How A 27 Year Old Once Turned CBS Into a National Broadcaster
When William Samuel Paley’s family purchased a small, arguably insignificant radio network in 1927, Paley had designs on leveraging the acquisition for promoting the family cigar business. By January 3, 1929, age 27, he became president of the network, the Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System (CBS).
At that time CBS was all radio, no TV. Bear in mind that in 1927 there were few commercial TV sets on the market and even fewer owners because there was no content to watch.
The United States would have to suffer a Great Depression, and another Great War before the golden age of television would stir the nascent technology.
History regards Paley equally as a self-hating yet egotistical tyrant, as much as it considers him a business driver. An easier way to sum him was that he was a guy who was in the right place at the right time.
Paley’s nine decades on Earth years began in the year 1901, in Chicago, Illinois. His parents, Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Goldie (Drell) and Samuel Paley, spent their time toiling at their business, the La Palina cigar company.
The company did very well. By the 1920s, the Paley family had become millionaires. They moved to Philadelphia and young William attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
Yes, that was the same school where Donald Trump claims he graduated as a top student. There, Paley studied Finance and Commerce, intending to apply his schooling to the family business.
Samuel Paley (William’s Dad) and his brother connected with some investors to purchase a struggling radio network, called Columbia for short.
Their plan was to use the station to promote the cigars and launch their earnings into the stratosphere. In truth, they needed to do something to offset the growing cigarette market, which was siphoning off potential cigar customers.
Prohibition in the ’20s had cranked out a generation of women smokers born in the speakeasies, but they weren’t smoking the right thing. The Paleys needed to convert some of those smokers into cigar aficionados if they were gonna keep riding the gravy train.
President William Paley
William’s dad and uncle weren’t much better at running the radio station than the previous owners. They’d continued to spend money on programming aimed at driving sales, but the cigars were not flying off the shelves.
When the prodigal son returned from a European vacation, Dad and Uncle notified William that he would be the man to save their investments, all of them. He was not pleased about many things his Dad and Uncle had done.
William had no designs on running a radio network. He also didn’t know they’d spent that money. “I don’t want anything to do with this pipsqueak radio network, this phony chain,” he told them.
They managed to get him into the director’s seat, where he produced a 30-minute radio show about a female smoker, Miss La Palina. She was a brassy character with a smoker’s voice who hung out with the boys smoking.
His show was such a success, sales went through the roof.
Rise to Power
Paley was many things, but he was no dummy. He knew he had to invest quickly so he dumped a massive amount of money into the network. It turns out he was good at programming in a world where there was no Neilson ratings, no Rotten Tomatoes, and no IMDB.
Young William Paley expanded the network by leveraging his ability to create programs people wanted to hear and see. His style of blocking shows together thematically became an industry standard, which carries on today to some extent.
Also, Paley stopped treating his network as a collection of independent broadcasting stations, and more of a family of broadcasters. This opened up national broadcasting opportunities, where he found the big money.
Then, when the Great War Part Two finally came, it was Paley who came up with the idea to broadcast news via the CBS news division. CBS under Paley thrived at a time when most struggled.
In time, CBS was everywhere. From that small radio network, it became one of the most dominant players in broadcasting. Paley remained at the helm in some fashion for most of his life.
He lived to see the year 1990, reluctantly passing away from kidney failure at age 89.