Music Electrically Transcribed!

Walter J. Beaupre

When I first began to work in a local broadcasting station in 1944, it was not what was there but what was missing that surprised me. Studio "A" was a floating, soundproof room complete with Hammond organ, Novachord, Steinway studio grand piano, and extensive sheet music files. Studio "B" also had a smaller piano which was tuned regularly for broadcast use. There were class "C" phone lines to the Yankee Network in Boston and the Mutual Broadcasting System in New York which provided "live" network music programs. Yankee did a daily morning show "Andy Jacobson's Rhythm" with a first class studio orchestra which I particularly enjoyed. What I couldn't find anywhere at WCOU was a library of 78 rpm phono- graph records! True, sitting on one of the cabinets in the control room were a dozen or so 10 inch records, each of which carried the warning, "Not licensed for broadcast." Of course, most of the time the record companies ignored the fact that their recordings were played on the air because this boosted sales. Nine years earlier Martin Block had pioneered the"disc jockey" show which plugged pop records.

The key pieces of furniture in the control room other than the RCA broadcast console and two RCA turntables were two oversized file cabinets which contained 16-inch discs. These electrical transcriptions were the extent of the station's library of recorded music.

Although new to me in 1944, electrical transcriptions had been around for fifteen years. Western Electric (aka "AT&T"!) had pioneered large-disc recordings at much slower speeds for the early "talkies." When an optical sound-on-film process replaced these early transcriptions, the technology was taken over by entrepreneurs who saw a future for such transcriptions in radio broadcasting. The fidelity of the transcription discs was far superior to 78 rpm records -- much less surface noise. Radio networks were in their infancy, and programs could be sent via discs to individual radio stations in all parts of the country to be played at optimum times for the local markets. Amos 'n Andy in 1929 was the first program to be syndicated on two transcription discs of 5 minutes each, which were then joined in the middle by a local commercial announcement. However, these Amos 'n Andy transcriptonswere recorded at the 78 rpm speed. The World Broadcasting Service in 1929 was the first transcription company to license the slower-speed Western Electric technology.

By 1935 there were four major transcription services supplying 350 radio stations: World Transcription Service, Standard Radio Library, RCA/NBC Thesaurus, and the C.P. MacGregor service. Each of these companies provided a basic library of radio shows complete in themselves except for local commercial tie-ins, a library of musical selections, a license to play them on the air, and periodic issues of new discs and replacements. They even provided the special sized filing cabints to house the transcriptions. These libraries did not "belong" to a radio station; they were leased for as long as station paid the necessary fees.

According to Michael Biel, who has written a scholarly dissertation on electrical transcriptions, World Broadcasting at first "offered their discs in two materials: acetate or vinyl. The acetate pressings were very thin and flexible. They are a red clay color and feel slightly greasy to the touch. The vinyl discs were a little thicker, stiffer, and were slightly translucent purple." Vinyl eventually became the material most widely used.

The transcription service leased at WCOU was the Standard Radio Library. Part of my job when network programs were on was to file the new discs as they arrived every week or so. Each disc was double-sided and contained five to six selections per side. A page describing the disc was put in a loose-leaf notebook for easy reference. File cards for each selection made it possible to locate each perform- ance alphabetically by title, artist, and type of music. Usually a single artist or orchestra was featured on each disc. The discs were filed according to the type of music on the disc. For example, all of the solo organ recordings were filed under "S" according to ascending numbers. Newest releases were always the highest numbers in any given category. Other categories were classical, semi- classical, vocals, western, etc. There were even specialized recordings of musical "bridges" (music to fill the gaps between scenes in a radio play) and sound effects (thunder, rain, wind, dogs barking and howling, etc.).

Although these transcriptions often featured artists who also made recordings for Columbia, Decca, and RCA Victor, the discs seldom contained current hit record- ings. For example, Standard Radio Library which was a subsidiary of RCA Victor issued an extensive library of performances by Dave Rose and his orchestra, but I don't recall "Holiday For Strings" (the biggest Victor hit) being among them. Artists who were big names in the entertainment world sometimes used assumed names for their transcriptions. The successful organist Buddy Cole recorded for Standard under the name "Edwin Lemar." His real name was actually Edwin Lemar "Buddy" Cole! I seem to remember that composer/conductor Morton Gould, a Columbia artist, recorded for Standard under the name "Leith Stevens." In recent years some of these transcription library performances by legendary artists such as Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and Nat King Cole have been issued on LP's and CD's and touted as "never before released" recordings by the artists. It is true that they were never released as phonograph records -- only as transcriptions to be used by licensed radio stations.

The actual performances on these transcriptions did not duplicate precisely the commercial record releases of the same artists. Sometimes these performances were not as good as the commercial record releases; but sometimes the playing was far more spontaneous. I like some of the King Cole Trio transcriptions much better than the Capitol releases of the same tunes. Furthermore, jazz performances weren't confined to a three-minute limit as were most 78's.

