Milton B Sleeper
FM, TV and High Fidelity pioneer. A biograpical abstract by Jeffrey K. Ziesmann
Depending on how you look at it, I had the fortunate or unfortunate experience to work in FM radio before FM was completely cool. A career broadcaster, my first jobs were with FM stations starting in 1973. In fact, it wasn’t until 1981 that I did any work with an AM station. Those first seven years were interesting. It took one FM station I worked for eleven years to get on the air 24 hours a day. Another sold FM converters over the air- direct to the listener- in an attempt to get FM sets into cars in the early 1970s. Make no mistake about it. These facilities were either neglected stepchildren of AM stations or struggling independents that were forced into some pretty radical business models in order to survive. And these were not small market facilities- they were all part of a top 25 metro area.

Despite this, I knew that many FM stations dated back to the 1940s and 50s. I wondered how a medium that was clearly superior to AM could have suffered such a fate, and I wanted to know the history of the situation. When I tried to research it, I quickly discovered something else. There was very little information on early FM. AM history was easy. There were many books and periodicals on the history of AM. The Crosley Empire was well documented as were the major networks. But FM was another story. I discovered that FM was only documented in periodicals. These publications had recorded the history of FM as it happened, but there was just not enough interest in FM development for anybody to have assembled the information into books on the subject.

 One publication that I was familiar with was High Fidelity. The local library had a subscription going back to Vol.1 Number 1, April 1951. In those pages I began to learn about early FM. The articles were often written by (and the magazine was published by) one man- Milton B. Sleeper. That is how I came to know Sleeper and his background. In 1954 his name disappeared from the masthead as publisher. I noticed two things about that fact. First, the coverage of FM radio began to drop off and second, I didn’t like the magazines as much without him. It morphed into a semi-snobbish classical music rag with equipment treated merely as a way to listen to opera. I appreciate that music to this day far more than most, but when Sleeper was there the magazine was aimed at listening to any type of music in hi-fi as opposed to trumpeting the superiority of one type over another. Further research led me discover his second audio publication, Music At Home.  

 Milton Blake Sleeper was born in Illinois in 1896 and spent his entire adult life in and around Great Barrington Massachusetts. He was married twice and had two children by his first wife, Ann Farris, in 1930. That marriage ended. Ann Farris lived until 1971.  Sleeper’s second wife, Ethel Mary Vonasek Sumi Sleeper was born in 1907 and survived until 2004. She was a registered nurse whose first husband was casualty of World War II. She married Sleeper in 1942. Her obituary states that she assisted Sleeper with “his several radio, TV and audio magazines in Great Barrington and New York City”. It also mentions that 2 stepdaughters, Sara and Mary Sleeper, predeceased her.

 Sleeper would have been around 18 in 1914, the start of World War I. While there is no record of military service he writes years later of working in Lee DeForest’s laboratory on technology that would be used to create the first military electronic aircraft navigation systems. Electronics were clearly his passion from a very early age. The Internet contains articles by him in long-forgotten magazines about early radio and circuit construction dating as far back as 1914. Working with Pilot Radio he co-designed an early sophisticated regenerative shortwave receiver called “The Wasp” which was regarded as a seminal piece of shortwave receiver technology.

In 1919, Sleeper formed The General Apparatus Company, which he renamed Sleeper Radio in 1922. He turned management of the company over to his brother, Gordon C. Sleeper and visited England. While he was away the company had financial difficulties. Milton withdrew and sold all his stock by 1923, blaming his brother for the misfortunes of the company. Gordon pressed on, selling nearly one million dollars of company stock and securing a million dollar contract with Music Master to manufacture their receiver line. Music Master folded, leaving Gordon Sleeper with a worthless contract. The company was eventually sold to Temple- a manufacturer of speakers- that was, itself, bankrupt by 1930. That was the end of Sleeper as a brand name on equipment but it was enough to create a life-long rift between the brothers. Gordon returned to the commercial insurance business. Milton had already returned to writing, publishing and design while making it a priority to notify his readers that he had “no affiliation whatsoever” with Sleeper Radio.

