Wednesday, 15 March 2017


Everyone’s heard them. Back in the ‘60s, they came from speakers of TV sets while the letters ‘N’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ snaked onto the scene at the end of a programme.

The NBC chimes weren’t new then. They went back to the days of network radio, in fact, before network radio.

It’s likely we’ll never learn where the idea of using chimes to signal radio programming came from. There are too many conflicting claims and have been for 90 years. But it certainly wasn’t NBC, founded in late 1926. WSB in Atlanta claimed to have invented the idea. In the September 5, 1925 edition of Radio Digest (page 7), there are pictures of the chimes and an article which reads:
When one once hears the famous three-note chime of WSB it is not forgotten. Its three-note mellow tone chime is known most everywhere. The station has used this instrument as their call and signing off symbol ever since broadcasting was started more than three years ago.
But there was a competing claim in the magazine’s edition of December 26, 1925 (pages 6 and 10). WOR in Newark, New Jersey, owned by the Bamberger Department store, began broadcasting in 1922. The pertinent part of the Digest story:
The WOR chimes are a well known trade mark of the station. They are the original chimes used in broadcasting, and have been copied by a number of stations in one form or another for signing off and on....
J. Seabeck is the announcer. Listen to him some time and you are sure to come back for more. His clear enunciation and the tone of his voice are pleasing to the ear. It is seldom that Radio fans can listen to such a wonderful announcer. And when he sounds the chimes and you hear: "One of America's Great Stores," you know you are in for a treat.
When exactly either of the two NBC networks began using chimes to signal network cues is unclear, but the use of the chimes is referred to in this Boston Globe feature article of February 3, 1930. At the time this story was written, NBC was using seven chimes, not three. Most of this article has little to with chimes, but it is notable the writer talks about F.D.R’s infirmities. The chief announcer of WEEI at the time has a fascinating history you can read at this web site. Eddie Gisburne left the station in 1936 just before management changed hands. The old “quit-before-you-get-fired” move has evidently been going on in radio for some time.

