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

the fourth chime

On april 7, 1933, a memo was issued to John Carey and Patrick Kelly from William Burke Miller, outlining an Emergency Call System that involved the striking of a fourth chime note. Pat Kelly was the Supervisor of Announcers from the late 1920s until his retirement in 1954, and his inclusion is important because it was the NBC Network Announcer’s job to ring the chimes. Being an NBC Network Announcer during this period was far more involved than simply speaking into a microphone; through the use of a control console known as “The Announcer’s Delight” (or Delite Box), the Network Announcer joined his studio to the local NBC–owned station and/or to either the Red or Blue networks.

The Network Announcer also threw the actual “You’re On The Air” cue to the program announcers and talent. Once the program was finished, the Network Announcer gave the National Broadcasting Company system outcue, rang the chimes, disconnected his studio from the network, and gave the local station ID before removing his studio’s feed from the local station. The engineering department in New York would have already set up the wiring to feed the stations for all its programming on the Red and Blue networks, and the engineering department in Chicago would have already set up its own feed plus the necessary circuitry to pass through the East Coast feed should the East Coast be feeding the West Coast. However, none of these switches would be made until the NBC Network Announcer gave the cue by ringing the chimes. This may give some idea of how important the job of Network Announcer was—the Announcer really was more than just a mellifluous voice.

The memo stated that due to key personnel in the New York office not always being available at home telephones during Spring and Summer months, as of April 16, 1933 an emergency call system was to be implemented. “Whenever a fourth tone is heard on the network chimes rung at fifteen–minute intervals”, the memo stated, “it will indicate that someone on the attached list is wanted”. If the wanted party could not be reached by telephone, the PBX operator was to instruct the Studio Manager to sound the emergency call chimes. Upon hearing the fourth chime, everyone on this list was instructed to communicate with the NBC PBX operator to determine whether he or she was the wanted party. The four chimes would continue at fifteen minute intervals over WEAF and WJZ until the wanted party had contacted the PBX operator. The PBX operator was then to notify the Studio Manager to discontinue the chimes. The memo concluded with “To avoid confusion: Regular chimes consist of three tones. The Emergency Chimes will consist of four tones.” It is important to also be aware that the NBC studios in New York had been outfitted with the electromechanical Rangertone chimes for some six months at the time this policy went into effect, so just hearing the hand–rung chimes, be they three or four notes, would have also attracted attention.

On September 2, 1938, an inquiry came in from the manager of Canadian Marconi station CFCF in Montreal, asking “In a recent issue of Motion Picture Daily there is a news item to the effect that when four chimes, instead of the customary three, are rung on the networks, that this is a prearranged signal to all NBC crews that something of much importance has happened, necessitating their contacting Headquarters immediately. Will you please advise us if there is any truth in this statement?” This letter was answered six days later by Chief Announcer Patrick Kelly, the head of the department responsible for ringing the chimes. His response was as follows:

In reply to your letter of September 2, referring to the fourth chime as a prearranged signal, this procedure was used some years ago. At that time, we used manual chimes and the announcer would be instructed to repeat the low note after he had rung his regular first three notes. Before ringing this fourth note, the announcer cut his network channel so that the fourth note was only heard over WEAF or WJZ here in New York. Since that time, however, every department of the company is covered for almost complete [sic] twenty–four hours a day, and I do not recall any necessity for using this signal during the past four years, though no order eliminating its use has ever been issued.

(Curiously enough, the October 1, 1938 issue of the trade publication Broadcasting notes that station WJNO of West Palm Beach, Florida had just inaugurated a system of coded chimes, so that off–duty employees could be alerted to emergency situations at the station, such as an announcer falling ill, without cueing in the listening public that anything was amiss.)