 In the midst of this turmoil and The Great Depression, Sleeper formed a lifelong friendship with Major Edwin H. Armstrong. It is merely accurate to say that radio as we know it would not exist without Armstrong’s technical contributions. He was the inventor of both the regenerative AM circuit that moved radio listening from attic-based headphones and onto living room loudspeakers and FM. Sleeper immediately recognized the superiority of Armstrong’s FM method over standard band AM broadcasting and became an enthusiastic supporter. This led to the formation of the FM Company in 1942 and the publication of FM (later FM/TV) Magazine. Considering the fact that Sleeper had started a publication specifically to champion Armstrong’s invention, it is not surprising that the two men became friends.

Sleeper was present when Armstrong demonstrated FM coverage from the Empire State Building in 1942. He received one of Armstrong’s REL 646 tuners as a gift. This tuner appears on the very first High Fidelity cover. FM magazine detailed the construction of several old band early FM stations. FM was on its way to establishing itself when World War II called a halt to station construction and receiver production. Following the end of hostilities, Sleeper joined Armstrong in vigorous protest of the FCC decision to re-allocate FM to the present 88 to 108 MHz band. Both men understood that the move would obsolete all existing receivers and transmitters- from a business and audience standpoint a complete disaster. From an engineering perspective, they understood that there was no transmitting equipment in existence for the new band and that the propagation characteristics of it were not well understood. Regarding this they were correct- the new band is, to this day, inferior to the old one. It requires more power to cover, is more susceptible to terrain issues. Tropospheric ducting, which plagues FM in many localities every summer, was apparently almost completely absent in the old band. Nevertheless, the FCC plunged ahead, forcing FM to rebuild from scratch. The first “new band” tuners were not sensitive and listeners seemed not to understand that they needed an antenna for FM. Then along came television.  RCA, who along with CBS, had done all they could to stifle FM development to preserve their 50,000 watt AM stations with their competitive advantage, adopted the FM system for television sound. The resulting patent infringement litigation and Armstrong’s unwillingness to settle the disputes eventually led to his suicide. The cumulative effect on FM was that, between 1951 and 1956 hundreds of FM stations permanently suspended operations and surrendered their licenses to the FCC, believing them to be worthless. In this environment FM Magazine soldiered on, focusing on FM two-way communications the occasional article on surviving commercial FM stations and the FM nature of TV sound.

Such was the deplorable state of affairs for high fidelity broadcasting in late 1950. Other media would bring about the birth of the hi-fi boom instead of radio. Columbia Records had introduced the LP record in 1948 with its quiet surfaces and wide range. Prior to that both Pickering and GE had- within weeks of each other- introduced the first magnetic phono cartridges. Tape had come into its own as the mastering medium in recording studio. Tape units for the home were beginning to appear. Better amplifiers with far less distortion were being made and Paul Klipsch, working in tiny Hope, Arkansas was manufacturing a wide-range folded corner horn loudspeaker he had patented. The Klipschorn shrank speaker enclosure size down far enough for installation to be practical in the average living room.

 There was a magazine covering all of this. It was Audio Engineering. The name would later be shortened to just Audio, but back then it was a magazine aimed at the professional sound engineer. Audio soon had a second audience, early hobbyists seeking to get better sound quality into their homes. Sleeper reasoned that a magazine less technical in nature that dealt with the hobby side of audio in a way the average consumer could understand would find a market. He was 55 years old in 1951, but he clearly wasn’t ready to walk away from publishing or FM radio. Plans were laid instead to launch a new publication in April of 1951 called
High Fidelity. 

