The Peggy Lee Bio-Discography And Videography:
The Early History Of Radio Transcriptions And The World Transcription Service

by Iván Santiago Mercado

Page generated on Nov 26, 2017

I. Scope And Contents

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In currency from the late 1920s to the advent of the digital era, electrical transcriptions (aka ETs) were audio discs made exclusively for broadcasting on radio or television.  That exclusive purpose distinguished them from LPs, 45 and 78 discs, all of which were intended for commercial retail.  

Other possible distinguishing features, such as disc size (16") , are less definitive when it comes to defining these discs from others. For instance, a transcription cannot be differentiated from any other electrical disc merely on the ground of the speed at which they played. Most transcription companies opted for 33.3 rpm, just as retail label did for LPs. Another non-distinguishing trait:   just as with 78s, the material used for ETs was generally lacquer or shellac, with a shift to vinyl during the post golden era of radio. And, even during their golden era-- the 1930s and 1940s -- not all transcriptions discs were 16" in diameter; some were of the same size as LPs. The name of the releasing company is not a fully distinctive factor, either: while it is true that many ET catalogues were produced by specialized transcription companies, it is also true that retail labels such as RCA and Capitol set up their own branches as well.

V. World: In The Beginning
{Previous section, currently unavailable for viewing:
The Rise Of The Transcription Business}

The World Broadcasting System began producing transcriptions in 1929.  World quickly established itself as one of the main providers of syndicated radio programming, not to say anything of its status as a pioneer in the radio transcription business.  (In the estimation of A. J. Millard, author of the book America On Record: A History Of Recorded Sound, the top-ranking transcription companies were World, C.P. MacGregor, RCA/NBC Thesaurus, and Standard Radio Transcription Services.)  World is also remembered as the first music-oriented company to issue discs that played at 33 r.p.m., the speed which became the common standard for both commercial LPs and radio transcriptions.  (n.b.:  World did not introduce 33 r.p.m, but adopted it from the film industry, where the speed had been used to record the soundtracks of early talkies.) 

VI. Decca's World

Around 1943, World's transcription catalogue was sold to Decca Records.  According to Michel Ruppli's The Decca Labels: A Discography, the AFM recording ban was among the factors that elicited the purchase.  (For details about the ban, see section XIII of this discography's research page about Lee's work with The Benny Goodman Orchestra.)  The ban barred Decca from regular recording activity, which in turn left the label with a need to refill its depleting vaults.

In need to refill the record company's depleting vaults, Decca's Jack Kapp signed a contract that allowed the label to release any material previously or subsequently recorded for World transcriptions, as long as participating musicians were paid full scale. 

The bargain did not provide Decca and Kapp with the desired results.  For the period beginning in January and ending in June of 1948,  Decca's net profit was reported to be $427,212.  This was a disastrous decline from the company's net profit of $889,149 during the same period in the previous year.  Clearly, ownership of and reliance on World's catalogue had not translated into financial gain for the label.  

VII. Ziv's World

Toward the end of the 1940s, record trade magazines announced that Decca was in the process of selling the World transcription catalogue to Frederick W. Ziv, a Cincinnati-based impresario whose firm had been producing and distributing radio transcription programming since the 1930s.  He reportedly paid a total sum of $1,500,000 for the ownership rights. Jim Ramsburg, author of Network Radio Ratings, 1932-1953, describes the sale and the ensuing years as follows:

In August, 1948, Ziv purchased the World Broadcasting System from Decca Records $1.5 Million, (14.5 Mil in today’s money).  World’s library service gave Ziv another revenue source - over 2,100 performances by top musical artists and a huge collection of sound effects and background music. The new owners began transforming World into a feature program service with titles [such as] Homemaking Harmonies and The People Choose along with news and sports capsules complete with promotion and merchandising materials. Two years later, with the push of Ziv's sales force, World reported 763 stations subscribing to its service and in October, 1953, KSFO/San Francisco brought the number to 1,000. 

Peggy Lee's numbers for the World transcription service were recorded while Ziv owned it.  All the World transcription discs that feature Lee bear the legend "World Broadcasting System, Inc., an affiliate of Frederic W. Ziv Co."  For these reasons, a biographical account of Ziv's career shall be provided next.

VIII. Portrait Of The World's Owner: Fred Ziv, The Early Years

Frederik William Ziv (1905-2001) is remembered as the largest producer of syndicated radio programming in the 1930s and the 1940s, as well as the lead producer of independent TV programming in the 1950s.  He happened to be born and raised in Cincinnati, the city that held the headquarters of Procter & Gamble.

Dating back to the 1830s, Procter & Gamble grew and remained a major manufacturer of household products  throughout the twentieth century.  With the advent of radio, the company astutely positioned itself as a leading sponsor and advertiser on nationally broadcast programs.  In the 1930s, the manufacturer not only sponsored but also produced itself serialized dramas on the radio airwaves.  It was actually the advertisement of P & G's Oxydol soap powder that led to the coining of the term "soap opera" for such dramas.  (Lest the matter confuses young readers, I should point out that, before making their mark in the medium of television, soap operas were a staple all over the radio airwaves.)    

Being a Cincinnattian, Ziv thus grew well aware of Procter & Gamble's astute use of radio programming for advertisement. And he sought out to carve his own niche in the field. Despite graduating from the University of Michigan with a law degree (1928), Ziv opted for a career as an advertiser, briefly working for an advertising agency in 1929 before taking a bold step on the next year.  Radio advertisement was his primary target area.  In his own words, uttered during a 1999 interview with the Cincinnati Post: "there were dozens of agency men who knew 10 times what I did about magazine and newspaper advertising.  But nobody knew anything about radio in those days. It was the one field where a young man could be an expert."