Announcer’s Task to Keep Them on Schedule not an Easy One—With Programs Shooting in From All Sides Ingenious Devices Are Needed to Keep Them on Time
The radio announcer glanced at his timed program sheet as the orchestra was swelling to a final crescendo. Mary Whoozis was scheduled to follow the orchestral number with a solo. The announcer looked across the room for Mary. She was gone.
Ten seconds more and the orchestra number would finish. An allowance of two to five seconds’ pause had been made between the finish of the orchestral number and the introduction of Mary Whoozis.
Where was Mary?
Just two to five seconds to get her to the microphone. The announcer knew where she was. It was a habit of hers to step out into the ante room and watch the program through the plate glass window until her presence was required. But she was not at the window. The announcer could not signal to her with a wave to come in.
What to do?
Back to Dulcet Tones
There is a provision for that in the studio. Just as the last note of the orchestra was sounded the announcer bellowed, “Mary Whoozis, get in here quick. You’re on the air.”
And Mary rushed in. In dulcet tones again, the bellow forgotten, except for a bit of a glare in his eyes, the announcer introduces Mary Whoozis.
And though you listeners were tuned every minute to the program, every second, you didn’t hear the announcer shout at Mary, and you couldn’t know there had been any slip in the program.
It was done with a little push button known as “Artists Call,” placed at the announcer’s desk for just that purpose. In the midst of a program the announcer can press that button and as long as he holds it down with his finger nothing can go out on the air. He can say anything he wants. There is no interruption of the carrier wave, so that you set does not sound “dead,” or anything like that.
Many Gadgets Needed
It is one of the gadgets necessary to keep radio programs on time. And with programs shooting in from all parts of the compass today they must be on time. The two central broadcasting points of the National Broadcasting Company are now synchronized so that a local station such as WEEI can jump from Red to Blue net work and back—providing the jump is made on time.
When the WEEI announcer says, “And now the voice of the press,” and the Globe man goes on the air, how many realize that for five minutes before that introduction the Globe man has been sitting with a telephone receiver glued to his ear, waiting for the word “Go,” so there will be no interruption in your enjoyment?
We found Ed Gisburne, veteran radio man and announcer of Station WEEI, one morning this week in the State House, sitting with a telephone receiver at his ear, a microphone before him. He was about to introduce a speaker of the Department of State and was waiting for the signal. We waited until the broadcast was over and asked Ed Gisburne how all this timing was achieves. How, for instance, did the speaker who had just been on the air finish his talk in time for the next program?
Speakers Without Sense of Time
“That one was easy,” said Ed, “he was just reading a speech. Whenever a new speaker comes to the microphone we always tell them that it takes about two minutes to read over the air one page of double spaced typewriting. Sometimes a speaker appears with several pages too many. They must be edited down to the required length.
“A new speaker has no sense of time, or the time requires to read his speech, so here at the State House I have a signal for the man at the microphone. Two minutes before his time is up I hold up two fingers. One minute before the time is up I hold one finger. It usually works.
Speakers accustomed to the microphone have no trouble. Most of Boston’s politicians are able to keep within their time, although many have a tendency to say too much, rather than to say emphatically and understandably, a little.
“I have seen Senator David I. Walsh step up to the microphone without a note and ask how much time he had been allotted. I told him 11 minutes. He took out his watch, held it in his hand and started to talk. On the dot of 11 minutes he completed his peroration, and no one would know he was without the usual written preparation.
“Mayor Curley can do the same thing. But there are few with such a sense of time and command of the language as this and most speakers need a carefully prepared manuscript.
“This hasn’t much to do with timing, but here’s an incident that made time hang as heavily as anything I ever saw behind the microphone. It was the time Gov Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York spoke here for the Massachusetts First Voters League.
Gov Roosevelt was badly crippled at the time and could not stand without assistance. He gripped a bar at the microphone on that occasion and literally hung by his hands for 50 minutes while he made his speech. It was one of the grittiest things I had ever seen in radio.”
Edward A. Gisburne could well appreciate Gov Roosevelt’s position. Gisburne wears the Congressional medal of honour for his bravery at Vera Cruz, where he lost a leg. You ought to see him play golf on his good leg. He belongs at Wollaston and breaks 90 any day.
At the present time Gisburne is in charge of the new State House studio of WEEI. It has only just opened, but will be one of the special features of radio within a few months. Through the Boston Globe’s radio news service, arrangements have been made to broadcast State news direct from the State House as it happens in some of the big events of the Winter.
Joining New York
Right now the State House studio is being used in a campaign of education, telling the people of Massachusetts about the business of State, a very forward-looking step in radio.
Ed Gisburne’s voice brings to the listeners of station WEEI the first local program each morning, “Good Morning, E.B.,” and Mr Rideout is on the air. “Joining New York” brings to the local stations one of the biggest problems in timing, according to Gisburne. Orders are not to let a local program run over its time limit when a New York program follows. And to obey that order the local program and the New York program preceding the hook-up must be synchronized, if possible.
This is the way it is usually done: The Boston WEEI announcer sits in his own studio with a Boston program going out on the air. Clamped to his head is a pair of earphones, through which he hears the New York program going out in New York, but not in Boston. On the stroke of the hour another New York program begins. Boston’s own studio goes silent and the New York program is broadcast over WEEI.
The Boston announcer has the disconcerting problem of listening to two different programs from two different studios at the same time and he must announce one of them. It is something like that stunt of patting the top of your head with one hand and rubbing your stomach with the other at the same time.
But it works. Just as the Boston announcer hears the New York announcer begin his final statement, the Boston man begins his. They finish together. The Boston announcer pulls a switch. Boston is off the air. The chimes from New York are sounded and Boston has joined New York.
By the way, one man in the National Broadcasting Company’s studios in New York has the exclusive job of sounding the seven chimes. That is all he has to do. He listens to both N. B. C. programs, the one originating in WEAF and the one originating in WJZ. They are synchronized so that the seven chimes at 15-minute intervals, as is customary in both programs, are heard by two great radio audiences.
How would you like that job? Bell ringing. The New York announcers used to do the chime beating, but the problem of timing became so acute it required one man in a room fitted out with ship’s chronometers and split-second watches, to keep the programs on time.
New York programs are very carefully rehearsed and timed in sections and then in full—a regular dress rehearsal. It is an expensive proposition, but necessary to keep the chain on time.
Boston, on the other hand, has its rehearsals by sections, but not many full-dress rehearsals. The sections are rehearsed, such as the song, the musical number, the playlet. Each is timed. The times are added, leaving two to five seconds’ pause between numbers and announcements. If a scheduled half-hour program adds up to 32 minutes, a bar of music is cut here or perhaps a second chorus there.
The timing applies to most professional programs. Amateur entertainers and speakers have different treatment. The biggest program in radio history, that which preceded the Legion convention and included pick-ups from all parts of the United States, ran about 12 minutes overtime because of amateurs, speakers who insisted on adding a word of two, despite instructions.
Announcers don’t rave a great deal about some of the amateur speakers. If the speakers follow instructions, everything is all right, but many, according to Ed Gisburne, lose their heads the minute they are told to go ahead.
“Please don’t touch the microphone,” Gisburne always tells a newcomer, “it is very sensitive and might be broken at the slightest touch.” “No, of course not,” the nervous speaker wouldn’t think of touching it.
And then he is introduced. With a death clutch he grabs for the “mike,” invariably. Perhaps you can explain it?
“Women are much more nervous than men,” said Announcer Gisburne, “they generally sit before the mike waiting to be introduced, thinking of the size of the audience. Women of 10 [often?] say, ‘If WEEI has an audience of 3,000,000 and only a small part of that number are listening in now there are probably 500,000 listening to me.”
Here is Ed Gisburne’s advice to these speakers, and it applies equally as well to some of the ranting, shouting politicians of the air.
“Your largest audience is probably five persons, a family of five. In most homes there is only one person listening, perhaps two. Talk to those groups and not any bewildering mob of millions. They don’t exist as far as you success on the air goes. It is up to you to attract, entertain, instruct, convince just one or two persons. Talk to them.”
Long before you are awake, the radio day of Station WEEI begins, down in Weymouth, where an engineer starts up the rectifiers and amplifiers, checks voltages and currents, and listens over the permanently operated telephone lines to the NBC studio in New York.
The first sound of the day is a test tone, 1000 cycles, from New York. It sounds like a long whistle. Only the operator in Boston hears it. The program is about to begin.
Over the telephone comes a warning to be ready. The WEEI announcer gives his station call. The switch is pulled and New York is on the air with the Tower Health exercises at 6:45. When New York is on the air, operators and announcers at WEEI hear it on a loud speaker in the operating room.
Time, tide and radio wait for no man. If you’re on the air, you must be on time.

1 comment:

  1. The earliest surviving usage of the chimes by NBC is from October 21, 1929, at the end of the Edison Golden Lights Jubilee, though it is not the G-E-C chimes we associate later. Some surviving early 1930 shows (WEEI airchecks of The Coca-Cola Top Nothcers) also have the 7-note chime. The earliest known GEC chime is from November of '31, with Walter Winchell announcing "here's that fella with the chimmies again." See: