmerica on which he had “bet the farm” Kluge decided to divest himself of certain holdings, including the radio division. Dave was fired along with me (I had by then become Vice President of Radio News) and almost all of the other senior executives. Dave later became general manager of WHDH in Boston and now lives in Southern California.I liked Dave…. a lot! We managed to see each other a few times when he was in Boston. I also trusted him, and he never let me down.
When Croninger became president of Metromedia Radio he chose Robert L. Mounty, the sales manager, to become GM of WNEW. Bob had come to New York from (You guessed, didn’t you?) Philadelphia a few years earlier and knew the station intimately. The transition for him was, therefore, both seamless and painless. Bob was the perfect sales executive, “hail fellow, well met,” and readily admitted that the programming professionals around him knew more than he did about how to make the station sound right. Not that he didn’t take a hands-on approach when he thought he should. But, for the most part, he was inclined to adopt the attitude of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Bob had never been on the air. But when, at the at the time of the AFTRA strikes in ’69, we needed someone to fill an overnight shift on WNEW and, since we figured he could do less damage then than at any other time, we put Bob in the studio. He was so truly awful he actually developed a cult-following during his two weeks in the spotlight and got fan mail for months thereafter. Thank goodness he had a keen sense of humor and was, therefore, able to shake off the relentless ribbing he got from the rest of us….and not only for his performance. He was as splay-footed as a bassett hound. If it walked like duck it wasn’t necessarily a duck: it might be Bob Mounty. His sense of humor also became the stuff of which good quotes are made at the funeral of legendary comedian Henny Youngman. The service, at the Riverside Chapel on Amsterdam Avenue at 75th Street, was supposed to begin at 12:00 Noon sharp. About 15 seconds after the hour Jack Green, former Dean of the Friars Club, noted that it was unusual for things to begin late. “Yeah,” said Mounty in a stage whisper that could easily be heard by everyone. “Henny must not have another booking after this.” Bob suffered the same fate as the rest of us when Kluge dismembered the radio division. We later became colleagues at NBC for several years and remained in contact until his death.
There were some survivors of the corporate massacre of 1970. Shortly after most of us had been escorted to the exit the eminence grise of WNEW finally moved into the general manager’s office. “Behold! A pale Norse!” as Nat Asch, my friend and boon companion of more than four decades, was wont to declare. Parenthetically, Nat was, himself, one of Metromedia’s GMs for a time, albeit at KMET in Los Angeles. But getting back to Varner Paulsen: A “pale Norse” he was; always there, always around, but mostly in someone else’s shadow. He was Jack Sullivan’s program director, a program director or manager for some of the other GM’s, even general manager of WNEW-FM for awhile. But not until the early ‘70s did he grab the brass ring. It was hard to get a handle on Varner. Perhaps it was because he, like Harvey Glascock, didn’t really get it. You know the type: Someone tells a joke and he looks around to see if anyone else is laughing before he laughs. Mostly, he lurked. No matter where you were or what you were doing, if you looked up, Varner would be there. While you were working, he was lurking. He reminded me somewhat of Uriah Heap, David Copperfield’s principal antagonist in the Dickens classic, who was noted for his obsequiousness and insincerity; the quintessential yes man. Not that Varner didn’t have his moments. It was he who brought the immensely talented Ted Brown back from exile to do the morning show at WNEW. But it was too little and too late. Before long the station, by then in the hands of some of Metromedia’s former executives, would move from its showcase location at the corner of 5th Avenue and 46th Street, where the big, bright call letters displayed on the second floor shouted its presence and primacy to the world, to the relative obscurity of 3rd Avenue where it would languish and decline until, finally, it was no more.
So there you have them. The suits….at least those I remember: the GMs of the World’s Greatest Radio Station. Some of them were truly the best and the brightest. And if others were made of baser clay few of us paid much attention back then. We were having too good a time.