Ziv opened his own ad agency in Cincinnati in 1930.  During the first half of that decade, the upstart successfully produced radio shows and wrote slogans for various local commercial outfits.  "The Freshest Thing In Town" was the slogan that catapulted his career.  He created it on behalf of  the Rubel Baking Company, a Cincinnati-based business that used it to advertise its Heidelberg rye bread in-store and on radio spots.  For use on print ads and billboards, he also came up with a cartoon representation of the slogan, in the form of a mischievous street boy. The slogan and the cartoon proved so catchy that Ziv began to receive earnest requests from many other local businesses.  The next step would take the budding businessman out of the local environment, and into the whole nation.

By then a well-versed advertiser in the world of radio, Ziv successfully landed his first syndicated show in 1936.  He came up with a 15-minute serial feature called, not surprisingly, The Freshest Thing In Town, and starring the mischievous boy that he had created.  After spending an extended period of time traveling to radio stations in the South and Midwest to pitch the feature, Ziv finally made arrangements with the World Broadcasting System to nationally distribute it.  

Ziv Productions was thus formed, with the aforementioned John L. Sinn as a co-owner.  More and more scripts were written (by Ziv), additional voice actors were hired, and a wider variety of fictional programs from Ziv Productions was made available on World acetate discs.  For local radio stations across the nation, Ziv and Sinn's pre-recorded programs offered not only a varied, ever-growing catalogue of crowd-pealing time fillers but also a malleable, easy-to-use alternative to live broadcasting and network programming.  The company's primacy as radio's biggest syndicator was being widely acknowledged by the late 1940s.

IX. Ziv's Early Forays Into The World Of Music

Although most write-ups about Ziv Productions concentrate on the agency's extensive, nationally distributed catalogue of dramatic series (including many a soap opera and western), Ziv's catalogue ran the gamut from fiction and talk shows to music and sports. And music. 

Fred Ziv's recourse to music programming dates all the way back to the 1930 foundation of his advertisement agency (i.e., long before the setting of Ziv Productions around 1936).  His very first production was actually the show Oklahoma Bob Albright & His Mountain Music, heard in Cincinnati radio in 1930.

In 1941, the impresario saw a six-man ensemble performing novelty tunes at a Cincinnatti restaurant and hired them to star in a 15-minute syndicated music. He (re)named them and the show The Korn Kobblers. The show enjoyed considerable popularity. (Probably fictional, a writeup from a song folio give credit to Guy Lombardo for the band's discovery and apparently omits Ziv's involvement.)  

Among Ziv's music programming from the rest of the 1940s was The Barry Wood Show, a 15-minute offering that debuted in 1946 and featured Peggy Lee's Capitol labelmate Margaret Whiting in the role of girl singer.  Then there was The Guy Lombardo Show, created in 1947.  Geared toward an older but loyal audience, it is reported to have annually grossed about $300,000 in its first year(s), and to have earned the Ziv camp a $500,000 profit  when it was renewed in 1949.  

It is no surprise, then, that the impresario continued to make music programs over the years.  One such show is of particular interest to this discography:  The Hour Of Stars, which Peggy Lee co-hosted, and which is discussed in the final notes of her World page.  Of obvious interest as well is Ziv Productions' set up of recording sessions for the purpose of producing radio transcriptions.  This topic also receive further discussion there as well as below, after the conclusion of the present overview of the man and his company.
 It was no surprise, either, that the financially successful impresario had made the aforementioned decision to buy the World Broadcasting System. For years, the latter had been transcribing and distributing most of his shows for syndication.

X. Ziv's World Of Television

Another notable achievement in the impresario's career was the creation in 1948 of Ziv Television Programs, which promptly became the prime brand for first-run syndicated TV programming.  Given Ziv's ties to television, World transcription recordings could have been played not only on the radio but also on the soundtrack of some television shows.  Although I do not have confirmation for such a possibility,  I am inclined to think that early TV producers resorted to pre-recorded vocals under certain occasions and circumstances.  One such circumstance would have been outdoors taping, during which mike pickup could be problematic. 

An episode of the Colgate Comedy Hour comes to mind.  Telecast on February 20, 1955, the episode was filmed in and around a historic house in New Orleans.  Peggy Lee renders "I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues" as she slowly steps down a spiral staircase, located inside the aforementioned house.  Lee's vocal on the show sounds identical, or nearly identical, to her World transcription version. (Additional details about this show will be found in the Guest Appearances section of this discography's TV pages, once those pages open for viewing.) 

XI. Ziv's Later Years

Ziv retained ownership of his enterprises until 1959.  Disenchanted with the increasing control that the TV networks were exerting over independent TV production ("script and cast approvals" being particular sources of discontent), he sold 80% of his business to various Wall Street investment firms that year.  The following year, United Artists bought the other 20%, which involved Ziv's TV programming branch.  Ziv then proceeded to become an academician, spending a couple of decades as a lecturer at the University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music, and passing away in 2001 at the ripe age of 96 in his native hometown. 

For yet more information about Ziv Productions and its main creator, see any of the three pages that have served as primary sources for my overview.  One of them is a well-written, informative account of Ziv's career that can be found at the website of radio personality and expert  Jim Ramsburg, author of the also recommended book Network Radio Ratings, 1932-1953.  He relied in turn on a PhD dissertation about the Ziv emporium,  submitted by Morleen Getz Rouse to the University of Michigan in 1976.  

Another main source of mine was a page written by Chris Anderson for the Museum of Broadcast Communications.  At the time of this writing, Anderson's page is viewable here.  My third source was a page about Ziv that was part of the radio and television preservation project by Media Heritage, Inc.  Once available at this link, it was not longer there when I conducted my latest update of the present overview.

{Next section: The Word, After Ziv's Departure}