a/k/a New York Pulse with Bill Cullen
a/k/a The Bill Cullen Show
WRCA (later WNBC), September 19, 1955 to September 29, 1961
Originally heard daily 6:30-9:30am, expanded to 6-10am
(Also Saturdays in a two-hour version at various morning hours)
This was originally part of our NBC Radio subsection, but because of the amount of information we've found about it in our research, and because of Bill's own personal fondness for the show--he later referred to his years hosting this program as his favorite time of his life--we wanted to devote more space to it.
Bill was already a nationally known figure when he was tapped to host the local morning program for NBC's flagship station in New York. With television having securely supplanted radio as the dominant form of entertainment, WRCA recruited Bill, on the logic that having a TV star host the morning radio show would restore some prestige to the station and the medium. In the long run, the practice didn't really work--a 1962 article suggests that the general public just thought of the radio show as "Bill's other job"--but the station did reap some big benefits from having Bill at the mic.
WCBS had introduced a morning radio program in the early 1950s titled This is New York; radio historian Jim Cox writes in his book Radio Journalism in America that WRCA most likely cribbed the idea for their own morning show from WCBS. WRCA unveiled Pulse in January 1955 as a two-hour weekend program with a "magazine" format, with segments heavily emphasizing what was happening right now, that very day, in New York. The idea was for listeners to feel that if a segment on the program piqued their interest, they could drive straight to whatever they had heard about on Pulse to see it for themselves. This original version ended in June.
Bill, meanwhile, had spent six weeks filling in as a temporary morning host in the spring of 1955. That fall, Bill became the permanent host, and WRCA gave much of the format to Bill's new show.
WRCA's promotional department went into overdrive, touting Bill's arrival by printing promotional newspapers in which every front page article was about Bill, and sending Thermos bottles and coffee to members of the press. Although Bill's show was only heard on station WRCA, an article in Billboard indicates he was actually under contract to NBC itself for the job.
Originally, the three-hour program (which was known as The Bill Cullen Show) still retained some vestiges of what we now think of as old-time radio, most notably a live, nine-piece orchestra, led by double bassist Eddie Safranski.
Less than two months into the new gig, Bill's show changed to match the format and structure of the popular NBC weekend series Monitor. (A daily network version of Monitor known as Weekday debuted at about the same time.) Renamed New York Pulse with Bill Cullen (and later shortened to the original weekend show's single-word title), the show eliminated its live orchestra and added an ambitious mix of features, interviews and reports from all over the city, emphasizing news and information over music and entertainment.
For example, in a single broadcast during the holiday season, the mobile unit went to Idlewild Airport to welcome visitors to the city, toy designers described their newest creations, and several area choirs crammed into the studio to perform a medley of Christmas songs. For other programs, Bill would interview people at their workplaces, including a tugboat and a construction site.
Eventually, the ambitious features gave way to a more streamlined entertainment program similar to what is still common on morning radio shows today. Bill spun records (although, unlike the emerging format for morning radio shows, there was a very low emphasis on music), read commercials, chatted with guests, and stopped for news and weather reports, along with a small crew of regular "co-stars"; Bob Wilson read the news every half-hour; Pegeen Fitzgerald reported the lighter, odd stories; and Leon Pearson provided updates from Broadway shows. Bill also became fond of a 60-year-old man named Guisseppe Tempone, who ran a shoeshine stand in Rockefeller Plaza, and brought him into the studio to banter occasionally.
In the twilight of his career, Bill described the lax format of Pulse. "It was a stream of concsciousness...if I didn't feel up to it, I'd pretty much just give the time and announce what we were going to play. And sooner or later, something would occur and we'd start chatting."
Even the "normal segments" had traces of conspicuous ambition. WRCA outfitted two Ford Thunderbird convertibles with remote broadcasting equipment. The cars would actively search for news and events around the city, with Bill ready to break away at a moment's notice if reporters Jinx Falkenberg and Gabe Pressman found something interesting while in the cars. For a regular segment called "Pulse Beat," recording equipment was set up in locations around New York, and listeners were encouraged to say whatever they needed to get off their chests. The recordings that were suitable for broadcast were played the next morning.
All of this was a stark contrast to the direction that morning drive radio was taking in most of the radio business. Other shows at that time of day placed a heavy emphasis on music, with occasional banter and features; or personality-driven comedy. Bill and Pulse focused on what was going on around New York and just talked about it.
A 1956 trade ad hyped that Bill's radio show had doubled WRCA's ratings in the span of one year. When Bill took over the morning slot, the station averaged a 2.1 rating during those hours. By June 1956, it had boosted to a 3.0 At the end of Bill's first year on the air, it was a 4.0, on the strength of a wildly popular contest introduced in the summer of 1956.
One of the most popular segments of Pulse was, fittingly, a very game show-like contest with $1,000 up for grabs. On July 23, 1956, the show introduced a daily "Finders Keepers" contest. An anonymous member of the WRCA staff planted a thousand-dollar bill (actually a fake bill that could be taken to the WRCA studio and redeemed for the real thing) somewhere in the city, and Bill would read a series of poetic clues leading to the location.
