The rise and fall of ‘The Bob Braun Show’

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This story originally appeared in the July 21 edition of the Weekly LINK Reader. To see these stories first, subscribe here.

Editor’s Note: Rick Robinson is a local author who is writing a book based on life in Northern Kentucky in 1968 and what we can learn now. LINK is publishing his book chapter by chapter in a recurring series. 

The Kentucky Post and Times-Star was not the only source of news for Northern Kentuckians in 1968. Television news from the three local network affiliates covered the events of the day. WLW, WCPO, and WKRC all had robust news departments. The Greater Cincinnati media market was small yet innovative, utilizing advanced technologies of the day and employing local programming relevant to the region.

However, those old enough to remember dialing in to hear from anchors like Al Schottelkotte may have griped about the thin coverage of news from Northern Kentucky. And while Northern Kentuckians often felt ignored by local news broadcasts, there was one place in 1968 where viewers on the south side of the Ohio River felt at home – “The Bob Braun Show.”

The grandson of German immigrants, Bob Braun was born and raised in Ludlow, where his father owned a local grocery store. Braun first appeared on radio at age 13, hosting a game show on WSAI-AM where two teams of Little Leaguers competed against each other in baseball trivia. 

As a young man, Braun did everything from hosting radio dance shows to singing live at local night clubs. After a stint in the military, Braun’s big break came when he gained national recognition by winning “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” television show (the era’s answer to “America’s Got Talent” or “The Voice”). 

Within weeks of winning, Braun was signed by WLW-TV and became co-host to the legendary television pioneer Ruth Lyons on her popular noon talk show. He would eventually have his own afternoon talk show, when in 1967, Lyons retired, and Braun took her place in the noon time slot.

Bob Braun. Photo provided | Kenton County Public Library archives

Braun’s first cousin, Ludlow artist Tom Gaither, remembered his relative’s popularity. 

“Everyone in Northern Kentucky knew Bob,” Gaither said. “He made everyone feel like they were his best friend. People trusted Bob. He was one of us, and he never forgot where he came from.” 

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Braun’s time hosting radio dance clubs led to one of Gaither’s many colorful stories. Braun gave Gaither some money to take one of his guests – Brenda Lee – to lunch before an episode of his show. 

“I told everyone in Ludlow I was dating Brenda Lee,” Gaither said with a laugh. 

“The Bob Braun Show” was broadcast across a regional network of stations covering Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and Indiana. In the network cities (Dayton, Columbus, Indianapolis, Louisville, Lexington, Huntington, Charleston, Nashville and Knoxville), local productions – like “The Bob Braun Show” – led network broadcasts in ratings. Commercials were done live, without a teleprompter or script. Northern Kentuckian Richard “Dick” Murgatroyd produced “The Bob Braun Show.”

“Bob seemingly possessed an internal clock, knowing exactly when to move on from a 60-second spot,” Murgatroyd recalled. “And if we endorsed a product, it sold.”

This unique platform and multimarket penetration opened the door for many high-profile guests to visit the show. Comedians, entertainers, singers, actors and actresses all wanted to be part of it. Politicians looking to cast a wide net salivated for exposure to Braun’s loyal viewers. 

“We had a regional network that spread across several cities,” Murgatroyd said. “And our regular viewers trusted us. So, when national politicians visited, they all wanted to be on the show.”

In 1968, the campaign to replace President Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House made an interview by Bob Braun ideal exposure for candidates. Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, California Gov. Ronald Reagan and former Vice President Richard Nixon all appeared on “The Bob Braun Show.”

In years to come, presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush would all make appearances. From the south side of the Ohio River, Kentucky Govs. Julian Carroll and John Y. Brown Jr. would also be guests.

Murgatroyd was particularly fond of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, who appeared on “The Bob Braun Show” shortly after his election as governor of California. 

“He stood out among the rest,” Murgatroyd said. “He had a presence unmatched by anyone else.” 

Murgatroyd also remembered Humphrey as being particularly enthralled by the singing voice of one of Braun’s singers, an operatic soprano, Marian Spelman. 

