Gordon McLendon, radio programming innovator and sportscaster, nicknamed the Old Scotchman, was born at Paris, Texas, on June 8, 1921. He was the son of Barton Robert and Jeanette Marie (Eyster) McLendon. He grew up in Idabel, Oklahoma, and later graduated from Kemper Military Academy, Booneville, Missouri. He won a nationwide political-essay contest judged by journalists Arthur Brisbane, Henry Luce, and Walter Lippmann. McLendon later attended Yale University, where he studied Far Eastern languages, worked for the campus radio station, and served as business manager for the Yale Literary Magazine. World War II began just before he was to graduate from Yale. He accepted a commission in the United States Navy and worked as an interpreter, translator, and interrogator. Later he was reassigned to Armed Forces Radio, where he earned a reputation as the "Bill Mauldin of the Pacific" for his colorful broadcasts, which reminded some listeners of the famous war cartoonist.
After the war he briefly attended law school at Harvard and then returned to Texas, where he bought an interest in radio station KNET, Palestine. He soon sold his interest in this station to establish radio station KLIF in the Oak Cliff part of Dallas. Since no other radio stations operating in Dallas then carried live baseball broadcasts, McLendon decided to do so. But without adequate funds to pay for the rights to live broadcasts, he paid people to sit in stadiums across the country and feed him play-by-play information about games via Western Union. To prerecorded sound effects and the information received through Western Union, McLendon joined his ability to ad lib and made routine games seem exciting.
As word of his baseball games spread, other stations sought to carry them. In 1947 McLendon and his father founded the Liberty Broadcasting System to carry them. With 458 radio stations in 1952, LBS was the second largest radio network in the United States. McLendon became well known for his "Game of the Day" broadcasts. For a time his broadcast partner was Hall of Fame pitcher Jay Hanna (Dizzy) Dean. McLendon helped start such broadcasters as Lindsay Nelson, Jerry Doggett, and Don Wells. In 1951 he won a coveted award from Sporting News as America's Outstanding Sports Broadcaster. Meantime, baseball owners fumed. In a courtroom argument over dwindling attendance and rights to broadcast, McLendon settled out of court for $200,000 and discontinued his broadcasts.
The McLendon family built a communications empire that included radio stations across the United States. In addition to KLIF, McLendon owned KNUS–FM in Dallas, KOST in Los Angeles, WYSL–AM and FM in Chicago, WWWW–FM in Detroit, WAKY in Louisville, KABL in Oakland, KABL–FM in San Francisco, KILT in Houston, KTSA in San Antonio, and KELP in El Paso. He owned television station KCND in Pembina, North Dakota, which broadcast into Canada. For a time he owned Radio NORD, a converted fishing boat in the North Sea, which beamed into Sweden and other European countries. His broadcasting success was due to his vivid imagination and innovations. He is credited by most broadcast historians with having established the first mobile news units in American radio, the first traffic reports, the first jingles, the first all-news radio station, and the first "easy-listening" programming. He also was among the first broadcasters in the United States to editorialize. He introduced five-minute bit news broadcasts and pioneered in Top 40 record presentations as a standard format for radio. McLendon especially attracted attention for his stern denunciations of French president Charles De Gaulle, whom he described as "an ungrateful four-flusher" who could "go straight to hell."
McLendon and his family also owned drive-in and conventional movie theaters. In 1959 he made three "B" movies—The Killer Shrews, The Giant Gila Monster, and My Dog Buddy. A New York film critic described The Killer Shrews as one of the worst movies ever made. McLendon wrote and produced more than 150 motion-picture campaigns. From 1963 to 1966 he worked under an exclusive contract to promote movies for United Artists.
In 1964 the conservative McLendon entered politics, but lost to incumbent Ralph Yarborough, a liberal, in the Texas primary for the Democratic nomination to the United States Senate, receiving 419,883 votes to Yarborough's 520,591. In a spirited campaign, accompanied at times by such Hollywood luminaries as Chill Wills, John Wayne, and Robert Cummings, McLendon attacked foreign aid to Communist countries as well as federal aid to education. He also supported racial desegregation of public schools and equal voting rights for all races. McLendon entered the 1968 Texas Democratic gubernatorial primary but withdrew, possibly because of the large number of conservative candidates and the absence of Yarborough, who many believed would enter the race. McLendon said in his withdrawal statement that he could no longer support the Democratic party policies sponsored by President Lyndon Johnson. McLendon, who had traveled to Vietnam as a correspondent, criticized the Vietnam War and voiced fears that the conflict would lead to financial bankruptcy as well as involvement in other East Asian land wars.
The McLendon family sold radio station KLIF, Dallas, in 1971 to Fairchild Industries of Germantown, Maryland, for $10.5 million, then a record price for a radio station. By 1979 the family had sold all of its broadcasting properties, including fourteen radio and two television stations, worth approximately $100 million. McLendon became an authority on precious metals and wrote a book entitled Get Really Rich in the Coming Super Metals Boom, published in 1981. That year he also was executive producer of the feature film Victory, directed by John Huston and starring Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine. He authored a number of other books, including How to Succeed in Broadcasting (1961), Correct Spelling in Three Hours (1962), Understanding American Government (1964), and 100 Years of America in Sound (1965). By 1985 Forbes magazine estimated McLendon's net worth at $200 million.
He will, however, be best-remembered as a celebrated innovator of radio programming during the 1950s, when many people thought television had killed radio. Asked in 1980 what he learned from radio, McLendon responded: "That it all begins with creativity and programming. You can have the greatest sales staff and signal in the world, and it doesn't mean a thing if you don't have something great to put on the air."
McLendon was married in 1943 to Gay Noe, daughter of James A. Noe, former governor of Louisiana; in 1973 he married Susan Stafford, a syndicated columnist, radio talk-show host, and actress. McLendon was a member of the board of stewards of Highland Park Methodist Church in Dallas and the board of directors of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Texas chairman of the March of Dimes, and an honorary chairman of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Poppy Drive. In 1964–65 he served as a communications advisor to the United States Peace Corps. In 1971 he conducted a month-long all-expense-paid broadcasting course for nine minority-group members, including African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexican Americans. He died of cancer at his ranch home near Lake Dallas, Texas, on September 14, 1986. He was survived by a son and three daughters. In 1994 he was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame by the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago. In 2002 he was an inaugural inductee into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame.