Max Goldberg (1911–72) was a pioneer of early television broadcasting and a television personality in the 1950s and 1960s. Goldberg worked to promote the growth of television in Denver, and his weekly talk show On the Spot set the stage for television’s early success in the local market. Today, amidst the popularity and ubiquity of television programming, Goldberg is primarily remembered for his talk show and its signature roundtable-style discussion of current events and big news topics.
Max Goldberg was the eighth of nine children of impoverished immigrant parents in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Denver. Born in 1911 in the Jewish enclave along Colfax Avenue, skirting the south side of downtown Denver, young Goldberg’s inauguration into the media began at age seven, two weeks after his father, Charles, perished in the catastrophic 1918 influenza epidemic. Those circumstances dictated that all family members who could work get a job, so young Goldberg followed his five older brothers—William, Harry, Morris, Jack, and Louis—in becoming a street-corner newsboy for The Denver Post. The Post sold for two pennies a copy, and the newsboy got half of that, so fifty cents was a good weekday’s take. On Sundays, the opportunities were even better—the paper was a nickel, and the newsboys kept two cents. Having six newsboys in the family, making fifty cents to more than a dollar a day each, kept the family housed, fed, and clothed.
In 1926 at age fifteen, Goldberg was conveying high school sports scores to the Post’s sports department and at nineteen, he became a reporter for the Rocky Mountain News. During the 1920s, a new communications medium developed in Colorado and elsewhere, and in 1932 Goldberg went on the radio as “the old sports commentator” on KFEL in Denver. The following year he moved his thrice-weekly show to KFXF—later KVOD—owned by Thomas C. Ekrem and William D. Pyle. He remained there for nearly fifteen years. By age twenty-five, Max Goldberg had gained a thorough knowledge of the print and broadcast media.
In 1936 he opened an advertising agency specializing in public relations and political campaigns. In that capacity he worked with some of the biggest names in Colorado politics, including Governors Ralph Carr, Lee Knous, and Steve McNichols; governor and US senator Edwin C. “Big Ed” Johnson; Denver mayor Tom Currigan, and many more. From 1946 to 1970, he wrote a column titled “Side Street” for the Post. Although “Side Street” appeared on the business pages, it covered far more than just business. Post readers turned to “Side Street” for business news, inside political information, gossip, human interest stories, stock tips, travel notes, humor, and more. For twenty-nine years—from 1943 until 1972—he was the publisher of the Intermountain Jewish News, a Denver weekly that continues to be operated by his wife, Miriam, and their son, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg.
In 1940, before World War II curtailed broadcast equipment production and before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) imposed a moratorium on further development of the television industry, some twenty-four commercial television stations were on the air in the United States. After the war, as the electronics industry shifted back from military applications to meeting growing consumer demand, the FCC made up for lost time by issuing 108 new television licenses in three years; this created unanticipated problems when the new stations began experiencing interference in the suddenly crowded airwaves. To sort out this and other technical problems, the FCC ordered a “temporary freeze” on new applications. The freeze would last almost four years.
During the freeze years, Goldberg traveled frequently to cities with operating television stations. Some trips were family visits with his far-flung relatives; others were business trips for the News. Still others involved fund-raising activities undertaken by the Max Goldberg Advertising Agency. These trips exposed him to Milton Berle, Howdy Doody, Ed Sullivan, and other television stars unfamiliar in his hometown. Impressed by the impact that television was making in New York and elsewhere, Goldberg became fascinated by the idea of bringing it to Denver, although he had scant funds to invest in such a project. He had four young children and had recently purchased his first home. And despite his various enterprises, amassing money was never one of his strengths. Rather, his forte was his easy and convincing manner and the invaluable contacts he had with those who did have money to invest.
Colorado Television Corporation
Goldberg incorporated the Colorado Television Corporation (CTC) alongside his former employers at KVOD Radio—William Pyle and Thomas Ekrem—in late 1951 and applied for an FCC license. A consummate salesman, Goldberg brought fourteen prominent local businessmen into the organization and convinced them to invest a total of $575,000 despite a 1949 Post report that nearby television stations in Albuquerque and Salt Lake City were losing money. Goldberg called upon his friend, US senator Ed Johnson, to help him negotiate the federal bureaucracy and expedited the application process for an FCC license. On July 12, 1952, the FCC announced the approval of two television licenses. Gene O’Fallon, owner of KFEL Radio, was awarded Channel 2 for KFEL-TV and the CTC was awarded Channel 9 for KVOD-TV. The FCC quickly approved a change in call letters from KVOD (“Voice of Denver”) to KBTV (“Better Television”), the station’s identity for the next thirty-two years. Programming began on October 12, giving Denverites a viewing option for the first time and igniting a boom in television sales. Between July and November 1952, the number of Denver homes with a TV increased tenfold, from 4 to 40,000.
