A Broadcasting First


March 03, 1991|By Carleton Jones

Far from being completely forgotten, many Maryland "firsts" are still cherished by some. Three biggies in the state's book of firsts are gas street lighting, which debuted here early in the 19th century; the first railroad passenger station, launched a few years later; and the first intercity telegraph transmission, which took place in the 1840s.

For Al Buffington, Baltimore native and emigrant to Malibu, Calif., it feels strange to be a part of this sort of history.

Mr. Buffington, a midcentury fixture on the Baltimore advertising and creative scene, appears to have launched the very first intercity quiz show in American radio history. Conceivably he could have a claim on the title of grandfather of the avalanche of local and national TV quiz shows that dominate the tube today.

Backtrack to the late 1930s. Ad dollars are dominated by print media, but radio is already making good with the backing of national companies that sponsor shows like the Lux Radio Theater, the Eddie Cantor show, "Amos and Andy," Burns and Allen and dozens of other network items.

By 1939, Baltimore's Gunther Beer is pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of beer out of its Highlandtown plant at Conkling and O'Donnell streets. Recently it's been making inroads in the Washington market.

Enter Mr. Buffington. "I had the Gunther Beer account at WFBR. Their problem was to cover both markets. I had the idea of a quiz show presented as a two-city hookup. I went down to Gunther's and told them about it. Their ad man was a man by the name of Schwinn and they bought it on my description.

"We set up round-robin lines between two cities. I had a very smart lawyer and he patented the dual-city hookup as a method of program transmission. We called the show 'The Quiz of Two Cities' " says Mr. Buffington, now a retired media exec.

The intercity quiz between Charm City and Washington was heard by audiences in both cities. The teams had four contestants each. Score was kept of the answers and the master of ceremonies also asked bonus questions. Cash prizes were awarded to winners, but the prize budget for a show was "only about $150 to $200 in those days," Mr. Buffington relates.

"We all did research for the show and basically I had a good writer [for the show], Brent Gunts," Mr. Buffington remembers. Henry Hickman was master of ceremonies and question-asker for the Baltimore end of the early local shows, and Bryson Rash anchored the Washington part of the program.

After the local show had been on the air only a few months, a second intercity quiz sprouted, this one in tremendously rival-conscious St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minn. In the early days, the licensing fee was only $25 a week for use of the Buffington concept. Noxzema bought a package deal for multiple-market use of the quiz idea. And when the quiz shows hit Manhattan, they attracted the attention of famed radio pioneers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, who broadened the quiz show idea for national radio and, later, national TV formats.

At its top, during a 12-year run, the Buffington intercity package ran in 22 markets, naturals like Dallas and Fort Worth, Kansas City and St. Louis, etc. Intercollegiate radio quizzes caught on, too.

All in all, says Mr. Buffington, it was great being a pioneer. "I still have a whole box full of quiz questions out in the garage somewhere." *


Capt. Glen Leland of Relay, who worked on repairs to the Abraham Rydberg, adds to our lore of one of the last of the sailing freighters ("A Wartime Sail Into Baltimore Harbor," Back Tracks, Jan. 20). Rather than being a clipper ship, the Rydberg was a sort of "granddaughter" of the clipper types that faded out in the 1860s, he says. Captain Leland adds that other all-sail cargo ships survived after the Rydberg was motorized in the 1940s.

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