The NBC Chimes Museum A Celebration Of Old–Time Radio’s Most Famous Signature
wsb atlanta—precursor to the nbc chimes?
The earliest known sound recording of a musical dinner chime being used to identify a local radio station is that of WSB Atlanta. The radio arm of The Atlanta Journal, WSB signed on the air on March 15, 1922. Two of the station’s earliest stars were the twin sisters Kate and Nell Pendley; according to Cox Broadcasting’s history of WSB Welcome South, Brother, published in 1974, WSB manager Lambdin Kay was looking for a distinctive identification to close each program, and Nell Pendley offered him her Deagan Dinner Chimes.
Kay soon created an identifier by ringing the notes E–C–G, the first three notes of the popular WWI song “Over There”, a story recounted in a list of accomplishments credited to WSB in its initial year:
[WSB was] the first radio station to use a musical identification at the end of its programs. The first three notes of “Over There,” played on chimes by WSB, were later rearranged by NBC and became the well–known “NBC Chimes.” The WSB chimes were given to the station by a young lady the night she and her twin sister appeared on the station. Lambdin Kay was pondering aloud how the musical announcement could be improved, when Nell Pendley suggested he try the chimes. Nell and Kate—now Mrs. C. P. Stuckey and Mrs. James Hannah—are still Atlanta residents.
Histories of WSB note that the announcers would ring this sequence three times to signal that the station was going off the air for maintenance—a frequent occurrence in the days when radio stations usually broadcast only in the mornings and the evenings. Lambdin Kay’s WSB chimes are today on display in the WSB lobby museum. The pictures of the chimes displayed here are courtesy of the late Mike Kavanagh. You can hear an undated recording, mostly likely from the 1950s or 1960s, of the WSB chimes at this Georgia State University link.
It is not known exactly when WSB began using chimes, but the November 11, 1922 issue of Radio World mentions “the big gong which rings ‘Bong! Bong! Bong!’ ” to announce the station, in an article telling the reader how to identify various broadcasters by specific characteristics. Thus, we have a printed reference to WSB using chimes from within eight months from the time the station began broadcasting. In addition, the Radio Digest issue of August 16, 1924 contains a profile of Lambdin Kay that was most likely ghostwritten by Kay himself; about his accomplishments, the article asserts that he
“…thought up ‘The Voice of the South’ as the world’s first radio slogan, likewise three–note chime as first identification signal; likewise WSB 10:45 Radiowls as first aerial fraternity”.
It should be noted that the small Deagan dinner chimes most closely associated with Lambdin Kay were not given a patent until 1926, although it was not uncommon for manufacturers to place a product on the market before it was actually patented, the legend “Patent Pending” or “Patent Applied For” serving until the patent was issued.
A set of publicity photos were taken of Lambdin Kay posing with a five–note set of Deagan military chimes for the Bain News Service; in the picture displayed here, a date of 4/5/24 is inked onto the negative, reversing out to white on the print. The video embedded below this picture (made for an online auction that is no longer active) demonstrates that this particular chime was pitched in a minor key, which would not work with the “Over There” notes. Taking that into consideration plus the fact that Kay is posing with these chimes while appearing to strike them with a gavel rather than a mallet, it’s entirely possible that his pose with these chimes was for publicity only, and that he preferred to keep the actual chimes out of the public eye. It’s highly doubtful that we will ever know one way or the other, after nearly a century, unless some very scarce documentation or recording turns up.
The issue of Radio Digest for September 13, 1924 has a profile of WSB with pictures of some of its key staff members. As reproduced to the right, one of the illustrations accompanying the article is that of Lambdin Kay, standing before a large clock and a Western Electric microphone, holding a three–note set of Deagan tubular chimes. This is unlike both the five–tube chimes with which he posed in April of that same year or the four–note 200 set that would eventually become the station’s trademark; however, the way the chime tubes are arranged, the “Over There” notes could be obtained by striking them from right to left in order. This particular Deagan chime had tubes tuned to D, A, and F♯, with the lowest note in the center, flanked by the next higher notes right and left; thus, striking them in 2–3–1 sequence will give the same triad arrangement as G–E–C. As with the other Lambdin Kay pictures, clicking on the image will bring up a large version. (Note: the illustration shows the chimes in reverse form, possibly from an inverted negative. You can see pictures and a video of this set of chimes at the percussion fortress pages. )
A 1925 recording exists of Lambdin Kay announcing the WSB call letters and ringing the Deagan 200 dinner chime; this was not recorded off the air but was rather a commercial phonograph record, recorded in Atlanta by the Columbia Phonograph Company on January 29, 1925. It can thus be certain that the WSB chimes were well–enough established by this date as to be recognizable to the record listener. (Lambdin Kay actually announced several commercial phonograph records in the mid 1920s, for the Columbia and OKeh labels.)