When High Fidelity was launched Sleeper was joined in the venture by Charles Fowler. Fowler knew the magazine business and was Harvard educated. Prior to that, Roy Allison, who would later become famous as a speaker designer, had been hired to edit FM/TV.  Four issues in, they were joined by John Conley, a Washington reporter who favored the coverage of music in the form of record reviews over equipment, FM and installation coverage. G.C. Burke had written a couple of complete discographies on classical composers that sold well in the first issues, so the lines were drawn over which direction the magazine would go. Launched as a quarterly, High Fidelity would go to bi-monthly publication, then with Volume 4, monthly frequency, riding the beginning of the hi-fi wave. High Fidelity was an extremely interesting magazine. The first issue contains an article by Paul Klipsch on how best to use a Klipschorn. Klipsch had a sense of humor that was evident in his contention that he had the misfortune to be developing a high fidelity loudspeaker before there was any high fidelity program material to play on it or to test it with. Other articles in early issues included custom installation information- the cabinetry being needed for the wife to accept hi-fi in “her” living room. FM was well covered by Sleeper himself. In issue 2, he transferred a wonderful article on WMIT at Clingmans Peak, North Carolina from FM to the pages of High Fidelity. Appearing in slightly truncated form in the “consumer” book, the article detailed the mountaintop installation of this incredibly wide-covering southern FM station. Established before the FCC put power limits on FM, WMIT was operating with 325KW ERP (horizontal only, of course) from the highest point east of the Mississippi River. It was said to put a solid signal into Atlanta, 190 miles away. WMIT still exists today, although the power has been reduced. The antenna still resides on Clingmans Peak and the signal is still one of the best in the country. It was donated in 1962 to evangelist Billy Graham after the owners in Sleeper’s article finally gave up trying to make FM turn a profit. Subsequent issues profiled WQXR New York, WFMT Chicago, KPFA Berkley and WABF in New York. Articles making the case for FM were also numerous. In one memorable piece, Sleeper blasted AM radio by stating that there was no New York station (80 miles away) that came in well enough to listen to at night in Great Barrington. We tend to think of AM interference as a modern issue. Apparently, things were already bad in 1951. 

There was apparently quite a bit of friction internally between Sleeper, Fowler and Conley. High Fidelity was a big deal within a very short time. Sleeper was used to shoestring publication operations. He had a rather off the cuff business style which the others, with their formal training, disliked. In addition, Sleeper was opposed to music content edging out the technical side of things, which was his background and the reason he had established the magazine in the first place. In 1954, things came to a head and Milton Sleeper sold his stock to the others and withdrew. High Fidelity quickly moved in the direction favored by Conley and Fowler, becoming a classical music magazine that happened to also cover equipment.  

The tenth anniversary issue of the magazine makes no mention whatsoever of Sleeper, despite the fact that he founded the publication. The twentieth anniversary issue does mention Sleeper quite a bit. He is portrayed as cantankerous, unsophisticated and lucky. It states that the magazine actually got off the ground because of generous terms offered by a printer rather than Sleeper’s effort. He is portrayed as an unfair boss whose business methods were slipshod and out of date. This issue states that it was left to the others to change those methods and establish “proper salaries for the staff”. It is a very unflattering portrayal of the founder of a successful magazine, publisher, inventor and engineer. Even Sleeper’s relationship with Armstrong does not escape criticism in this issue. The article implies that his coverage of FM was excessive because Armstrong “was one of his heroes”, ignoring the fact that FM was the only high fidelity broadcasting medium of the day and therefore should have been covered and covered well. 

What, you might wonder, would cause such rancor on the part of Sleeper’s former associates toward him?  By 1971, Sleeper was dead and gone. Yet, there is no respect for him, nor is there the silence that often comes as the result of the desire to not speak ill of the dead, since they are unable to defend themselves. First, it is important to note that, even though the magazine had been sold to Billboard Publications by 1971, the publisher was part of Sleeper’s original staff. Fowler and Conley were also still present. Yet, Sleeper had been the one to leave and no reasonable person would deny that he was entitled to compensation for his interest in the publication. Why not let bygones be bygones? The answer might well be the fact that, clearly, there was no non-compete agreement upon his departure. This would prove to be a major mistake that would come back to haunt his former colleagues five short years later, when the parent company of High Fidelity would have to buy out Milton Sleeper’s interests in a hi-fi magazine for the second time. 