A new thousand-dollar bill was planted every Monday, although if an entire week passed without the money being given away, that bill stayed right where it was. So there could have been two, three, or even more bills hidden around the city at any given time.
The show went to extreme lengths to maintain the integrity of the contest. The employee in charge of planting the money was moved from his home into a hotel for several months, with a private investigator in charge of tracking him so his whereabouts were always known.
"Finders Keepers" wasn't without its problems. New York police officers complained of an increase in calls regarding property damage, linked directly to people tipping over and tearing things apart in search of the money. A rash of counterfeiters sprang up in New York during the summer of 1956, with police saying the contest inspired the crime.
Bill himself was occasionally hassled on the street by people demanding to know where the money was, and he would have to explain that, as a precaution, he hadn't been given the answer. He was also taken aback by a woman checking every seat in Radio City Music Hall while a show was in progress. He did, however, appreciate the ingenuity of an elderly man who attached a mirror to his cane so he could check under the benches around Rockefeller Plaza.
"Finders Keepers" proved to be a ratings bonanza for Bill and WRCA, and the radio industry as a whole took notice, with numerous other radio stations introducing copycat contests. The co-webmaster's mother remembers station WKWK in Wheeling, West Virginia doing "Finders Keepers" contests with clues leading to hidden concert tickets.
The original "Finders Keepers" contest ran from July through October 1956. The "Finders Keepers"contest returned in the summer of 1957, with a new wrinkle added as an incentive for sponsors to advertise on WRCA. Anybody who's ever entered a radio or TV contest has heard the familiar "employees and their families are not eligible" disclaimer. Since employees of sponsors couldn't win the $1,000, those employees were encouraged to write to WRCA and describe their guess as to where the money was located. The employee whose guess was deemed the most accurate would win a smaller, nice prize, like a TV set.
When Bill was hosting Pulse in the late fifties, the top New York radio show was the duo of Klavan & Finch. They sometimes ran a contest in which the winner would receive a one-minute commercial on the subject of his or her choice. Once, the winner was an NBC secretary who made them do an ad for Bill's rival show.
At this point in his career, Bill was doing so much live broadcasting work that reporters & fans alike were curious about his sleep schedule. Bill woke up every morning at 4:30 a.m. and took a cab to 30 Rockefeller Plaza. (Because we pride ourselves on being a comprehensive resource about the life of Bill Cullen...he had the same cab driver every morning, Lloyd Barnett.) At 10:00 a.m. Bill walked straight from 30 Rock to the theater where The Price is Right aired live at 10:30 a.m. After the show, he went back to his Central Park apartment and took a three-hour nap. Going to bed early was out of the question. Two nights a week, he was on prime time TV, either with I've Got a Secret or nighttime Price, and he once said he and Ann tried to go out three nights a week for movies or Broadway shows. He usually didn't go to bed until 11:30 pm for five hours of sleep.
Bill's commitment to WRCA and Pulse only affected his TV work insofar as he had to be left out of some of the extracurricular activities on I've Got a Secret. As that series was turned more and more into a variety show, panelists were frequently called on to do some extra activity as part of a secret--they might have to babysit a contestant's children the next day, or take a spontaneous trip to some exotic location. Had Bill only been doing Price and Secret, Goodson-Todman doubtlessly could have made other arrangements if they wanted to surprise Bill with a task. Because of Pulse, most of the time, Secret would simply leave Bill out when these gags were played out. When Secret did special weeks in Hollywood and Florida, Bill remained in New York while guest panelists filled his seat.
Bill was initially signed to a three-year contract for Pulse. When he renewed in 1958, the title changed to The Bill Cullen Show. A gossip columnist reported at the time that Bill had admitted in contract negotiations that his erratic work schedule was getting to him, and that the station put up a bit of a fight, and quite a bit of money, to hang onto him for another three years.
Even though Bill was the morning deejay for the flagship radio station of the National Broadcasting Company, his program wasn't nearly as popular as other NYC morning shows of the day. This may partly be because he was among the last to realize the significance and impact of rock and roll music. "I'm not a rock 'n' roll fan," he said in 1958. "I'm not young enough to be savage. When I hear the beat, I don't want to get up and dance. I just feel like going to sleep."
More than Bill's personal preferences, rock music's absence from Pulse probably owed to WRCA/WNBC being a network owned-and-operated station. Network O&Os traditionally stayed very middle of the road with their music programming, avoiding trends or controversies. WNBC slowly began to incorporate pop songs into their rotation a year after Bill's departure, and one trade article referred to it as an "experiment."
We have bits and pieces from Pulse over the years, from Bill's personal collection. A small handful of episodes and partial episodes, all from 1957, are preserved in the Library of Congress.
Bill appears to have ended his six-year Pulse stint on good terms with the management. According to a 1961 Variety article mentioning his retirement, the station staff threw him a farewell party at Leone's, a popular restaurant. They also gave him a vintage 1932 Chevrolet as a going-away present. The article said he was making $112,000 a year on the radio show when he stepped down.