WSB is present among a listing of station call letters read by an announcer in 1924 over the old WEAF Network, precursor to the NBC Red Network; however, a map of the WEAF network from September 1926 does not show WSB, so perhaps the network affiliation was temporary. By all accounts WSB was a part of the NBC network as of January 1927. At any rate, the oft–repeated story that NBC adopted chimes from WSB after hearing them on a WSB–originated network broadcast of a Georgia Tech football game is one that I don’t believe could have happened. Georgia Tech owned its own commercial station, WGST, which was a direct competitor of WSB. WGST was started (as WGM) in 1922 by The Atlanta Constitution, and was then given to Georgia Tech in 1923; from 1924 until 1985, WGST was the exclusive radio station for Georgia Tech football and basketball broadcasts, and was the flagship station of the Georgia Tech Network.
other early local radio identifiers
Several other radio stations are known to have been using an audible identifier on the air before NBC adopted the use of chimes. WCSH in Portland, Maine still has a Deagan 400 chime that was used for a local ID. Staffers at the station with whom I have corresponded insist that these chimes were also used to sound the NBC chimes over the network, but NBC practice called for an NBC staff announcer to ring the chimes from a network office (a “network office” being a studio in one of the stations owned by NBC in New York, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco, and after 1937, Hollywood), or on occasion from the stage if the broadcast originated in a theater or concert hall. Chimes were not rung by announcers in the employ of a sponsor, nor were they rung by a local station announcer unless that station happened to be an NBC network office.
A charter member of the NBC Red Network, WCSH went on the air on July 24, 1925, and it is entirely possible that they were using a chime signal of their own before NBC was formed; as indicated in this ad from the inaugural issue of Broadcasting in October, 1931, WCSH was owned by the Congress Square Hotel Company—not only giving the station its call letters, but very possibly using the same type of chimes the hotel would have used for making announcements in the lobby.
WTMJ Milwaukee is known to have used a set of Deagan 400 chimes for its on–air identifier, and a recording exists of this chime being played in 1931.
KVOO in Tulsa, OK, owned a set of Deagan 200 chimes which were used on the air to identify the station; these chimes are on display in the library of Nathan Hale High School in Tulsa, whose librarian Diana Doyle sent me the picture you see here. WBBM in Chicago went on the air in 1924; a radio column item in the Schenectady, NY Gazette of November 11, 1925 notes that “WBBM now uses an old–fashioned automobile horn to herald its announcements with a ‘honk–honk!’ ”. And announcer George D. Hay used a wooden train whistle to identify WLS in Chicago, taking his whistle with him in 1925 when he went to work for WSM Nashville.
Possible contenders for the station that first used chimes or any other aural identification are legion. In addition to the stations enumerated above:
- WGY in Schenectady, NY, went on the air on February 22, 1922, and is said to have used the notes G–E–C played on a piano starting in 1923. In this case, G–E–C denoted the owner of the station, the General Electric Company.
- KFI in Los Angeles maintains that they were using the notes G–E–C on dinner chimes shortly after they went on the air in April of 1922, and that they introduced the idea of chimes to NBC. According to the September, 1923 issue of The Wireless Age, KFI used electric chimes rather than chimes that were sounded by hand. An illustration of their studio shows what appears to be a four–resonator chime resting semi–upright on a small table, with an electric cable running from it to a point on the wall. An article footnote in the June 16, 1923 issue of Radio Digest states “The ringing of three silver chimes is the signal that announces programs from KFI.”
- WBAP in Fort Worth, TX, began broadcasting on May 2, 1922, and within six weeks it was using its own unique on–air identifier: a cowbell.
- WDAF in Kansas City, MO, went on the air on June 5, 1922; a year later, The Wireless Age devoted an article to that station and its midnight “Nighthawks” program that quoted the program’s 1:00am signoff as being “Tune in at 11:45 tomorrow night for our regular Nighthawk frolic. This is WDAF (chimes), the Kansas City Star’s Nighthawks, the Enemies of Sleep, signing off.” The type of chimes used are not mentioned, nor is the sequence of notes.
- WDAJ began broadcasting on June 30, 1922 in College Park, GA. The November 11, 1922 issue of Radio World quoted above regarding WSB also mentions that WDAJ’s audio identifier was four blasts of a locomotive whistle.
- WHAS in Louisville, KY, went on the air on July 18, 1922. According to the same Radio World article, WHAS identified itself on the air by playing a few bars of “My Old Kentucky Home”. The instrument on which this was played is not mentioned, but the April 7, 1923 issue of Radio Digest clarifies that the theme was played on chimes. Presumably tubular orchestral chimes.