The NBC Chimes Museum A Celebration Of Old–Time Radio’s Most Famous Signature

the nbc chimes today

Through the late 1930s the Federal Communications Commission did some ominous rumbling concerning what it perceived to be a monopoly by one broadcasting entity having two powerful coast–to–coast networks. The FCC conducted an investigation into chain broadcasting monopolies in the latter part of 1938; in 1941, the FCC published its Report On Chain Broadcasting, which called for NBC to divest itself of one of its two networks.

On December 8, 1941, NBC did exactly that, spinning off its Blue Network to a separate entity called The Blue Network, Inc. Blue was still owned by RCA, which was looking for a buyer, but operations, staffs, and talent were kept completely separate from the former Red Network, now the only network of The National Broadcasting Company. The Blue Network was sold in 1943 to Edward J. Noble, who had purchased Life Savers from its inventor Clarence Crane for $2,900.00 a year after its creation, and who had parlayed the humble roll candy into a million dollar empire. Noble wanted a name with a bit more snap than “Blue”, and in 1944 he purchased the rights to the name “American Broadcasting Company” from George Storer, who had earlier operated a small concern with that name.

Needless to say, until the sale of the Blue Network both the Red and Blue NBC networks made use of the NBC Chimes as the switching cue for engineers to switch network feeds between affiliates. The NBC Library of Congress Files contain two memos addressed to Keith Kiggins—one from July, 1939 and one from July 1940—both suggesting that Blue should develop its own network identity by appending anywhere from one to three extra notes to the existing NBC Chime signature. The 1939 memo received a reply stating “We have been investigating something of the sort, trying to iron out switching problems involved. Your idea of combining the present 3–note chime with some additional notes, is a new wrinkle and may be just the answer we are looking for”—which was most likely a polite brush–off, since no one in the NBC Engineering Department was about to take apart one of the chimes machines and try to refit it with extra musical equipment. The 1940 memo contains a handwritten reply to the memo writer at the bottom, more forthrightly declaring “I don’t believe this is practicable from eng. point”.

The Blue Network continued to use the NBC Chimes while under RCA’s ownership. The NBC Library of Congress Files contain a memo from Roy Witmer to Frank Mullen, dated January 29, 1942, in which Witmer blasts an affiliate’s suggestion that the network change the NBC Chimes to make them sound like the Morse Code for the letter V. The memo closes with “Incidentally, how much are we charging the Blue Network Co for the use of NBC chimes? It seems as though we ought to get a little revenue out of a thing of this kind.” With the Red and Blue networks operating separately, the original reason for the use of the Chimes—as a switching signal for engineers to take local stations from one network to another—was moot; however, the idea of chimes as an identifier still persisted, and in fact had been played up on both the Red and the Blue networks.

Perhaps this was done as a reaction to the FCC investigation into single entities operating multiple networks, because as mentioned elsewhere NBC began selling small “household” sets of three–note chimes in 1938, and during the summer of 1940 three NBC executives discussed the use of a slogan to point out the Chimes. A. L. Ashby wrote to network president Niles Trammell, passing along a suggestion from “one of the men in my department” that the slogan “When you hear the chime, it’s NBC time” be announced immediately following the ringing of the network chimes; the same employee also suggested that a vocalist sing the letters N B C “to the present tune of the chimes”. In a followup memo, Programming executive Phillips Carlin mentioned to Trammell that an earlier slogan, “Listen to the familiar NBC chimes, your signal for fine radio entertainment”, would be announced at two specific times during the week, prior to a half–hour chimes break on the network. In the same memo, Carlin confided to Trammell his opinion that “any slogan we use too much gets sickening in a very short time”.

In the March 7, 1942 issue of The Billboard, Carlin was said to be considering developing a new and different set of chimes for identification of The Blue Network, in his capacity as Vice President in charge of programming. This idea evidently never panned out, because the December 5, 1942 issue of the same publication contains a small boxed notice to the effect that all chimes were discontinued on The Blue Network as of December 1, and the system cue for that network was now the simple announcement “This is the Blue Network”, unaccompanied by any other symbol.

In 1946, Congress enacted a law giving recognition to trade symbols used in services, as opposed to trade marks applied directly to merchandise. On November 20, 1947, the National Broadcasting Company applied to the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office for registration of “A sequence of musical chime–like notes which in the key of C sound the notes G, E, C, the G being the one just below Middle C; the E the one just above Middle C, the C being Middle C, thereby to identify applicant’s broadcasting service”. This was specifically registered to identify radio programs, and the date of first use was given as November, 1927. Registration was granted on April 4, 1950—the very first Service Mark in history. A separate registration of the NBC Chimes, following similar wording, was made for television programs in 1970, and was granted in 1971.

In 1986, RCA Corporation was taken over by General Electric, which divested RCA of its electronics and record industries, retaining only the National Broadcasting Company, ownership of which was assumed by General Electric. GE retained the NBC television network, but in 1987 the NBC radio network was sold to Westwood One, a syndicate for independent radio programming. A series of acquisitions found Westwood One in the hands of, among other entities, Viacom, CBS Corporation, and Dial Global; Dial Global was subsequently acquired by Cumulus Media Networks, and its name was changed to Westwood One—a new entity that was not directly related to the original Westwood One. (Perhaps fittingly, Cumulus/Westwood One currently distributes the radio news services of NBC and ABC, as well as CBS.)

It would be tempting to suggest (with irony) that CBS Radio News or ABC News Radio actually owns the NBC Chimes, but the simple fact is that, so far as radio usage goes, the NBC Chimes are ownerless. The very first Service Mark in history, the NBC Chimes identifying radio programming, was not maintained and was permitted to lapse. The service mark registration expired on November 3, 1992; not only does the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office consider Registration 523616 to be expired, its file was destroyed in 1996. (Note: this is not the case with the NBC Chimes identifying television programming. Its service mark registration is live and actively maintained by the legal department of Comcast/NBC Universal.)