Gordon Barton McLendon was born June 8, 1921 in Paris, Texas to Barton Robert and Jeanette Marie Eyster McLendon. A week after Gordon was born, there was a birth announcement in an Oklahoma newspaper about Gordon, stating that his father was visiting his newborn son and wife from Idabel, Oklahoma where he was working. We also know that Gordon’s grandfather, Jefferson Davis McLendon was a lawyer and judge living there in Idabel at the time. A few months later, there was another short article in the local Idabel newspaper saying that Gordon was with his mother in California and that his father was visiting them while Gordon had been taken ill. By 1930 when the federal census was taken, Barton was practicing law and the family was residing together in Idabel, Oklahoma.
A 1932 newspaper article, also from Idabel, has Gordon performing “Song of the Pines” in a piano recital. A bit later in the year, another article has Gordon predicting college football scores of regional interest. A year later, Gordon is called a junior reporter and penned newspaper articles for the local newspaper. He is said to have graduated from high school in Atlanta, Texas. He attended Kemper Military Academy in Missouri. After about a year, he enrolled at Yale University where he majored in Far Eastern languages, Japanese and Malayan. While at Yale he was involved in the university radio station and a literary magazine. Around the time he completed his studies at Yale, World War II was declared and Gordon joined the United States Navy.
During the war, he served as an interpreter and translator, using his ability to speak and understand Japanese, even if not necessarily being fluent at it. He was eventually assigned to Armed Forces Radio. His quick wit and on air speaking ability led him to become a popular broadcaster. Gordon created an alias named Lowell Gram Kaltenheatter, which was an amalgamation of the names of four popular American radio commentators/broadcasters: Lowell Thomas, Raymond Gram Swing, H. V. Kaltenborn and Gabriel Heatter. An article from 1945 in the Marshall (Texas) News-Messenger described his broadcast as being dear to the serviceman’s heart. It was a whimsical combination of news, double talk, disinformation, wittily addressed topics and commentary that quickly became popular with those serving in the Pacific.
The program was broadcast from the main island on a small atoll located in the far western Caroline Islands as an experiment for the entertainment of the personnel of the United States Navy aboard ships at sea in the Pacific during the war. It featured topics from the daily life of sailors including food and meals they were served, their occasional liberty and leave, enlisted men’s naval uniforms (no zippers), how to get along with native women and many more. Because he was a Japanese language speaker, he would repeat Japanese propaganda, translated to English. Sometimes he would ad lib, but he also enjoyed repeating exaggerations of the Japanese news agency, Domei (which he pronounced “dummy”) word for word. Service personnel looked forward to his zany regular broadcasts. Gordon was quoted as saying that all Navy personnel in this theater of the war had stomach and back problems, “they can’t stomach the Pacific and can’t get back home.”
After the war, McLendon returned to Texas after attending law school for a short time at Harvard. He acquired an interest in a 100 watt radio station KNET in Palestine. After selling this station, he established radio station KLIF, broadcasting from Oak Cliff. One of his innovations there was to carry live baseball broadcasts. Rights to actual major league games were not affordable, so McLendon would pay people to sit in stadiums around the league and send him play-by-play data using Western Union. McLendon would then relate the facts of the game as if he were the one sitting in the broadcast booth. He created another on air persona that he nicknamed The Old Scotsman.
Other stations began to carry his broadcasts, which helped Gordon and his father to found Liberty Broadcasting System, featuring his baseball game of the day. McLendon is also credited for employing and/or giving early broadcast opportunities to future national sports broadcasters including Lindsay Nelson and Dizzy Dean. At one point major league baseball began its own broadcasts primarily funded with advertising from Falstaff, a beer company. Prior to that, only the All Star and World Series games had been broadcast by the league. McLendon brought brought suit against their network, after it took steps to make it impossible to continue the broadcasts, but finally accepted a relatively small financial settlement to discontinue them.
The family went on to expand its radio network to include numerous stations across the United States and some overseas, including offshore and other “pirate” radio stations. McLendon stations pioneered innovations they either conceived or developed, including focusing on playing top 40 song lists, using jingles to promote the call letters and identity of the stations, creating local promotional events, carrying remote broadcasts of local news and traffic and more. McLendon is also credited for developing the concept of all-news radio stations and for pioneering other radio formats such as easy listening. The company’s networks also expanded to include television and movie theater interests. McLendon also produced feature film productions. He is listed as executive producer for four films: two in the horror genre, one about a boy and his dog and one set in World War II.
He was politically conservative and campaigned for public office, running against incumbent Ralph Yarborough in the 1964 Democratic senatorial primary election. McLendon’s father B. R. McLendon died in 1982 and the company began to divest itself of all its broadcast outlets. A few years later, Gordon was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away at his ranch home in north Texas at the age of 65 in 1986. McLendon will long be remembered for his creativity and for being an innovator in broadcasting. His honors include being inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1994 by the Museum of Broadcast Communications and was one of the first inductees in the Texas Radio Hall of Fame in 2002.
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