The reach of the Brennan/Benns partnership touched many enterprises through the years, not just the well-known radio stations which dominated their respective markets. And while the final ownership of many of the broadcast properties would reside mostly (if not entirely) with one family or the other, it is nearly impossible to find a single station which did not benefit in some way from the talents of both families.
The photo above shows Cyril M. Brennan, William “Bill” Brennan, Cyril G. Brennan, Dan Brennan, William Benns Sr. and Iralee Benns, William “Billy” Benns Jr.
Cyril M. Brennan
Cyril Macaulay Brennan was born in August of 1888 in Lansing, Iowa; he was the son of a hard-working and successful dairy farmer, a first generation immigrant from Ireland. When he was two, his family moved to Alabama, finally settling in Columbus, Georgia where his father would start a new farm. The families’ original dairy farm encompassed more than 800 acres near Ft. Benning, and would be able to boast the first mechanical cream separator in the South. Cyril originally attended Georgia Tech but soon transferred to Auburn, where his boyish looks earned him the nickname “Kid”.
A relentless work ethic would be the hallmark of the Brennan family over the years. Brennan’s classmates at Auburn saw this first hand, and noted in his senior class notes that he was tireless in his studies. They punctuated their thoughts by stating boldly that, “the clock tolled the midnight hour, when Brennan went to bed.” Also knowing the value of time, his multitasking was legendary, as was his impressive collection of records. With accolades for hard work and attention to detail Cyril graduated from Auburn in 1911 with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He would go on to earn a second degree in Agriculture which was awarded to him in the following year.
It was while attending Auburn that Cyril was became acquainted with Iralee Whitaker, the future mother of Billy Benns, Jr. This would be the first of two Brennan/Benns friendships which would precede their business partnerships. After graduation, Cyril would stake his own farm, across the Chattahoochee River from his parents, in Brickyard, Alabama. It was on this sprawling dairy farm that brothers Cyril G. and Daniel (Dan) were born. William (Bill), Kathleen (Kay), Donnave and Elaine – who died of diphtheria at age 2 ½ -were all born in Columbus, Georgia when the family’s farm was located there on what was, and still is, Brennan Road.
William “Bill” Brennan
Bill was the oldest of the three brothers, who would eventually find their way into the radio business. He worked hard on his dads’ farm and in school, graduating from high school at age 13. The eldest son would not proceed directly to college, electing to delay further formal education for almost seven years. During this time he went to work on the farm, milking cows, driving a dairy truck and enrolling in a mail-order radio repair course. After successfully completing the course Bill started his own radio repair business and made enough money to fund his Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering degree at Auburn University, graduating in the Class of 1939. He would continue his education by earning a Master of Science degree in Communications Engineering from Harvard Graduate School, graduating in 1941.
It was while he was attending Auburn that the second Brennan/Benns friendship would form. Bill would meet his future business partner and collaborator, fellow Class of 1939 student Billy Benns. By their senior year, Bill and Billy were nearly inseparable. Both men were members of Omega Zeta, Tau Beta Pi (the electrical engineering fraternity), Eta Kappa Nu and the campus chapter of the American institute of Electrical Engineers.
Cyril G. Brennan
In the late 1920 both radio and the Brennan’s second son Cyril Gray were both in their infancy. The toddler seemed to have a natural inclination towards all things radio. When he was only three and a half years old, his mother wrote in his baby book that “He likes to play with all kinds of electrical things-plugs, sockets, wires blown bulbs, etc. He can connect them up easily”. There were several choices of radio stations which could be received on the Brennan farm in the 1930’s. These included to WRBL in Columbus, WAPI – Birmingham, WFSA – Montgomery, WMAZ – Macon and the distant, but high-powered WSB from Atlanta. The sounds of these stations had caught Cyril’s attention at an early age as noted by his mother – “He likes the radio and often sits as close as he can listening to the music and singing.”
School would come easy to Cyril from a young age. He skipped the first and third grades and graduated from Fairhope High School at age 16. While attending school he also helped around the Brennan farm, which had more than 400 cows which had to be milked twice a day. The milking duties started each day around 4am and took four to five hours. After school at 2pm each day, the routine would start all over again for the afternoon cycle. This work routine was enough to convince the young Cyril G. Brennan that life on the dairy farm was not for him.