Upon leaving his first publication, Sleeper promptly signed a lease on New York office space. There, he immediately launched a magazine to compete with High Fidelity called Music At Home. This time there would be no partners. Music At Home was owned 100% by Sleeper and his wife Ethel. His partners at High Fidelity might have succeeded in getting him out at the magazine he founded, but in the process they ended up funding the start-up costs of a direct competitor- run by the man they had just removed from his own masthead.  

The first issue of Music At Home is dated March- April 1954. The publishing statement reads as follows: “Music At Home is published bimonthly by Sleeper Publications, Inc., Hi-Fi House, 207 East 37th St. New York, 16, NY. Editorial, circulation and advertising departments are located at the address above. Music At Home is not connected or associated with any other magazine.” As he had done years before with his brother, Sleeper declared his independence from his former High Fidelity associates. The battle lines were drawn.  

Issue 1 of Music At Home was full of advertisements from the contacts Sleeper had. Editorial content was weaker, reflecting the hurried nature of the start-up. His wife contributed an article on taping a children’s recital at the school where she taught. Sleeper was shown manning the tape machine and playing the tape back for the kids. Cute, but hardly major league stuff. It is the only editorial content ever contributed by Mrs. Sleeper. Articles included comparisons 45 EP and 33 LP records, how to plan your system, what you need to know about FM and how to get your system serviced. The Air Coupler- a speaker system Sleeper had designed at High Fidelity with Charles Fowler and Roy Allison- was dusted off and given “origin of” treatment. Several years before The General Apparatus Company had been resurrected as a means of selling parts kits for Air Couplers. Instead of record reviews there were pre-planned “at home concert” programs tying the magazine’s name to the content. It was all a well done, if somewhat hurried debut designed to instantly compete with his old publication.

On page 32 of the first issue of Music At Home is an article by Sleeper himself. It is his obituary of his old friend Edwin Armstrong. Between Sleeper’s exit from High Fidelity and the premier issue of Music At Home, Armstrong had committed suicide by walking out the window of a tenth story hotel room. Nearly bankrupt as a result of his protracted legal battles and his refusal to settle them, Armstrong had buckled under the pressure and ended his life. The article must have been extremely difficult for Sleeper to write, but it stands as a compelling source of information on Armstrong and has great value even today. It was written from the perspective of someone who knew Armstrong well and was actually present as all of his legal problems played out. It is clearly written by a man agonized by the death of a good friend and respected colleague. Yet, Sleeper is gently honest. He says, on Armstrong’s refusal to settle his legal issues- “Offers of settlement running to millions of dollars were rejected without consideration, because he was concerned only with establishing and exposing what he believed to be wrong thinking on the part of those whose actions gave rise to the suits he instituted. No one could dissuade him from this punitive course. The process of reasoning which had served the radio industry so well could not tolerate a compromise. Yet he discouraged and antagonized those who were most interested in expanding FM as a public service…” The obituary ran with the only picture of Armstrong smiling I have ever seen.

Over the next several years, well capitalized, Sleeper expanded his new magazine.  The “at home concert” concept proved a flop and it was soon replaced with normal record reviews. For these, he got the best. Leonard Feather reviewed jazz. Douglass Cross, a competent musician, radio programmer and one of the writers of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, edited the magazine. Celebrities of all kinds appeared over the years and the magazine seemed to get stronger each year. Through it all, coverage of the things Sleeper felt important- equipment, installations and FM broadcasting were maintained. The words “Hi-Fi” had been added to the masthead, effectively retitling the magazine “Hi-Fi Music At Home”. This, in turn, had been shortened in print so often to just “Hi-Fi Music” that the magazine referred to itself in just this way.    

