Paley, William S.

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William S. Paley

BORN: September 28, 1901 • Chicago, Illinois

DIED: October 26, 1990 • New York, New York

American radio and television executive

William S. Paley ranks among the giants of American television executives. During his long reign as president and chairman of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), he helped establish it as the most popular and respected of the three major U.S. broadcast networks (ABC and NBC are the other two). He gave the CBS News division the resources and direction it needed to become a major force in American journalism. He also encouraged the development of legendary CBS entertainment programs such as All in the Family and M*A*S*H. Once CBS reached the number one spot among the broadcast networks, the colorful executive was criticized at times for being too protective of CBS's profits and reputation. Even so, Paley's contributions to the development of network television are unquestioned.

"I always say we have to give most of the people what they want most of the time. That's what they expect from us."

Developing the CBS radio network

William Samuel Paley was born on September 28, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois. His father, Samuel Paley, a Jewish immigrant from the Eastern European nation of Ukraine, built a successful cigar-making company in the United States. His mother was Goldie (Drell) Paley. William had one younger sister, Blanche.

Paley grew up in a Jewish neighborhood of Chicago. He attended public schools in the city until his senior year of high school, when his parents enrolled him in the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois. After graduating from the academy in 1918, Paley attended the University of Chicago. After one year of study there, his family moved to Philadelphia, so Paley transferred to the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated from Wharton with a bachelor of science degree in 1922.

Paley had worked for his father's Congress Cigar Company throughout his youth, sweeping floors and running errands. After graduating from Wharton, Paley immediately took a management position with his father's company. During the next several years, Paley showed an impressive grasp of business principles and an instinct for making smart business decisions.

During the mid-1920s, Paley also became interested in the new medium of commercial radio. In 1928, he convinced his father to buy the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), a struggling radio network consisting of sixteen stations. Paley was named president of the network at the young age of twenty-seven. He quickly began working to build CBS into a respectable challenger to the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), which was the largest radio network in the United States at that time.

Over the next few years, Paley gradually turned CBS into a competitor. One key to his success was his ability to lure other radio stations to join the CBS network. He did this by ending a policy that required affiliate stations (those grouped together into one system) to pay for all non-sponsored programming (programs that were not sponsored by a company for advertising purposes) supplied by the network. Under the new arrangements offered by Paley, CBS radio stations would receive these programs free of charge in return for keeping other blocks of time available for the network to broadcast sponsored programs. This scheme gave CBS a big competitive advantage over NBC, and the number of stations that chose to join the CBS network grew rapidly. Meanwhile, Paley took a number of steps to make advertising on CBS both easy and profitable. He also married Dorothy Hart Hearst in 1932. They raised two children together before divorcing in 1947.

Building an empire

During the 1930s, Paley continued to build CBS Radio into a major force in the industry. One key to his success was his ability to find new talent to feature on CBS stations. Legendary singers such as Kate Smith (1907–1986), Bing Crosby (1903–1977), and Frank Sinatra (1915–1998) launched their careers on CBS Radio during this time. Another factor in CBS's rise was Paley's ability to lure already popular musicians and comedians away from NBC. These so-called "Paley Raids" of the 1930s and 1940s brought such popular entertainers as Jack Benny (1894–1974), George Burns (1896–1996), and Gracie Allen (1895–1964) into the group of performers managed by CBS.

Paley handled complex and controversial management issues on a case-by-case basis during this time. For example, in 1931, Paley directed CBS Radio to drop its broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin (1891–1979), a Catholic priest based in Michigan who had become notorious for his anti-Jewish statements. CBS reportedly received hundreds of thousands of letters from listeners protesting this decision, but Paley refused to change his mind. Coughlin was forced to mount a fundraising campaign so that he could continue making his broadcasts on independent radio stations.

Paley also established a strong news division that emphasized balanced coverage and objectivity (reporting both sides of controversial issues in a fair manner, without being influenced by one's own opinion). This investment in journalistic talent and resources paid off during World War II (1939–45), when CBS Radio journalists provided some of the best news coverage of the entire war. Paley, meanwhile, served on the staff of U.S. general Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) during the war. It was also during the war years that Paley struck up a friendship with legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965).

Life among the rich and famous

In 1946, Paley became chairman of the board of CBS, turning the presidency of the company over to Frank Stanton, a trusted executive. Stanton would serve Paley loyally in that position for the next twenty-seven years.

