“BROADCASTING FROM ATOP THE MB BUILDING ...”
The WSMB Staff Orchestra, from left: Julian Laine, Monk Hazel, Chink Martin, John Hyman, Boogie Centobia, Armand Hug circa 1946.
PHOTOGRAPH Courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz Club Collection of Louisiana State Museum
If you’re a New Orleanian of a certain age, you probably still have an AM button on your car radio set to 1350; that’s because radio station WSMB once found its home on the dial there.
Sadly, in its 85th year, the station is still at 1350, but it doesn’t have its old name anymore – it’s now WWWL, owned by Entercom, which also owns its sister station WWL. It broadcasts ESPN sports news, with an exception from 4 to 7 p.m. weeknights when food talk show host Tom Fitzmorris holds forth.
Fitzmorris’ claim of having one of the longest running radio talk shows in the country may very well be true – he has been on WSMB since July 16, 1988 (he had started on radio even earlier). Mary Ann Connell, the manager who hired him at WSMB – just before her own firing – is now his wife.
Fitzmorris celebrated a past WSMB anniversary in the grand manner. “We had a band. We wore tuxedos. I wrote a half-hour radio drama, and we broadcast it live from the Ritz-Carlton. It was supposedly an episode from a series, ‘Maison Blanche,’ ‘where everything happens on historic Canal Street.’” The ever-loyal Fitzmorris is even currently working on a novel titled WSMB, but “it’s not about the radio station, really.”
WSMB began in the Maison Blanche building (where the Ritz-Carlton is now located). The station’s call letters honor its original founders: the Saenger Theater corporation and the Maison Blanche department store. The W, denoting radio stations on the east bank of the Mississippi, fits with the owner’s initials: WSMB.
WSMB has even had a master’s thesis written about it: Louisiana State University Emeritus Professor of Communications Laura Lindsey’s title is “A History of WSMB, 1925 to 1967.”
New Orleans, then the largest city in the South, was an obvious market for the new medium of radio. Loyola University had put WWL on the air in 1922, and three years later there were still only a handful of stations in the city. WSMB officially began April 1, 1925.
WSMB had a unique business plan: on-air talent could come from Saenger Theater contacts and Maison Blanche could supply radio sets to the growing listening market. The station could then advertise for its owners. Soon after going on air, WSMB also had an arrangement with the Item newspaper for a ready source of news stories.
WSMB also had its own built-to-plan studios on the 13th floor of the Maison Blanche Building (where it would remain until the late 1980s). The Saenger’s architect, Emile Weil, designed the studios and provided an entry hall with candelabra and a setting for a grand piano, with a large observation window for the audience to watch live broadcasts. The station’s radio towers were originally atop the Maison Blanche building (the tower is now on the West Bank).
The first radio program from the station, broadcast April 21, 1925, was a two-hour extravaganza “dedicated to the city of New Orleans” with a cast of 75. Governor Henry L. Fuqua, Mayor Andrew McShane and Mayor-Elect Martin Behrman all talked, and Dorothy Dix, advice columnist of The Times-Picayune, discussed “A Woman’s Part in Radio.” The Jerusalem Temple Shrine Band played. The listening audience spread from Maine to Cuba to British Columbia, as recorded in the 1,400 cards and letters received.
Programming only took up a few hours a day at first: news, live musical performances, market reports, and concerts from the Saenger Theater. The Boswell Sisters and the New Orleans Owls brought some jazz to the airways. A remote connection to the press box at Tulane Stadium provided on-air football coverage beginning in 1926. (WSMB would also be the first station to broadcast the Sugar Bowl.)
In August of 1926, WSMB provided all-night bulletins on a hurricane, the first time New Orleans had complete hurricane coverage by radio. The 1927 opening of today’s Saenger Theater was broadcast via installed equipment.
Live performances by Al Jolson and Will Rogers, plus the Saenger Grand Orchestra led by Castro Carazo (Huey Long’s favorite band leader) could now be broadcast on WSMB.
In 1929 WSMB affiliated with the National Broadcasting Company, giving its listeners access to increasingly popular national radio programming. Daytime soap operas, nighttime drama and variety shows kept audiences enthralled.
Another radio first at WSMB in the 1940s was a woman sportscaster – Jill Jackson began her sports reporting on WSMB, (her program was sponsored by Jax Beer) and, despite difficulties getting into the press box, she managed to cover Tulane games (and is still a columnist living in California).
In 1951 there was an ownership change, and WSMB affiliated with the American Broadcasting Company.
Television had arrived and radio stations suffered dwindling audiences. WSMB was no exception: a few network news programs (“Paul Harvey” was a popular one) along with recorded music filled the hours.
By 1961 WSMB was ready for a change. John Vath as manager, with Marshall Pearce as program director, instituted a new “people to people’ policy of programming, with talk shows, audience participation, topical humor and news coverage.
In March 1961, the “Nut and Jeff Show,” with news director Jeff Hug and Roy Roberts, began. The two chatted, told jokes, did interviews with sports and political personalities and generally charmed their adult audience. WSMB had found its format.
Al Widmer was a salesman for WSMB through the 1960s. It was a good time to be a salesman there. “We reached a point where we did sell a million dollars of advertising in one year. We celebrated that!” WSMB was the first New Orleans station to reach that level.
Widmer remembered “Nut and Jeff” fondly. “They helped the sales department very much – we would take them out to lunch with a client or visit a client’s business. They did a lot of live advertising.” Widmer noted that the team was “very much underpaid.”
WSMB did its bit for New Orleans jazz by providing the “day job” for Milton Batiste, trumpeter with the Onward Brass Band and a force for brass band music in the city. Batiste was the station’s courier – in the days before faxes and the Internet, scripts and recording tapes had to be delivered by hand. “John Vath always let him off when the band would go on tour to Europe,” Widmer recalls.
Other radio personalities who came to fame in that era included Larry Regan and Keith Rush.
Regan had a nighttime talk show with a range of callers, called the “Rascals,” all of whom took aliases (“The Outlaw,” “The Yankee Clipper,” “Understanding Henry,” “The Parakeet”). Orleanians grew very fond of these insomniac eccentrics.
Keith “Mr. Keith” Rush, was perhaps the city’s first outspokenly conservative talk show host, and had a high audience rating. The station went into the 1970s with strong local programming, but changes in ownership and fluctuating audience tastes took their toll. Tom Fitzmorris would broadcast the last show from the old Maison Blanche Building studios.
By 1991, the station had moved to Claiborne Avenue, under the overpass by Poydras Street. Other ownership resulted in the call letter changes.
The building was flooded in Katrina, and Fitzmorris’ collection of old recorded programs and memorabilia was lost.