Remembering Maj. James Andrew White, Radio Pioneer

An important announcer, sportscaster and executive you’ve never heard of
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He was nervous as he gripped the microphone and began speaking. He had never broadcast a sporting event. In fact, no one on the entire planet had done it. He was about to create an entirely new profession.

Major J. Andrew White was president of the CBS network when this portrait was taken in 1927.

Major J. Andrew White was president of the CBS network when this portrait was taken in 1927.

J. Andrew White was a handsome, dapper man with starched white collars and signature pince-nez glasses hanging from a black ribbon. He was the editor of “Wireless Age” magazine, a publication of the recently-formed Radio Corporation of America. During the World War he had authored training manuals for the Army Signal Corps, earning the title of major.

In the summer of 1921, White was contacted by Julius Hopp, a promoter who wanted to broadcast the upcoming “Battle of the Century” boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Jacques Carpentier. No one had attempted a wireless sports broadcast, and the ARRL’s Hiram Percy Maxim had already turned him down, declaring it impossible. But the idea intrigued White, and he took it to his boss, David Sarnoff, who immediately authorized $1,500 for the project.

Things came together quickly. A license was issued for RCA’s first broadcasting station, WJY, which would operate for just one day. White borrowed a Navy transmitter and had it installed 2 1/2 miles from the stadium at the Lackawanna railroad station, where an antenna was strung from an existing radio tower. Early WJY tests on the longwave frequency of 1600 meters (187 kHz) demonstrated a 200-mile coverage radius.

Meanwhile, an army of amateur radio operators headed by J. Owen Smith (2ZL) installed radio receivers in theatres and assembly halls across the Northeast. Tickets were sold, with the proceeds benefiting the American Committee for Devastated France.

As the station was being assembled, White contemplated how he would describe a boxing match over radio. A former amateur boxer, he rehearsed by shadow boxing in front of a mirror while describing his actions.

Finally, on the hot afternoon of July 2, sweating in his white starched shirt, White described the action into a telephone as Dempsey knocked out Carpentier in the fourth round. At the other end of the line, operator Owen Smith repeated White’s words into the WJY transmitter. At the end of the broadcast, the battery on the line died, and a transmitter tube failed midway through, but the entire program still managed to reach an estimated 350,000 — easily the largest radio audience to date.

INSTANT CELEBRITY

The publicity generated by the broadcast made White an overnight celebrity. It also convinced RCA executives of the value of broadcasting, and they filed an application for the company’s first permanent broadcast license.

Broadcasting from RCA’s short-lived station WDY in Roselle Park, N.J., 1922.

Broadcasting from RCA’s short-lived station WDY in Roselle Park, N.J., 1922.

The WJY transmitter was relocated to the General Electric factory in Roselle Park, N.J., where WDY debuted on Dec. 14, 1921. White became the station and program manager, and J. Owen Smith was chief operator and announcer. WDY broadcast three nights a week, and the new Westinghouse station, WJZ in Newark, used the frequency on alternate nights.

Because of technical issues and difficulty of attracting broadcast talent to the remote location, WDY turned out to be a short-lived operation. Three months later, RCA shut the station down and merged its operations with WJZ. But although he resumed his work as a magazine editor, White found himself being called to WJZ frequently to broadcast additional boxing matches. Soon he was announcing all kinds of sports events over WJZ.

The cover of the August 1921 issue of “Wireless Age” shows J. Andrew White at the microphone of WJY, the station where he broadcast the “Battle of the Century” fight between Jack Dempsey and Jacques Carpentier.   

The cover of the August 1921 issue of “Wireless Age” shows J. Andrew White at the microphone of WJY, the station where he broadcast the “Battle of the Century” fight between Jack Dempsey and Jacques Carpentier.   

He called the first live World Series game that year while Owen Smith became broadcasting’s first spotter, moving cards with players’ names around on a large cardboard diamond.

In 1923, RCA acquired WJZ from Westinghouse and moved it to Aeolian Hall in midtown Manhattan. WJZ was becoming one of the most important stations in the country, and White’s prestige as a sports announcer rose with it. His skill at describing a sporting event was universally admired, and he was soon called “the most famous announcer in radio.”

One admiring radio columnist observed that “White paints word pictures that other minds could feast upon. So accurate are his descriptions that anyone who has ever attended a game at the Polo Grounds can visualize the plays perfectly … Those who listen to J. Andrew White cannot help but admire his painstaking attention to the details, side lights and human interest stuff that permits every listener to be one of the excited fans in the grandstand.”

BRANCHING OUT

The Major’s voice was soon being heard weekly over WJZ. In 1924, he broadcast the first horse race from Belmont Park. In 1925, he announced radio’s first crew race, broadcasting from a power boat following the oarsmen.

Major White broadcasts from a stadium press box, 1924.    

Major White broadcasts from a stadium press box, 1924.    

In 1925, White started mentoring a young WJZ staff announcer, making him his assistant and teaching him the ropes of sportscasting. Ted Husing would go on to become the most important sports broadcaster of radio’s “Golden Age.”

In June of 1924, Major White ventured outside the sports world to broadcast the Republican National Convention for WJZ and WGY. Later that month, he broadcast the Democratic convention from Chicago, and then on March 4, 1925, he announced for the inauguration of Calvin Coolidge on a temporary hookup of Eastern stations.

New York Governor Al Smith, right, presents Major White with a silver cup as the “best looking and most popular announcer in America” at the 1925 Radio World’s Fair. The presentation was broadcast over New York’s WAHG (now WCBS). 

New York Governor Al Smith, right, presents Major White with a silver cup as the “best looking and most popular announcer in America” at the 1925 Radio World’s Fair. The presentation was broadcast over New York’s WAHG (now WCBS). 

At that time, the bitter competition between RCA and AT&T over who would dominate the new field of radio broadcasting was becoming white hot. It finally came to a head in July of 1926 with the surprise announcement that AT&T was selling its flagship station, WEAF, and its fledgling radio network to RCA. AT&T forever exited the broadcasting field while RCA turned the WEAF network into its new National Broadcasting Company, and then AT&T began reaping big profits by leasing broadcast lines to the new network. WEAF was relocated to the WJZ studios at Aeolian Hall.

The forced marriage of the two formerly competing stations staffed many careers. Among many changes, sportscaster Andrew White was to be teamed up with his main rival, Graham McNamee.

The first test of this relationship took place on Sept. 3, 1926, when WEAF and WJZ broadcast the highly anticipated Dempsey-Tunney fight over a hookup of 30 stations, just weeks before the formation of the NBC network.

Major J. Andrew White and Ted Husing broadcast a Navy-Princeton football game for WJZ in 1926.

Major J. Andrew White and Ted Husing broadcast a Navy-Princeton football game for WJZ in 1926.

It was reported that Andrew White easily outclassed McNamee, who seemed unnerved by his new co-star role. Nonetheless, in the shakeup that followed, White‘s role with the new NBC network was diminished, and he left RCA in the fall of 1926.

Shortly afterwards, he was approached by music promotors Arthur Judson and George Coats, who were looking for someone to lead their new company, the United Independent Broadcasters, Inc. They had just signed a contract with the Columbia Phonograph Company to underwrite a new national radio network, to be called the Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System. Because Judson and Coats were not broadcasters, they wanted someone with celebrity status and broad radio experience to head the company and attract other investors. Intrigued by the possibilities, White bought 200 shares of the new company and became its president.

The Columbia network debuted on Sept. 18, 1927, broadcasting from temporary studios at WOR in New York. Major White was the master of ceremonies for the opening three-hour broadcast, carried over 16 stations. Thereafter, it broadcast 10 hours a week — two hours each on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday evenings, plus Sunday afternoons.

But the expenses were huge, advertisers were scarce, and the new network was in instant financial peril. After only a few weeks of operations, Columbia Phonograph pulled out, and the paychecks for the network’s 12 employees stopped.

Desperate for new backing, White, Judson and Coats convinced the Levy brothers, owners of their Philadelphia affiliate WCAU, to take controlling interest for $135,000. Sam Paley, owner of the Congress Cigar Company, became an additional investor. The network was renamed the Columbia Broadcasting System.

White displays a map showing the placement of microphones that will be used for CBS’ broadcast of the Republican National Convention from Kansas City in 1928.

White displays a map showing the placement of microphones that will be used for CBS’ broadcast of the Republican National Convention from Kansas City in 1928.

But these new investors soon also discovered that CBS was a giant financial sinkhole. Advertisers were hard to come by, and if a salesman was able to convince a prospect of the value of radio, he would usually sign — with NBC!

Losses were running about $20,000 a week, and by August 1928, they reached $1 million.

Now the Levys wanted out too, and they found their buyer in Sam Paley’s 27-year-old son, William. He had advertised his father’s cigar company on WCAU and the network, and had been impressed with the results. And so, for $503,000, William S. Paley became the 50.3 percent majority owner of the CBS network.

Paley quickly turned business around by dramatically changing the programming, and the financial and contractual arrangements with its affiliates. Soon the network was on strong financial footing. But in the process, Paley named himself president and demoting White to managing director. Although he continued to broadcast sports and oversaw CBS programs, he no longer played an important part in the management of CBS.

By 1930, White had become disillusioned with his lot at CBS.

Corporate broadcasting was a far cry from the rowdy, Wild West days of early radio, and he felt confined. He was used to being an innovator, but now he was just one more executive on a fast-growing staff.

Finally, on April 23, Paley issued a memo notifying the staff that “it is with exceeding regret that I have to report that Major White has asked to be relieved of his official connections.”

Years later, Major White’s son Blair said, “Paley thought CBS history started with him and didn’t want any part of my dad. Shortly after he left, my dad sold all his CBS stock. Otherwise, I would have a butler.”

Andrew White spent the next two years trying to start a new network, the American Broadcasting System, which would distribute its programs via transcription discs instead of expensive AT&T phone lines. But he apparently never found the backers to get his venture off the ground, and later admitted he was “15 years ahead of his time.”

After several other unsuccessful business starts, Major White moved to California in 1940. During World War II, he again joined the Signal Corps, “working 25 hours a day” writing textbooks and devising training schedules. After the war, he earned a doctorate of psychology degree and became a full-time psychologist, teaching a few courses at the University of Southern California.

In 1951, Major White returned briefly to radio as a disc jockey at KNX in Hollywood. Now, simply as “Andy White,” he co-hosted the program “Encore Night” with Jim Hawthorne, playing pre-1930 recordings and reminisced about earlier times. But the program was short-lived, and White returned to relative anonymity. He died in Los Angeles in 1966 at the age of 76.

Major J. Andrew White was a true pioneer — a seminal figure in early radio broadcasting, and the industry’s first real celebrity. He is mostly forgotten, undoubtedly because he departed from radio just as it was maturing as a mass medium and business. However, there is no denying his impact on the first decade of American broadcasting, or his status as a role model for the next generation of broadcasters.

John Schneider worked at stations in Michigan and California before joining the equipment industry. He worked for Sparta, McMartin, RF Specialties, Broadcast Electronics and iBiquity before retiring in 2016. He has written two books and numerous articles on radio history and was named a Fellow in radio history by the California Historical Radio Society. He publishes an annual photo calendar and maintains www.theradiohistorian.org.   

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