On Friday, legendary newscaster and Newsmax columnist George Putnam, one of the most influential figures in the history of broadcasting, passed away at age 94 after a long illness.
In his heyday Putnam had the highest-rated TV news program in Los Angeles, and was reportedly earning more than CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite.
Putnam played a key role in the rise of several political figures, including Ronald Reagan, and was a key backer of Proposition 13, the anti-tax amendment authored by Howard Jarvis that sparked a grass-roots tax revolt across the nation.
“Today, America lost one of its national treasures -- George Putnam,” Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich said Friday, after news was released that the newsman had died at a hospital near his Chino, Calif., horse ranch that he shared with longtime companion Sallilee Conlon.
Putnam began his broadcasting career at age 20 when he went to work for a 1,000-watt radio station in Minneapolis. He later moved on to positions with NBC and the Mutual Broadcasting System.
During the 1940s he, along with Lowell Thomas, was the voice for Fox Movietone News. Putnam’s voice was used for the Movietone news about D-Day. After a stint in the Marine Corps during World War II, Putnam returned to broadcasting in New York -- and there he got discovered.
Walter Winchell wrote: “George Putnam’s voice is the greatest in radio.”
At that time, Winchell was the most influential columnist in the nation.
"Winchell made my career," Putnam told The Los Angeles Times. "I went from $190 a month at NBC to better than $200,000 a year."
In 1951, in the earliest days of television, Putnam switched from radio to station KTTV in Los Angeles and helped invent TV news broadcasting. He mixed his news reports with commentaries called “One Reporter’s Opinion.” He ended his programs with a patriotic flourish, standing beside an American flag and signing off with “For a better, stronger America … and that’s the up-to-the-minute news -- up to the minute, that’s all the news!”
His newscasts were the highest rated in the market, scoring upwards of a 60 percent share.
Longtime KABC radio personality Ray Briem, who would later work with Putnam at a Los Angeles-area station, told Newsmax: “I first saw George Putnam in Los Angeles in 1954 and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I always revered him. He was the dean of news broadcasters.”
One part star, one part newsman, Putnam became a political force to be reckoned with. In the 1990s he would boast that he had interviewed every president since Herbert Hoover. But it was in local Southern California politics he showed his real influence. In fact, he even had the power to topple a mayor.
In the 1961 Los Angeles primary, Mayor Norris Poulson ran for re-election, and Putnam threw his support to opponent Sam Yorty, a former congressman -- even though Putnam was working for a TV station owned by a company whose two newspapers were backing the incumbent.
Putnam gave Yorty a chance to appear frequently on his show, and he unseated Poulson to become mayor.
“No one in the history of Los Angeles television had the clout that George Putnam did,” said Roger M. Grace, a columnist with the Metropolitan News Company.
Perhaps his most influential brush with history was his help to a B movie actor and rising political star, Ronald Reagan.
As Putnam recalled, Reagan’s mother Nell was a fan of his news show and called him frequently for advice for her son, whose Hollywood career had faded by the late 1950s.
According to Putnam, Nell wanted Putnam to groom her son on becoming a news anchor. Putnam agreed to help. But Reagan’s plan to possibly begin a news career was put aside when he struck gold with a popular TV series, General Electric Theater.
Putnam recounts that in the mid-1960s a group of conservative Republican businessman led by Justin Dart, Henry Salvatori and Ray Kroc (the same group later who became Reagan’s “kitchen Cabinet) -- approached him about running for governor against Democrat Pat Brown.
Putnam said he considered the idea, but turned them down flatly.
“I told them two things. One, I am a registered Democrat and I am not changing my party. Second, I have a problem with women, too many women,” he recalled telling his potential backers. Putnam encouraged them to support Reagan, and they did just that.
Reagan, Putnam said, was apparently reluctant to accept their entreaties because he was afraid of flying. Eventually, he overcame his fear of flying, accepted their support and in 1966 was elected California governor.
Hollywood also noticed Putnam. He made friendships with several top stars, and frequently was a sailing partner with John Wayne on his yacht.
Putnam appeared in several films, typically as a newsman, as he did in the box-office hits “Independence Day” and “Helter Skelter.” Putnam has a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame.
Ted Knight has stated that Putnam was the model for his Ted Baxter character on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” It has also been claimed the Howard Beale character in the classic film “Network” was loosely based on Putnam.
After retiring from television news, Putnam returned to radio in 1976, and his “Talk Back” show was a force in making station KIEV a major station in the Los Angeles area.
In a 1984 “Salute to KTTV’s 35th Anniversary,” former President Richard Nixon said of Putnam: “He won the admiration and respect of millions of people in Southern California due to the fact that everybody could count on him to say exactly what he believed, whether it was popular or not. Some people didn’t like what he said; some people liked what he said. But everybody listened to George Putnam. That is why he has become one of the most influential commentators of our times.”
Most recently, Putnam hosted a conservative talk radio show based in the Los Angeles area -- near Putnam’s 20-acre working ranch -- and distributed nationally by CRN Digital Talk Radio.
Putnam liked to describe himself as a “conservative Democrat” and proudly talked of his lifetime memberships to the NAACP and the Urban League.
Political labels were less important to Putnam than character and authenticity. He irked his conservative listeners by chummy interviews with San Francisco Democrat Willie Brown and strongly opposing the recall of Calif. Governor Gray Davis. Putnam had a strong dislike of Davis’ Republican challenger, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In recent years Putnam became a strong opponent of the Iraq war and championed the cause of stronger border security along with increased deportation of illegal aliens.
"George was an icon and true legend in the television and radio business," said Mike Horn, president and CEO of CRN. "George was truly the last of an era. He was a character whose story-telling abilities could not be beat, a patriot whose love for America influenced everything he did and a friend who brought insight and laughter to everyone."
Putnam's longtime producer and confidante, Chuck Wilder, will continue the radio program, Horn said.
Putnam also wrote a regular column for Newsmax.com.
"George Putnam was one of the greatest men I have met in my life,” said Christopher Ruddy, President and CEO of Newsmax Media, Inc.
“I doubt there would be a Newsmax today if it wasn't for the friendship, support and inspiration George Putnam gave to me in my early years as a journalist.
"I have this vision now of George riding his horse in the great beyond. Next to him is John Wayne and Ronald Reagan -- all his friends. They are all riding -- still on patrol -- for the country they have loved so much."
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