However, it seems that while the announcing staff had the responsibility for ringing the normal “switching cue” chimes, the News and Special Events department had either been assigned, or had arrogated to itself, the use of the fourth chime signal as a code to indicate a breaking news story of major significance was developing. According to the NBC publication The Fourth Chime, the News and Special Events Department’s first use of the fourth chime in this manner was when the Hindenburg exploded at Lakehurst, New Jersey. This event is alluded to in the book I Live On Air, in which reporter Jack Hartley recalls that his Mobile Unit crew alerted the News and Special Events staff of the disaster by sending out The Fourth Chime before they sped off to the scene to file reports. No recording of this usage of the fourth chime alert appears to be extant, however.

The book The Fourth Chime, which documents the development of NBC News coverage around the world during the years preceding and including the Second World War, culminating in the D–Day Invasion, states in its preface that “The Fourth Chime, a note added to the familiar NBC three–chime signal, is the exclusive property of the Newsroom of the National Broadcasting Company; rings out from the NBC Newsroom only when events of major historical importance occur”. The preface states that the Fourth Chime was sounded on several occasions of major importance, from the Hindenburg explosion to the Munich crisis to the attack on Pearl Harbor. I am unaware of any recording of the Munich crisis, but of the recordings that survive announcing the Hindenburg and Pearl Harbor, I’ve heard no fourth chime. In its issue for May 11, 1942, however, trade publication Broadcasting quotes NBC vice president and general manager Frank Mullen testifying before the House Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee that “Within two hours after the first Japanese bomb fell on Pearl Harbor, radio was in active service. At NBC a fourth chime was added instantly to the famous three–chime signature which goes out over the air at the end of every program—a pre–arranged emergency signal to all engineers and key personnel to report immediately to their posts for special duty.”

The Fourth Chime does give two instances in which four chimes were rung to signal the invasion of D–Day on June 6, 1944. The scene, as presented in the book, gives the fourth chime signal putting the network on “flash” basis at 2:30am, “The NBC four–chime–alert calling all newsmen and commentators to their microphones”. A second sounding of the four chimes was made, according to the book, at 3:18am followed a second later by “the familiar throb of the coded V for Victory…the prearranged H Hour cue”.

In fact, on listening to surviving recordings of NBC’s coverage of the D–Day Invasion, there are clearly two soundings of four chimes, but not at the times given in the dramatic narrative. The first sounding occurred at 3:19am Eastern War Time, and in fact the chime plates were struck in the wrong sequence—an anomaly that can probably be credited to the late hour, an announcer inexperienced with the manual dinner chimes, and the general excitement of the moment. The second sounding occurred at 3:29am, just before an official Communiqué was to be read from London via shortwave radio to the entire world. This sounding is indeed four chimes; the second chime bar is struck, with some hesitant uncertainty, four times—immediately followed by the Morse Code “V For Victory” signal repeated twelve times, in four groups of three.

The hand–struck chimes set used for this broadcast was not the usual model that had been used in the past, and its notes (which should have been E♭–C–A♭) differed from the G–E–C of the chimes machine, and also from the C–A–F of the earlier hand–struck chimes.

One more recorded instance of NBC’s Fourth Chime is found in a transcription of a program originally broadcast on November 24, 1944. NBC News announcer Don Goddard fronts a special program titled The Fourth Chime, recapitulating the part that NBC’s Fourth Chime played in what was so far five years of coverage of the Second World War, and featuring a phalanx of the best of NBC’s reporters and commentators in dramatic recreations of memorable moments of news coverage. This program opens and closes with the sound of the three–note NBC Chime (G–E–C) played on the custom Deagan three–note chime set, and the announcement that the listener should be familiar with this three note signature that closes every NBC program. “But have you heard this one?”, Don Goddard asks, immediately before the four note NBC Chime (G–E–C–C) is played on the same Deagan chime set. “Have you heard that extra chime—The Fourth Chime?”, Goddard inquires, before declaring that to the trained NBC News staff the sound of The Fourth Chime means “Call the office! Get down here! Big things are happening!”. The four–note G–E–C–C chime is used as a transition cue—almost as punctuation—throughout this half–hour broadcast.

Click here to go to the Reelradio Repository to hear this fascinating program (opens in new window). Thanks to Richard “Uncle Ricky” Irwin of reelradio.com for permission to link to this page on his site.