Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Samuel Insull

Thomas Edison is the big name behind electrification. But it was another man named Samuel Insull, who mass-marketed electricity. A book came out in 2006 about Insull titled The Merchant of Power. I have not read it yet, but the title alone speaks volumes. But he also had an interesting connection to radio... other than powering them.

Insull swas born in London in 1859 and only emigrated to America in 1881 at the age of 22. He became Thomas Edison's private secretary taking a particular interest in electricity. Edison was pleased with his interest and his abilities and sent him to Schenectady, New York, to run an electrical factory. By 1892, he was president of the Chicago Edison Company.

In 1892 a merger pushed Edison out of his own company. Insull departed too. He went to Chicago where he really got started. He bought a single power station that served about 5,000 people then took out a personal loan for a quarter million dollars to buy out the competition. He charged different customers different rates at different times of day a policy still used today. He increased demand for electricity by offering to subsidizing the cost of wiring up homes. By the 1920s he was serving 4 million homes. He owned 60 companies.

Insull kept abreast of the deeds of his utility competitors. When Westinghouse launched KDKA-AM Insull ,decided to keep up with the Jones's. He decided to build a radio station in Chicago working with the Chicago Opera Company. The idea being that the opera would be broadcast live. This station would become KYW-AM. the station was build and owned by Westinghouse but operated jointly by Westinghouse and Edison Electric.

In 1928 Samuel Insull and his utility associates paid one million dollars to buy 890 WENR-AM, a share time with WLS. There were other Chicago area stations they could have been bought for much less. Insull bought WENR not for the license but to acquire Station Manager Everett Mitchell. Mitchell went on to orchestrate Insull’s radio appearances as a member of Insulls staff.

In 1931 NBC made Chicago its broadcasting hub. They swooped in and bought WENR from Insull while it was for sale cheap in the early days of the depression. Interestingly enough by then, Everett Mitchell was a salable product. NBC wanted Mitchell as much as WENR. Everett Mitchell, he was given the assignment of presenting The National Farm and Home Hour syndicated on NBC of course.

In 1936 Insull started his own radio network the Affiliate Broadcast System (ABS.) the network wasn't very big nor very powerful. They had some rights to broadcast Cubs and White Sox games, but mostly on low powered stations. Affiliates included: KFIZ, WKBH, WHBY, WOMT, WHBL, WIBY, WRJN, WHBF, WCLS, WTAX, WJBL, WTRC, WWAE, WBOW, WOEA, WIND, WLBC, WKKB, WDGY, and WIL a total of 21 stations covering the midwest.

When the stock market crashed turned over everything to his creditors. He resigned from all his companies including ABS by 1936. In the days of the New Deal Insull became an example of corruption and fraud in big business. Roosevelt demonized him in public statements. He lost everything in the Great Depression welshing on a many debts and dubious business deals. He fled to Europe to avoid extradition. He was forced to return the the U.S. to stand trial for fraud, but was aquitted. He died in a Paris metro station in 1938 with 84 cents in his pocket.