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

a matter of time

Even though the chimes were now mechanized, the actual ringing of the chimes was still accomplished by the Network announcer pressing a button on his “Announcer’s Delight Box”—a switching console by which means the NBC Network announcer joined his studio to (or dropped it from) either the Red or Blue Network, the local NBC station (which would have been in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, San Francisco or Hollywood), or both. This sometimes led to delays; if two announcers in two different studios pressed their buttons within a few seconds of each other, the chimes would play over the first studio’s feed only—the second studio had to wait out the seven–second chime cycle before the chimes would sound over its feed.

There was also quite a bit of concern in NBC’s Chicago office that the chimes were consistently being rung either late or early but never precisely on time. Sidney Strotz of the Chicago office spent several years arguing for the adoption of an automatic clock mechanism that would ring the chimes exactly twenty seconds before the next program period without human intervention. From Strotz’s standpoint this made perfect sense—the Chicago office was sometimes handling and routing six different feeds between twelve to fourteen legs of the network all at once.

Engineering Chief O. B. Hanson, in a letter advocating Strotz’s position in 1938, remarked that “this situation has seriously complicated the switching of network legs and the starting of programs in our various switching centers and places the switch man in such a position where he has to hold up everything until the last late leg is free to make the switch”. In the same memo Hanson admits that having an automated chime system was not practical at the time because the clocks were controlled by the local power company’s 60 cycle generators, which varied so much between cities that there could be differences of eight seconds or more over the entire network. However, he suggested that each office could install a temperature controlled tuning fork having a variation of “only one part of one million”, which would give close enough synchronization as to make clock–operated chimes practical.

This would have been especially helpful in the case of programs originating from the West Coast. One of Strotz’s memos arguing for clock–operated chimes to end programs on time points out an incident from the previous week in which a show originating on the West Coast began at 9:30:02pm, even though the preceding program had run over and did not end until 9:29:52, resulting in a ten second break between programs instead of the required twenty seconds. The result was that many affiliates cut into the program late, but the memo points out that the studios on the West Coast had no way of knowing that a preceding show had run over, therefore “it behooves us in the East—particularly in New York—to get programs off on time”.

The reason the West Coast could not know that the preceding program had run over was that the link between California and Chicago was one–way. Programming was usually routed from the East Coast through the midwest to the West Coast, but when California was providing the programming this series of links had to be reversed—a job that took AT&T engineers fifteen seconds to accomplish.

Despite the cogent arguments of the Engineering Departments in New York and Chicago, the Programming Deparment was wary of letting any sort of automatic control of programing intrude on what they perceived as an operation that required a human touch, particularly where sponsor sensitivities were involved. This attitude was noted by Sidney Strotz, who commented that “the difficulty we always have is with the independent or agency producers who seem to think radio was created for their particular benefit. Each one feels his is the most important show on the air”.

Arguments against automatically–rung chimes ran from “Think of the headaches when a speaker, and he need not be the president, or a musical number, and it need not be Toscanini, is cut on the nose” to “I don’t like the idea of chimes crashing through the last few moments of a commercial announcement…there is something about the idea of the necessity of a thing like pre–set chimes that infers some sort of weakness on our part. In effect, we say to ourselves [that] we cannot or do not dare to cut a program ourselves, so we hide behind a set of automatic chimes”.

By 1942, O. B. Hanson was telling a correspondent that “these chimes are not clock operated…they do not always occur exactly on the hour or on the 15 minute periods, but may vary from the hour as much as 15 seconds, depending upon the timing of the programs”. An NBC press release from October 9, 1953, announcing a program saluting the NBC Chimes, noted that the three–chime signal was given 30 seconds before the half hour “by push button control”—so it would seem that despite the best efforts of the Engineering staff, they never got their clock–controlled chimes.