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Radio Pioneer McLendon, 65, Dies in Texas

September 16, 1986|JACK JONES | Times Staff Writer

Gordon McLendon, the Texas broadcaster who built the Liberty Sports Network, pioneered "Top 40" radio and became one of the wealthiest men in America, has died at his Lake Dallas, Tex., ranch after a long illness, his son said Monday. He was 65.

McLendon, who died Sunday, was credited by many for the rebirth of radio in the 1950s when he followed the lead of the late Omaha broadcaster Todd Storz and constantly replayed the day's most popular records to lure teen-agers away from television.

He also went after the older audience, adding excitement to his broadcasts with frequent news bulletins, promotions and contests.

McLendon was born in Paris, Tex., and got his start broadcasting Yale baseball and basketball games in the 1930s. He graduated from Yale and was a Japanese-language officer in naval intelligence during World War II.

After the war, his father, a wealthy attorney, helped him buy a radio station. They began to build the 458-station Liberty Sports Network around the younger McLendon's play-by-play re-creations of baseball games and other sporting events, complete with the sound of ticker machines, crowd noises and game sound effects.

McLendon was in his late 20s, but called himself "The Old Scotsman" and told his listeners he was 82.

He freely admitted that he pirated news reports of games, blithely ignoring the rule that any minor league team within 50 miles had to give its permission for a broadcast of a major league game. But by the time organized baseball became upset enough to take legal action, McLendon once recalled, his network affiliates totaled 90 stations.

"If they suddenly put us off the air," he said, "they were gonna make an awful lot of baseball fans who had fallen in love with this daily recreation mad." So, in 1949, the major leagues reluctantly sold the rights to McLendon's network.

Nevertheless, the Liberty Sports Network folded after the 1952 season because of legal, financial and sponsorship problems.

In the 1970s, McLendon sold the 14 radio stations he owned for more than $100 million. He and his father began buying Texas land and building theaters, ending up with the biggest chain of outdoor movies in Texas. He also had interests in strategic metals and oil.

McLendon produced several films, including the forgettable (but profitable) "The Killer Shrews," which was shot on his ranch for a mere $125,000 and starred Ingrid Goude, Miss Sweden of 1956. That was paired at the drive-ins with another McLendon production, "The Giant Gila Monster." He also produced "Victory," a 1982 film directed by John Huston and starring Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine.

Last December, McLendon was reported in critical condition from what his family said was an accidental gunshot wound in the head, suffered while cleaning a gun at the Lake Dallas ranch.

McLendon, twice divorced, leaves four children and a sister. His son, Bart, said a memorial service is planned for Saturday, but, at McLendon's request, there will be no funeral.

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