A man born and raised in North Dakota succeeded on a national scale on radio, television, the movies, newspapers and book authorship. But the recognition he appears to be most proud of was his unofficial coronation as the "King of Trivia."
Bill Owen was born in Grand Forks and grew up in Bismarck. In the mid-1950s, he began working at KFYR in Bismarck, and by the early 1960s, he was experiencing a meteoric rise to fame in the radio and television industry in New York City.
In 1960, Owen arrived in the Big Apple as staff announcer for the radio-television station WABC. Soon, he had his own daily two-hour music show to go along with his announcing duties. The new sports anchor at the station was an arrogant and verbose attorney, Howard Cosell, who had been hosting a show on ABC, "Speaking of Sports."
Cosell took a liking to the announcer, largely because of Owen's extensive knowledge of sports. Whenever Cosell was away, he got Owen to fill in for him on his radio show, and when New York obtained a new major league baseball franchise, the Mets, in 1962, he often subbed for Cosell on the Mets post-game shows. Owen later commented on his association with his mentor that "Howard had a gentle side and could give good advice."
In the early '60s, ABC began a sports anthology series, "The Wide World of Sports," that became very popular. Owen was sent on assignment to cover boxing and ice skating events for the series.
Newton Minow, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, gave a blistering talk at the 1961 convention of the National Association of Broadcasters, referring to television as a "vast wasteland," especially in terms of programs for young people. He challenged the broadcasters to improve their programming.
The first network to accept Minow's challenge was ABC. In the fall of 1962, they created a show "geared towards children and teenagers" called "Discovery" and hired two Hollywood actors, Frank Buxton and Virginia Gilmore, as co-hosts, and Owen as the announcer. Originally, the format centered on the studio, with Buxton and Gilmore exploring the topics of history, culture, science and the arts.
In 1966, Buxton left the show to begin the animated cartoon series "Batfink," and Owen was named as his replacement. The fifth season, which began on Sept. 25, 1966, was filmed in color and the format changed, allowing Owen and Gilmore to travel to different locations for filming. ABC canceled "Discovery" in 1971.
From the mid-1960s to the early '70s, Owen was very busy. In 1965, a firm in Cincinnati hired Owen to be the voice of Ellery Queen, an amateur detective and writer of mystery novels who assisted his father in solving baffling murders. The short, syndicated radio presentations were called "Ellery Queen's Minute Mysteries." The mystery was presented on the air in 60 seconds, and listeners were encouraged to call in with the solution to the case in order to win prizes. The shows ran in syndication until the early 1980s.
In 1966, Owen's and Buxton's book "Radio's Golden Age" was released. In 1971, Owen and announcer Allan Jefferys released their novel, "DJ," about a disc jockey. The next year, Owen and Buxton greatly expanded their previous book so that it became "the first encyclopedia of old-time radio programs." The title was changed to "The Big Broadcast 1920-1950."
In 1975, Owen embarked on a new medium of communications - newspapers. Owen worked with comic strip artist Don Sherwood to create a popular syndicated panel called "Return With Us To ..." In many ways it resembled "Robert Ripley's Believe It Or Not," but instead of oddities, its focus was to recreate the "warm nostalgia for radio programs, pop culture and historical personages" of the past. Sherwood did the drawings and Owen provided the script.
On July 5, 1982, ABC-TV debuted a news show with Steve Bell and Kathleen Sullivan as the anchors. Owen was the announcer, but early on, he became the most popular part of the 60-minute program. On Aug. 6, 1984, The Associated Press ran an article stating that little is known about "the man who brightens ABC's 'World News this Morning' with facts, philosophy, obscurities, puzzles and quotations and gets more mail than anybody on the show, including the anchors." Owen garnered tidbits from magazines and newspapers and read them on the air. The viewers loved it.
The show's producer, Rick Kaplan, said, "I think the audience just tolerates the anchors until Bill comes on." In 1988, Bell and Sullivan were replaced by Forrest Sawyer and Paula Zahn, and Owen retired in 1990.
Owen continued to be active after his retirement. Controversy exists over whether Owen or a British actor by the same name was the television announcer in "The Handmaid's Tale" in 1990. The same year, Owen became the principal voice of superstation WWOR, a Fox affiliate serving New York City. He remained there until 1994. After leaving WWOR, he continued to remain active doing radio and television commercials.
In recent years, Owen authored the books "The Over 60 Trivia Book," "All Those Things My Teacher Never Told Me" and "Runners-up, Bridesmaids, & Second Bananas."
Owen always has had an affinity for collecting obscure tidbits of information that many call trivia. Jim Lowe, best known for recording a No. 1 hit in 1956, "The Green Door," was once acknowledged as the "King of Trivia." When Lowe was unable to stump Owen on any questions, he passed the crown to the new champion of little-known facts.
(Reach Curt Eriksmoen at email@example.com.)
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