 In 1958, Sleeper expanded once again. He had continued his rather unorthodox business methods. He still lived in Monterey Massachusetts. He would commute to New York on Sunday nights and return home Thursday evening, closing the magazine’s offices every Friday.  That commute took him through Grand Central Station weekly. He heard a choir singing Christmas Carols one December evening. He decided that Grand Central, with its massive crowds, would be the perfect place to demonstrate high fidelity music to normal people who might not otherwise hear it. And he knew actually hearing high fidelity would be the only way to get the concept of hi-fi before them. They weren’t going to read his audio magazine or any other. Besides, no printed publication would sway them like an actual demonstration would. Thus plans were made to erect a building within the station which he named “Hi-Fi House”. The concept was that equipment manufacturers would pay to exhibit their equipment there. No sales would be made, but literature would be available directing customers to dealers. Each hour a program of music would be presented free of charge for people to listen to over a reference system, thus exposing them to the hi-fi concept.

 Construction on Hi-Fi House began. Sleeper ran articles on it and solicited advertisers for it in his magazine. It opened after costing three times as much as originally estimated because of building code requirements. Nevertheless it was well received and the magazine was, by this time, a formidable competitor to High Fidelity. Sleeper also made additional money by distributing regional “program” editions of the magazine with the program listings of local classical FM stations stapled in. Several of my copies list the daily fare of WASH in Washington, D.C.

It was therefore a surprise to staff and readers alike when the May 1959 issue was published. In it, Sleeper announced that the magazine had been sold to…the owners of High Fidelity. By now the masthead read
HI-FI MUSIC AT HOME.  The current issue would be the last and Sleeper would move onto other things. In contrast to the portrayal of him in the 1971 issue of High Fidelity,   the staff of Sleeper’s magazine seemed to genuinely like him and was very sad at the decision to sell and fold the publication. Sleeper himself wrote “an accounting” to his readers where he blamed the decision on a broken rib that laid him up for a while causing him to suddenly resent having his life ruled by a publishing schedule. Even now, that doesn’t seem like much of an explanation. Possibly it is the whole truth, or possibly he was a sick man and didn’t want to talk about it in print. It is also possible that, at the age of 64, Hi-Fi House had drained his energy and/or resources. Sleeper had no trouble leasing the Grand Central space to Acoustic Research who turned it into the first of their “music rooms”. These used Sleeper’s public demonstration idea, but limited the equipment on display to AR speakers and Dynaco amplifiers.

Sleeper told his readers he would be back. For a time he edited Heathkit advertising. He also tried to start a newsletter for hi-fi kit builders. But the May 1959 issue of Hi-Fi Music At Home was his last major publication. The High Fidelity management from Sleeper’s days there would see Sleeper get paid off a second time to “leave the room”. Most of his famous staff never worked in hi-fi publishing again. An exception was a lady named Shirley Fleming who was Sleeper’s Assistant Music Editor. She joined the staff of High Fidelity and apparently kept in contact with her old boss. 

The March 1963 issue of High Fidelity has Leontyne Price on the cover. At the end of an article on singer Richard Dyer- Bennett written by Shirley Fleming is a box containing a single sentence. It reads “It is with regret that we inform our readers of the death of Milton B. Sleeper, High Fidelity’s first publisher, on January 31, 1963.” There was no mention of the fact that Sleeper founded the magazine and the presence of the announcement of his death is not in the index to the issue or referenced anyplace else in the issue. There is no expanded coverage of the death of their founder in future issues of the magazine 

When G.C. Burke- the author whose discographies sold so well that they refocused the magazine toward music and resulted in Sleeper’s departure- died in the early 1970s, the publisher, who was a holdover from Sleeper’s days at the publication, gave him a tribute consisting of the entire first page of the magazine. Draw your own conclusions.  

High Fidelity Magazine 1951-1974: various issues
Music At Home Magazine 1954-1959: various issues
Berkshires Today 2004: Obituary of Ethel V. Sleeper
Radio Manufacturers of the 1920s, Volume 3,
Alan Douglas, Sleeper Radio information
FM/TV Magazine: Various issues from 1951