Over the next few years, Paley joined various CBS entertainers to become a well-known figure in the circles of the rich and famous. He divorced his first wife after several years of separation, and in 1947 he married Barbara "Babe" Cushing Mortimer, a wealthy socialite from Boston. Paley and his second wife gained a reputation as world travelers who socialized with wealthy and famous friends all across North America and Europe. Paley also established himself as a generous and knowledgeable patron of the arts. He served as president and chairman of the famous Museum of Modern Art in New York for many years, and he personally built one of the world's most valuable collections of modern art. Paley also provided a financial gift that laid the foundation for the establishment of the Museum of Television and Radio in New York.

Edward R. Murrow

Legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow was born as Egbert Roscoe Murrow on April 25, 1908, near Greensboro, North Carolina. He started using the nickname "Ed" during his teen years and changed his first name to "Edward" when he launched his broadcasting career. He was the youngest of three sons born to Roscoe and Ethel (Lamb) Murrow, who made a living by farming corn and hay. For the first five years of his life, Murrow lived in a log cabin with no electricity or running water. Then his family moved to northern Washington State, just thirty miles from the Canadian border, and his father became a locomotive engineer.

Murrow attended Edison High School in Washington, where he was an excellent student and also showed strong leadership qualities. He played in the school orchestra, sang in the glee club, participated in sports, and served as president of the student body in his senior year. But Murrow showed the greatest skill as a member of the debate team. Crafting arguments about current events helped the young man gain a lifelong interest in political and social issues.

Murrow worked in the timber industry in order to earn enough money to attend Washington State College, where he once again served as president of the student body. In this position, he was invited to attend the annual convention of the National Student Federation of America (NSFA), the largest student organization in the United States. At the convention, Murrow gave a speech in which he encouraged his fellow students to devote more of their attention to national and world affairs. The group found his message so inspiring that they elected him president of the NSFA.

Murrow graduated from Washington State College in 1930. That same year, the NSFA held its annual convention in Atlanta, Georgia. At a time when schools in the South were segregated (divided by race), Murrow made a point of inviting representatives of African American colleges to attend the meeting. When the convention center refused to serve dinner to the black students, Murrow encouraged white students to pass down their plates full of food. In 1934 Murrow married Janet Huntington Brewster. They had a son, Charles.

During his college years, Murrow had created an educational series called University of the Air for the new CBS radio network. In 1935 he accepted a full-time job with CBS. The network was just starting to build a news division at that time, so Murrow lined up experts to appear on the air and talk about various topics in the news. In 1937 he moved to London, England, to become director of the network's European news bureau.

Murrow remained in Europe throughout World War II (1939–45). He became famous for standing on London rooftops to provide American radio audiences with live descriptions of German bombing raids. Murrow also hired and trained a staff of talented young war correspondents to give similar reports from other cities in Europe. Murrow returned to the United States after the war ended, and in 1946 he was promoted to vice president and director of public affairs at CBS. In 1950 he launched a popular radio news program called Hear It Now. The following year he brought the series to the new medium of television as See It Now.

During its seven-year run, See It Now tackled a number of controversial issues, earned four Emmy Awards as Best News or Public Affairs Program, and helped change history on several occasions. Murrow also hosted a popular celebrity-interview series called Person to Person for CBS during the 1950s. Ongoing conflicts with management convinced him to leave the network in 1960. President John F. Kennedy then appointed Murrow director of the U.S. Information Office, but poor health forced him to leave this position in 1964. He died of lung cancer on April 28, 1965.

Entering television broadcasting

As commercial television broadcasting got started after World War II, CBS spent a great deal of time and money developing a color television system. This system, developed by CBS engineer Peter Goldmark (1906–1977), was the national standard for a few years in the early 1950s. But the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) eventually replaced it with an all-electronic color system developed by the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which owned the competing NBC radio and television networks. Paley was disappointed by the FCC decision, but he wasted little time complaining about it. Instead, he set about building a strong group of local affiliate television stations and luring big radio stars to appear on CBS television programs.

Meanwhile, Goldmark helped Paley expand his business empire in another way. Goldmark was instrumental in the development of the long-playing (LP) record, introduced in 1948. The LP enabled recording artists and record companies to achieve a dramatic increase in the amount of music that fit on a single record. It revolutionized the recording industry and made CBS Records the leading record company in America for many years (the company was sold to Sony in 1987 for $2 billion).

Paley and CBS also diversified into other industries during the 1950s and 1960s. CBS became involved in such widely different industries as television set manufacturing, book and magazine publishing, and toy distribution. CBS even owned baseball's New York Yankees from 1964 to 1973, when Paley arranged the sale of the team to a group of investors led by George Steinbrenner.

Television, though, remained the most important part of the growing CBS empire. Under Paley's visionary leadership, the CBS network made a very successful transition from radio to television. CBS News, for instance, was able to maintain its reputation as a leading broadcast news organization when television emerged as the American people's main source of news and information. Paley skillfully directed the careers of some of his top radio journalists, including Edward R. Murrow, Howard K. Smith (1914–2003), and Walter Cronkite (1916–; see entry), as they entered the new medium of television.

Working with Edward R. Murrow

Paley also increased the reputation of CBS Television by being willing to invest in hard-hitting news and public affairs shows such as See It Now, which aired from 1951 to 1958. Hosted by Murrow, this program was presented as a series of documentaries (fact-based films) that investigated serious issues affecting American society, such as the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer and the unfair treatment of migrant farm workers.

See It Now is probably best known for a 1954 program about Joseph McCarthy (1908–1957), a U.S. senator from Wisconsin who had ruined the careers of many American politicians and entertainers by falsely accusing them of being Communists. McCarthy used the tensions of the Cold War (1945–91; a period of intense military and political rivalry that pitted the United States and its democratic system of government against the Soviet Union and its Communist system of government) to hurt his enemies and advance his own career. Murrow's show helped turn public opinion against McCarthy, and the senator soon fell from power. Before the episode went on the air, however, Paley and other top CBS executives felt so nervous about the subject matter that they did not promote it. Tensions over this and other controversial episodes of See It Now badly strained the relationship between Paley and Murrow.

Many television historians believe that Paley's concerns about the public reaction to such controversial programming was a major factor in the eventual cancellation of See It Now. Some scholars have also criticized Paley for other actions he took during the McCarthy era, including his cooperation in establishing a blacklist of entertainers and writers suspected of being Communists. Americans who were blacklisted during this era found it nearly impossible to work in their chosen careers, often for years at a time, because companies would simply refuse to hire them.

CBS becomes the industry leader

From 1955 through 1976, CBS television consistently led the other two major broadcast networks (ABC and NBC) in creating prime-time programs that attracted large audiences and high ratings. Much of this success has been credited to Paley, who had an exceptional ability to figure out which new program proposals were worth pursuing. Under Paley's direction, CBS broke new ground with such innovative programs as 60 Minutes, M*A*S*H, and All in the Family. Other classic television programs that appeared on CBS during these decades were The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Waltons, and The Andy Griffith Show. These legendary shows were complemented by dozens of less memorable but still popular shows.

By the early 1970s, it was clear that Paley believed the CBS policy of forcing employees to retire at the age of sixty-five did not apply to him. He tried out a number of potential replacements over the years, but he did not step down as the company's chief executive officer (CEO) until 1977, and he remained its chairman until 1983. When Paley finally gave up control of CBS, the network was earning more than $4 billion per year.

Paley's departure paved the way for Thomas H. Wyman to take over as the head of CBS. But Paley soon became very unhappy with Wyman's leadership. In 1985, only two years after his retirement, Paley joined forces with Lawrence Tisch (CBS's largest stockholder) to remove Wyman and install Tisch as CEO of the CBS media empire. Determined to make CBS more profitable, Tisch launched a variety of cost-cutting programs, which included making major budget cuts in the company's news division. These moves brought harsh criticism from legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite and others. The critics argued that reducing the money spent on news showed that CBS no longer valued its history or understood its responsibilities to its viewers.

When Tisch replaced Wyman in the mid-1980s, Paley reclaimed his place as chairman of the board. But he was not very involved in actual decision making at CBS during the late 1980s. He died of a heart attack on October 26, 1990, in New York City. In his will, he donated one of the world's most significant private collections of twentieth-century art to New York's Museum of Modern Art. He also left behind a legacy as one of the true shapers of American radio and television of the twentieth century.

For More Information


Edwards, Bob. Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism. New York: Wiley, 2004.

Paley, William S. As It Happened: A Memoir. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979.

Paper, Lewis J. Empire: William S. Paley and the Making of CBS. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Smith, Sally Bedell. In All His Glory: The Life of William S. Paley, the Legendary Tycoon and His Brilliant Circle. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.


Sterling, Christopher H. "William S. Paley." Museum of Broadcast Communications. (accessed on June 5, 2006).

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