The Five Radio Networks of NBC

NBC radio network microphone made by RCA

In its early years NBC (the National Broadcasting Company) operated five different broadcast networks all labeled by color: Red, Blue, Orange, Gold, and White. OTR hobbyists are probably aware of the Red and Blue Networks but may not be familiar with the other colors.

On Jan. 4, 1923, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) started "chain" (or network) broadcasting which was then defined as "simultaneous broadcasting of an identical program by two or more connected stations." A rival network owned by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) broadcast its first network program in December of that same year. In 1926 AT&T abruptly withdrew from the broadcasting field and after a series of complicated maneuvers RCA purchased the entire operation of their rival for one million dollars. They now owned both networks and decided to keep both running as separate entities. On Sept. 9, 1926, RCA formed NBC which had its premiere broadcast on Nov. 15. This broadcast joined 22 stations in the east and midwest which had basically made up the old AT&T network. This was the foundation of the Red Network. The Blue Network, coming mostly from the former RCA stations, was started up two months later.

There is some discrepancy on the number of stations in each of these two networks at the beginning. Some sources state that 25 stations constituted the Red Network and six others the Blue. What appears to be more likely was that there were 18 in the Red, five in the Blue, and eight that were available to supplement the "basic stations" of either network.

In practice, NBC was "national" only in its name since its programs only reached as far west as Denver. In December 1926 the network's board of directors voted to establish a third NBC network on the west coast. This was the Orange Network which was headquartered in San Francisco. The Orange Network had its inaugural program on April 5, 1927, and began regular broadcasting six days later. Basically the network "recreated" the same programs as were heard in the east over the Red Network. In 1936 the Orange Network dissolved into the Pacific Coast Red Network.

The Gold network started in 1931. This included five stations in the West and gave an outlet for recreations of the NBC Blue programming. NBC Gold was discontinued in March 1933 with some of the programs switching over to NBC Orange.

I've been unable to find much information on the NBC White Network. I do know that it was religious in its content and operated in the late 1920s and continued into the '30s. This was also referred to as the Watchtower Network.

Where did the networks get their color-coded names? One of the common stories was that they were named after the colored phone jacks used by the telephone company for switching. The real reason is just as bizarre. NBC documents tell us that the use of colored pencils to draw network lines on a map gave them their names.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) felt that NBC should not be allowed to operate two national networks and demanded that one of them (Red or Blue) be sold. The Supreme Court upheld the FCC position and so the Blue Network was put up for sale. Edward Noble, the maker of Life Savers, purchased it for $8 million. Everything that had belonged to the two networks now had to be divided up: stations, microphones, even wastebaskets. On Oct. 12, 1943, the sale was approved and Noble named his new network the American Broadcasting System (ABS). A year later this was changed to American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

Jim Snyder in Illustrated Press, February 2005

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