As the youngest brother born on the family farm in Brickyard, Dan began his high school education in Alabama, but joined his father and brothers when they relocated to Miami when he was in his teens. It was from Miami High School that Dan graduated in 1947 and joined the family business as an announcer for WVOK. After marring Clara in 1950, Dan graduated from Birmingham Southern with a degree in Business Administration. Dan’s business education would complement his natural talents on the air. While he became best known across the Southeast for his shows on all the Brennan stations, Dan was also a top-billing account executive who would receive national recognition in 1955 for his work with the Ford Motor Company. Dan would be instrumental in producing all of the concerts for WVOK, WBAM and WAPE.
“I will seek my fortunes up North!”
In 1942 the Mr. Brennan sold the family farm for $43,000 and set out to seek his fortunes away from the fields and barns of Georgia. He moved along with Bill to Newark, New Jersey to begin an enterprise of racing horses at the many tracks which were active in the New York City area. Meanwhile, fifteen year old Cyril and his younger brother Dan, 12, would stay in Brickyard, living in the barn adjacent to their grandparent’s house on Brennan Road. The girls would move to Birmingham, first-living with their mother’s brother Grey Stelzenmuller until Donnave and Kay were old enough to go to college. The first attended the University of Alabama for a year and then tansferred to Auburn.
Bill and his father had become quite successful at monetizing their efforts at the daily races, sometimes wagering as much at $1,000 per event. Even with all the activities involved in their horse venture Bill sought an outlet for the knowledge he had gained with his degrees. He found that in a job at the National Union Radio Corporation plant in Newark. National Union was best known to consumers for manufacturing vacuum tubes for radios and for producing a few complete radio receivers.
Bill’s tasks would take him to the industrial side of the business where the company specialized in transmitting and special purpose tubes. It was here were he gained valuable knowledge about the extended electrical performance curves of certain tubes. This data would later be put to use in the design and fabrication of the series of transmitters used at WVOK, WBAM and WAPE.
Cyril’s fears of a career on the dairy farm were, of course, short-lived once his dad sold that property. Upon his graduation from Fairhope High School in 1943, he joined Cyril Sr. and brother Bill in New Jersey, where he also landed a job at the National Union Radio Tube Company. His duties were on the consumer side of the business in quality assurance. His job was to pull every 100th or so tube off of the production line and put it through its paces to test the technical limits of the final product.
After a year he left National Union and enrolled in Auburn for a semester. Once there he found that prior to his enrolment he had already acquired most of the practical knowledge he needed to know about electrical fundamentals and circuit design. Either way, dreams of a college degree would have been put on hold. In April of 1946, just prior to his 19th birthday, Cyril was called to military service. His local draft board presented him with two options; take the draft assignment which would be implemented at the will of Selective Service or join the Army immediately for an 18 month hitch. He elected to sign-up for immediate service and in the summer of 1946 was shipped off to Fort Polk for six weeks of basic training in the sweltering humidity of Louisiana.
Having gained valuable knowledge during his time working for National Union, Cyril was signed up and ready to go to the Army’s “Signal School”. As he prepared to ship out to his next assignment, he was faced with every serviceman’s nightmare; missing paperwork. This brought the young soldiers plans to a grinding halt. No paperwork, no transportation. No transportation, no school. And the news got worse; there would not be another transport for Brennan to catch. His alternatives were not good. The recruit was told to join the others who were left behind; they were slated to become medics. Their training would begin shortly in how to give shots and administer first aid. Cyril knew that this was not what he wanted in his future.
Being a resourceful and convincing young man, Cyril was now on a mission to find the right person to change this situation. He stated his case simply, “you have to get me out of here!” There must have been some common sense among the officials at Fort Polk. Up on his completion of basic training, he was given orders to ship out on a military transport to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, the home of the Army’s Eastern Signal Corps Training Center. It was at that school that the young enlisted man would meet at fellow recruit wearing an armband with the initials ODD – off duty diversion. When asked what the arm band meant, the recruit snapped back “officer of the damned day”. Cyril had met his future collaborator and lifelong friend, George Blaskow.