Many local programs were built around the music available via these transcription services. I recall one incident when Standard issued a rash of discs by Leo Diamond and his Harmonaires, a novelty band featuring harmonicas. The group had achieved notoriety in the film version of George and Ira Gershwin's "Girl Crazy" with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. As luck would have it,my station manager was a big fan of the Harmonaires and sold a 15 minute-per-evening show called "Harmonica Harmonies" to a sponsor. It was my job to produce and announce the show. The good news was that the contract gave the sponsor the exclusive rights to "Harmonica Harmonies" for three years! The bad news was that Standard promptly stopped sending new discs of Leo Diamond and his Harmonaires, and I had to play the same 40-or- so tunes in various combinations over and over ad nauseam! It was years before I could listen to "Peg O' My Heart" (the program's theme) without wanting to up-chuck! Where were you, Jerry Murad and Your Harmonicats, when I needed you?

Another radio station (WEST in Easton, PA) I worked for later had libraries of World and Langworth transcriptions. Dr. Biel reminds me that Associated was still another transcription library of the period. As the result of the ASCAP "war" over the licensing of radio stations to play recorded music, we later received a few transcriptions from BMI (Broadcast Music International) and SESAC (primarily country and western music).

What these transcriptions had in common was that they all were designed to be played as 33 1/3 revolutions per minute -- as opposed to regular phonograph records which revolved at 78 rpm. The turntables were extra-large to accommo- date the 16-inch discs, and they were dual speed. Most of the electrical transcriptions used the same sized stylus required for ordinary records and the stylus movement in the grooves was from side-to-side. World transcriptions were unique in that the stylus movement was vertical and a special tone arm was required to play them. None of these transcriptions were "micro-groove" like the later 33 1/3 LP recordings pioneered by Columbia, or the 45 rpm recordings pioneered by RCA. These would require special tone arms and -- for the 45's -- still a third turntable speed. Most of the transcriptions tracked from the outside edge to the center of the disc; but there were some which tracked from the center to the outside.

These 16-inch transcriptions could hold up to 15 minutes of continuous program- ming on each side and were often used for syndicated or goverenment-issued programs which were sent to the individual stations for broadcast on designated dates. Recruiting shows for the branches of military service arrived on such discs and always required a statement to the effect that the "following program was electrically transcribed!" The United States Government shipped many programs during wartime as transcriptions. Ironically, their shows from the Office of Price Administration (OPA) were invariably cut on aluminum discs while civilian organizations had to make do with vinyl pressings or glass-based transcrip- tions. Advertisers often sent their 30 and 60 second spot announcements on transcriptions. Most radio stations had the equipment to cut their own transcrip- tions of programs or spot announcements. However, only the licensed engineers were allowed to produce these discs. We carefully hoarded the OPA government discs because these aluminum transcriptions were usually blank on one side. We could use the blank side for local shows or to reproduce copies of theme music which would be played over and over again on the air.

Electrical transcriptions were indispensable from the mid '30's to the late '40's --a period of about 15 years. After the Second World War, two things happened to diminish the influence of the licensed libraries:

    (1) local record stores and eventually the record companies themselves began sending free copies of their releases to radio stations for air plugs by a new breed of announcer, the "disc jockey"; and
    (2) tape recorders were installed in studio consoles. These reel-to-reel instruments were quite simple to operate and didn't require the expertise of an engineer. Better still, one could erase a tape performance that had flaws and simply record over the same tape. Once grooves were cut in a disc -- that was the end of its useful life.
Record libraries replaced the transcription libraries. This trend was speeded up with the advent of LP albums and 45's. The 12 inch LP virtually took over the function of the 16-inch transcriptions and did it much better with less needle noise and distortion. By 1953-4 most of the transcription companies had discontinued services and invited the individual stations to buy the libraries outright. There were few takers!

Fortunately, thousands of these electrical transcriptions of radio shows were saved by local stations and individuals who worked for these stations. One of the engineers at WCOU had thoughtfully saved many of the off-the-air glass discs of local programs which had featured my air work as well as the talents of many co-workers.

Most of theoldtime radio programs we now enjoy from the '30's, '40's, and early '50's survived only because they were electrically transcribed at some point - either as air checks, as programs to be repeated at later times, or as personal copies of programs for the artists involved. The discs survived because they could not be erased and used again. Unfortunately many local programs which were later captured on tape were lost to economy!

The turntables and tone arms built to play electrical transcriptions have become rare curiosities. There was a time, my friends, when radio programs were required by law to admit.."This program was transcribed in Hollywood!" Today we find ourselves shocked and surprised when we are told that a program is "live." Who's to say what was the better time?

Jerry Haendiges Productions © 1996 - 2013