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“Humphrey absolutely loved Marian.” Murgatroyd said, pausing before laughing. “But then again, who didn’t love her?”

Reagan’s July appearance on the show accentuated his commanding Hollywood persona. Kentucky Post and Times-Star reporter Clay Wade Bailey opined that if Richard Nixon stumbled at the Republican National Convention in Miami, Florida, the Kentucky delegation was likely to back the affable California governor. Kentucky Gov. Louie Nunn apparently understood Reagan’s appeal. Even though he was backing Nixon, Nunn held a lavish dinner for Reagan during the National Governors Association gathering in Cincinnati.

In Northern Kentucky, there was apparently very little support for the presidential candidate and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Whether by Nunn’s influence or the former vice president’s popularity, nearly all local Republican leaders supported Nixon. 

Despite the backing of Kentucky’s two senators, it appeared that Rockefeller had a mere four of Kentucky’s 24 delegates to the 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami. 

The battle for Northern Kentucky Democratic convention presidential delegates was much more raucous.

U.S. Sen. (and 1968 presidential hopeful) Eugene McCarthy holds a campaign rally at Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport. Photo provided | Kenton County Public Library archives

Caption: U.S. Sen. (and 1968 presidential hopeful) Eugene McCarthy holds a campaign rally at Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport. Photo provided | Kenton County Public Library Archives 

When Johnson decided not to seek another term as president, his vice president, Humphrey, jumped in. The assassination of Bobby Kennedy left many torn over whom to support – Humphrey or the anti-war candidate, McCarthy. 

As Kentucky Democrats readied for the local conventions used to nominate delegates to the district and state conventions, a dispute arose regarding what was known as “unit rule.” Simply put, the procedure was a winner-takes-all-process, which would cause the top vote-getter at any level of the Democratic convention to receive all the votes. 

Humphrey supporters were in favor of unit rule, while McCarthy supporters opposed it. The divide was generational, pitting the Old Guard against the youthful “McCarthy Army.” The headline of the story describing the conflict said, “Novice Dems Battle Old Pros.”

Leading McCarthy’s Army into political battle was young Ed Winterberg of Erlanger. A 22-year-old law student and McCarthy supporter, Winterberg was opposed to the process. 

“We would oppose the unit rule even if we win the majority of the delegates,” he said.

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Future Kenton County District Judge Chaz Brannen was just out of law school and a McCarthy supporter. Brannen remembers it being a very frustrating time for young people opposed to the Vietnam War. 

“Major cultural changes were taking place across the country,” Brannen said, “but they had not reached here (Northern Kentucky), yet. It was a stable community. We didn’t appreciate, until later, the changes taking place.”

On the other side of the Democratic candidate divide, lawyer Phil Taliaferro had just returned to Northern Kentucky from a stint in the Navy, where he had been deployed to Vietnam and the Philippines. He was chosen to be chair of Young Kentuckians for Humphrey. Even though he was supporting the establishment candidate, Taliaferro confirmed the conflict in the local party. 

“The local Democrat Party was very, very cliquish. And if you were in the clique, you were expected to keep your mouth shut.” He paused and laughed. “I had trouble keeping my mouth shut.”

Still, Taliaferro ended up on the side of the Old Guard.

“I thought McCarthy was too far left … too extreme,” he said. “Of course, I also thought a Nixon presidency was about the worst thing that could ever happen to this country. I was left with Humphrey.”

Prior to the local conventions, McCarthy made a stop at the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and spoke to about 1,000 supporters about “peace abroad and justice at home.”

When the local conventions were held in Northern Kentucky, McCarthy won two districts, but the news focused on the 66th District convention that ended up electing two separate delegations to move on in the process. At the state convention, party leadership attempted to calm the McCarthy folks by offering to seat a handful of their delegates at the national convention. Many of McCarthy’s Army walked out of the convention in protest. 

Even as politics and the war in Vietnam would soon collide on the streets of Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Northern Kentuckians were about to face an issue still being spoken of today – Newport’s steamy underbelly of gambling, prostitution and organized crime.

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