KBTV, Channel 9, affiliated with the ABC network that lagged behind rivals NBC and CBS in providing quality programming and advertising support for its member stations. Despite limited resources, KBTV was compelled to introduce more local programs than the competition. Goldberg introduced a weekly public affairs show called On the Spot, and although it frequently changed time slots and stations, it was seen from 1952 until 1966, becoming Denver’s longest running locally produced and sponsored program. On the Spot featured interviews and panel discussions on local, national, and international issues. With his extensive background in news and radio, Goldberg was an ideal choice to host a show in this new medium.
On the Spot
Beginning on November 5, 1952, the station announcer each week welcomed viewers to On the Spot, a series of unrehearsed interviews with the great, the near-great, and the obscure.” This accurately described the guests, and it became the signature line identified with the show for years. When Goldberg put on television US senator Eugene Millikin from Colorado (November 17, 1952) or Governor Dan Thornton (January 27, 1953) or Denver mayor Quigg Newton (April 7, 1953), those were the first times most Denverites had seen such public figures in their living rooms.
Early in 1958, Goldberg began to experience chest discomfort and pain. When doctors in Denver were unable to provide an explanation, Goldberg traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Chest X-rays revealed the presence of a large and rapidly growing tumor, and doctors called for its surgical removal. The March 4 operation was successful, but infection and other complications would plague him for the rest of his life, hampering his recovery. Goldberg never stopped working and pitched On the Spot to Channel 7, with the show finding a new home in October 1958, airing Sunday nights at 10:30. Whether it was the unique array of guests on the program, Goldberg’s probing questions, or some other factor, ratings for the show climbed. In early 1959, it took second place in its time slot, garnering higher ratings than I Love Lucy and Dragnet. Two years later, On the Spot captured first place in its time slot.
Originally conceived as a new television show to run concurrently with On the Spot, The Max Goldberg Show debuted on Channel 7 on July 7, 1960. According to the station, “the program starts at 11:00 p.m. and it ends—who knows when? If Max’s guests really get involved in a discussion the program may run until 2:00 in the morning.” Max tried to engage viewers as well, soliciting their telephone calls and questions for the panel years before Phil Donahue or Oprah Winfrey popularized the practice.
After a year, Channel 7 decided to economize by replacing The Max Goldberg Show with old movies. With a few telephone calls, Goldberg simply arranged for the program to switch to KTVR, Channel 2. There, it moved to the 9:30 p.m. Thursday time slot, but Goldberg insisted that “the policy will still be that if we have something to discuss we’ll remain on the air until we are finished.” Two years later, history repeated itself when Channel 2 replaced his show with movie reruns.
Introducing prominent guests and provocative topics was only part of Goldberg’s contribution to Denver television. In the mid-1950s, he hosted election-night coverage of city and statewide races. He also hosted and participated in telethons to raise money for United Cerebral Palsy, the Leukemia Society, the March of Dimes, and other charitable causes. He pioneered off-camera too. Goldberg participated in one of the earliest attempts to bring pay television to Denver, a 1963 plan by the Macfadden-Teleglobe Pay-TV Corporation. Through his advertising agency, he used mass mailings and newspaper advertisements to publicize the call for advance subscribers to the system. A negative publicity campaign by the National Association of Broadcasters and the three major networks led to resistance from viewers and quashed Macfadden-Teleglobe’s Denver experiment before it could begin. Even Goldberg’s son said, “I thought my dad was nuts” when he predicted that people would pay for individual programs and that 400 channels would eventually exist.
In September 1966, Goldberg signed off for the final time the same way he had for nearly fourteen years: “Thanks for watching and thanks for listening, good night.” On October 25, 1972, six days after his sixty-first birthday, Goldberg died in his hospital bed. In his comprehensive history of Channel 9, Tim Ryan called Goldberg “the father of Channel 9.” On or off the air, few people in Denver had a greater impact on the early development of television.
Adapted from Owen Chariton, “Max Goldberg: Colorado Television Pioneer,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 21 no. 1 (2001).