A female attending a “regular” college in the early 1900’s was a rarity. A woman in the male-dominated college culture of the early 20th century would have to come equipped with great confidence, knowledge, drive and conviction. Auburn native Iralee Whitaker was on such young, being only one of two women in the 1909 graduating class of Auburn Polytechnic Institute. She had a schedule full of extra-curricular activities and earned her “general” academic degree from the university. With a reputation as a principled person, her classmates described her as believing in “doing right and maintaining her rights”.
The young co-ed was also filled with team sprit with her frequent and vocal support of the Auburn Tigers football team. As she readied to graduate, Iralee foresaw a future for herself in education. She boldly stated her she would not just one day be a teacher but would be a “lady principal of some Alabama High School”. She could not even imagine her future in radio since the mass medium was still, at this time in history, mostly an experiment. The commercial viability of radio would not come about until the 1920’s. Miss Whitaker soon would find work as a mathematics teacher, and would marry William E. Benns, Sr., a Birmingham architect.
One of his most notable structures is the historic H.W. Sweet House in Bessemer, Alabama which was built in 1906 at a cost of $10,000. Mr. Sweet was a furniture merchant and the cities first undertaker.
The First Radio Station…was not WVOK
Exactly how the Benns family came to be interested in broadcasting is unclear. It is known that the families’ first venture into broadcasting was not in Alabama, but in Florida. The economy of the Sunshine state in the 1930’s was vastly different from today. With the exception of Miami, metropolitan areas south of Tallahassee and Jacksonville were few and far between. Florida was still reeling from a major real estate bust and a basic lack of infrastructure. Without the widespread use of comforting air conditioning, with the exception of the hardy locals, habitation in most of the state was limited to a few months each winter. Due to a lack of business, many businesses in the state, including a good number of radio stations, simply closed down during the summer months. Florida was still mostly an agricultural state relying heavily on citrus and cattle production for its livelihood.
Fort Meyers was a small vacation outpost on the states west coast, which was surrounded mainly by Gulf fishing villages. It was here that the Benns family would first venture into radio. It was July of 1939 and Billy Benns was fresh out of college. That month, Billy, along with Bessemer, Alabama attorney T. Julian Skinner, Jr., applied for a new license.
By October of 1939 Fort Meyers Broadcasting was authorized to construct a new AM station on 1210 kc with 250 watts of power daytime and 100 watts at night. Ownership of the station belonged to Billy Benns (Jr.), President, Iralee Benns (Billy’s mother), Vice President and Treasurer and T. Julian Skinner, Director. The call letters of the new station would be WFTM, and began broadcasting on March 1, 1940. By the time the station took to the air, the name of Mrs. M. J. Richardson of LaGrange, Georgia had been added to the ownership roster, securing 28.8% of the stock; her husband was the Program Director. Billy was the Station Manager and Chief Engineer and Mrs. Benns the Commercial Manager. Assisting in engineering were operators Sidney Ducote and William J. Pickering, who along with Frank Evans, did some announcing. The station would not operate with a Benns designed transmitter but with a commercial model built by Collins Manufacturing.
During the time in which they owned the station, a fire swept through the building. Billy Benns was in the structure at the time and narrowly escaped the inferno. After the fire, he refused to ever sleep in a hotel in a room which was on anything other than the first floor. The Benns family and partners would not own the station for long. WFTM was sold to Ron Woodward, vice president and general manager of WING in Dayton and Reggie Martin manager of WIZE in Springfield, Ohio in September of 1942 for $12,600. This station changed call letters to WAAC and eventually became WINK-AM.
At about the same time that the Ft. Meyers station was sold, Billy Benns joined the Navy. He would serve until receiving a medical discharge from the US Naval Hospital in Great Lakes, Illinois in December of 1943. He soon found a position as an instructor in the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of South Carolina at Columbia. It was during his time at USC that Benns would plant some of the seeds of future enterprises. He would open and expand his radio engineering consulting business – which would have offices in Columbia, Birmingham and Washington, DC.
Next on the horizon…The Voice of Dixie – WVOK.