Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ed Noble, Pt. 1

Originally published in the December, 2008, Old Radio Times.

Sweet Dreams: Noble Visions of a Confectioner
by Jim Cox

My perception is that all of us are familiar, at least to a limited extent, with some of the basic parameters surrounding the lives of David Sarnoff and William S. Paley. As chairman of the Radio Corporation of America, Sarnoff is recalled as the man who—more than any other individual—for several decades supplied passionate oversight to the development of the National Broadcasting Company. Acting in the same epoch, his equivalent, Paley, performed similar duties as chairman of NBC’s foremost rival, the Columbia Broadcasting System. While there was no single individual credited with launching the third transcontinental web, the Mutual Broadcasting System, when NBC was ordered to concentrate its activities into a single chain, the name of Edward J. Noble popped up in the annals of network broadcasting.

Noble is a man about whom we know precious little beyond the fact that he made money as a prosperous confectioner. How much else have you remembered about him? He was a great deal more than a mere opportunist, out to make a fast buck, although the few details we have learned about him could lead us to speculate on purely avaricious ambitions. In the brief span of a decade in which he controlled the fourth major chain, nevertheless, his overriding intent wasn’t about money. He possessed some lofty ideals for his network, sensing an obligation to those who benefited by it. He aimed to establish it on a foundation that competitor webs might find worthy of emulating. Noble was a man of some obvious principles and ideals, a fact that most of us may have simply missed.

Before reviewing his life, let’s examine the environment that netted an opportunity for his involvement in network radio. In May 1941, the Federal Communications Commission, a Washington watchdog then almost seven years of age, issued a sweeping opinion that stated in part:

“We do not believe … that any substantial justification can be found for NBC’s operation of two stations in New York, Washington, Chicago, or San Francisco. In none of these cities are the better radio facilities so numerous as to make it in the public interest for any one network organization to control two stations; in each case such dual ownership is bound to obstruct the development of rival networks and the establishment of new networks…. Competition will be greatly strengthened if the best facilities in important cities are not so tied in the hands of a single network organization…. We find, accordingly, that the licensing of two stations in the same area to a single network organization is basically unsound and contrary to the public interest….”

After NBC was ordered to separate stations, transmitters, studios, furnishings, equipment and personnel in 1941, on January 9, 1942, it established the Blue Network Company, Inc. In 1943, NBC’s Mark Woods was appointed president. The Blue was put on the block at an asking price of $8 million, a figure sanctioned by NBC president-CEO David Sarnoff. Woods soon heard rumblings that well connected business tycoon Edward J. Noble, a prominent confectioner who presided over the Life Saver manufacturing enterprise, an ex-bureaucrat and radio station owner, was interested. But the notion faded after Noble signaled that the sum was unreasonable.

An original bid of $6 million was offered by James H. McGraw Jr., president and chairman of McGraw-Hill Publishing Company, Inc., and Noble. This was soon followed by a bid of $6.5 million by Thomas P. Durell of 44 Wall Street, which was raised to $7 million by the McGraw-Noble group. NBC parent RCA rejected this bid and McGraw-Noble then inquired whether a firm bid of $7.5 million would be acceptable. They learned that Dillon, Read & Co. interests that had been active in Blue Network sales prospects at the time of the first FCC order were again considering a purchase of the property.

Woods began complex negotiations with the investment house Dillon, Read & Co. They offered $7,750,000. The details of the transaction were put in writing but Woods had trouble getting David Sarnoff on the telephone. Finally he reached him. Woods later recalled: “I explained to Mr. Sarnoff that my new associates were in my office with me, and I would like to bring them to his office so that he could meet them.”

Sarnoff answered, “There must be some mistake, Mark! I have just sold the Blue Network Company to Ed Noble and James McGraw…. They are in my office; I would like you to meet them and we’ll close the deal.”

When Woods got to Sarnoff’s office, he learned that Noble had finally agreed to pay $8 million for the network. He told Woods he had tried to get it for $7 million but Sarnoff had been unwilling to budge.

Woods saw a chance to do something for the man who was apparently destined to become his boss. Woods reminded Sarnoff that they had discussed an RCA-sponsored series over the projected independent network. Could they settle that now? Woods had specific figures in mind. For the first year time costs should be $650,000; talent, $350,000; total $1 million.

Sarnoff inquired, “Is that what you want, Mark?”


Sarnoff agreed. Noble, seeing he had recouped a million dollars, was pleased.

- Jim Cox is the award-winning author of numberous books on broadcasting history, including Sold on Radio (2008), Radio Speakers (2006), The Daytime Serials of Television, 1946-1960 (2006), Music Radio (2005), Frank and Anne Hummert’s Radio Factory (2003), Radio Crime Fighters (2002), and The Great Radio Audience Participation Shows (2001), all from McFarland. He is a retired college professor living in Louisville, Kentucky.


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