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Remembering WABC radio’s 1963 “Mona Lisa” contest

Mona LisaMuch of what you read about radio station contests these days is depressing. At best, some operation botches a game by misrepresenting the rules or winnings and winds up paying the Federal Communications Commission a fine. At worst, a signal launches an ill-advised water drinking marathon that literally kills a contestant.

To be fair to the present, the history of radio contests is replete with unfortunate incidents that go back decades. The Omaha library affair of 1956 will suffice as an example. In preparation for this event, Top 40 progenitor Todd Storz had his minions at KOWH in Omaha, Nebraska hide checks inside half a dozen books in the city’s public library.” Then announcers disclosed a “treasure hunt” over the airwaves.

Radio historian Mark Fisher explains the results in his book, Something in the Air: Radio, Rock, and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation: “Thousands of listeners stormed the library and tore up ninety books in their mad search. Storz, thrilled to have to reimburse the library $565 for the damage, stuck by KOWH’s story: the stunt had been staged ‘to encourage better patronage of the Omaha Public Library’.” Yeah, right.

Dali judging the Mona Lisas.

Salvador Dali judging the Mona Lisas for WABC-AM  radio in 1963 (click picture to go to YouTube video).

But there are moments when radio stations have run contests that deserve to be remembered and celebrated. Fifty years ago, New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art played host to one of the most famous paintings of all time: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. For three and a half weeks more than a million people queued through the exhibit and marveled at Lisa Gherardini’s mysterious smile.

Popular AM radio station WABC ran a contest in tandem with the event, masterminded by its program director Rick Sklar. “The station offered $100 each to the listeners who created the best, worst, smallest, and largest copies of Leonardo’s masterpiece,” Fisher writes, the submissions to be judged by none other than surrealist master Salvador Dali. WABC promoted the competition every hour via Nat King Cole’s rendition of a song about the painting. “Thirty thousand entries poured in, and so did the rain on the open-air judging session at the Polo Grounds stadium, but Dali pushed ahead and honored the dripping Mona Lisas,” Fisher’s reminiscence concludes.

Sklar subsequently talked about the contest [mp3] with radio host Howard Cosell. “I wanted to show [WABC’s manager Hal Neal] the power of the station,” he recalled. “What would my first promotion be? I opened the newspapers and read that they were bringing the Mona Lisa to the United States. . . . We had 15,000 [entries] pour in in the first month. The largest one, the winner, covered the [Polo] infield. . . . the smallest Mona Lisa, by the way, was on a micro-dot. You put it under the microscope and there it was.”

What a positive and even radical way for a broadcaster to celebrate not just a cultural event, but the collective creativity of a listening region. Do big commercial radio stations ever do anything like this any more?

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