It's a Man's Job Behind That Microphone
April 1932 Radio News Article
course if you listen to any of the old-time radio
broadcasts on the Internet, they are recorded version of shows made long ago. However, back in the day those shows
were first performed live in front of microphones and recorded in a broadcast studio. With a cast of two or three
or even more, the actors would voice their lines with as much talent and effort as those performing for movies.
The crew usually included a group of people responsible for creating background sound effects like horses running,
car horns tooting, airplanes buzzing by, and dogs barking. All was done real-time with split-second timing required
to pull it off and sound convincing. Radio audiences were unaware of all the work required as they sat intently
listening to the Adventures of the Lone Ranger and The Shadow. Behind the scenes were dozens of
engineers and technicians tending local radio broadcasting equipment and all-important telephone landlines used for
synchronizing stations across the country. Being the primary form of long-distance communications connecting communities,
radio stations had in addition to entertainment and advertising the duty of maintaining a constant vigil for SOS
signals that might be transmitted from ships at sea, airplanes, and even Zeppelins. If received, the U.S. Navy intervened
to determine authenticity and to usurp, if necessary, the airwaves in order to conduct rescue activities. It was
the glory days of radio, before television entered the scene.
of Contents]These articles are scanned and OCRed from old editions of the Radio & Television News magazine.
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It's a Man's Job Behind That Microphone
By Albert Pfaltz
Although Seldom Heard of, These Men Make Broadcasts Realistic
Scene in the Sound Effects Studio,
where these wide-awake young fellows, happy in the knowledge that they are adding to your enjoyment of the radio
programs, are busily engaged making the sounds of train and boat whistles, horses galloping, airplanes buzzing,
chains rattling, the bustle of traffic, etc., to accompany the oral text of a broadcast playlet. Theirs is not
an easy task, as they have to listen-in with headphones for their cues, which must be followed immediately by
the proper sound, made in the proper way upon the correct "gadgets."
It's a Man's Job.
Tending the Land Lines
Have you wondered just how that program from cross country is switched so quickly
and at exactly the right instant to your local station's antenna? Here are engineer workers who tend the line
terminal equipment panels in connecting the proper stations with the desired program, although they may be separated
by thousands of miles.
Transmitting Room at WEAF
Shown at the control panel is Gerald Gray, in charge of the station, and, standing,
Raymond Guy, radio engineer of the NBC. These men are ill charge of complete operations and repair of the powerful
50-kilowatt transmitter shown at center. At the left is the low-powered unit panel, including modulators and
frequency-controlling devices. At the right is the power-control equipment and a dummy antenna system.
Program Circuits at New York
Figure 1. This schematic diagram shows the NBC program circuits in New York
City, including nine studios and three audition studios, connecting to the main control room.
At the Control Panel
Fred Hanek seated at the control apparatus at Bellmore. He is looking at the oscillograph,
on which a continuous moving picture of the broadcast's signals may be observed.
Special Broadcast Switchboard
These panels, connected in circuit, took care of the broadcast of an "Air
Raid" over New York City. Seated at the board are George Milne, division engineer; Ferdinand Wankel, engineer,
and William B. Miller, director of special broadcast events of the NBC system.
Lonely, But Important
Here is Engineer Dietsch, who has complete control and operation to the cooling equipment
in the pump room of the WEAF transmitter building. If this equipment failed for only a short period of time,
the transmitter would go off the air and thousands of dollars' worth of tubes and associate apparatus would
A $1,500 Vacuum Tube
Here are the station engineers holding the largest size transmitting tube and comparing
it with the small 199 receiving tube employed in early battery operated receivers.
Control Room of Times Square Studio
You never think of these watchful engineers on duty when you listen
to a program from this famous studio, but they are there with eyes, ears and brains alert to conquer any emergency
that might tend to interfere with the broadcasts.
Control Panel Circuits
Figure 2. Schematic diagram of the actual program circuits to the studios and to
the channels of the control room shown as part of the diagram in Figure 1.
An Interesting Story of the Little-known But Important Jobs at Which Many Efficient
Radio Men Toil in Bringing Broadcasting to Its Present-day Position of Perfection. It Is Entirely Possible That
There Are Numbers of Our Readers Who Could Qualify, After a Bit of Efficient Study, for Some of These Positions
Which Are Full of Interest and Remunerative.
In the theatre the inspiring cry has always been, "The
Show must go on!" In broadcasting - a show business on an international scale - the same spirit prevails. And it
is the radio engineer and his associates who now manipulate the intricate networks of the present day, who plan
and execute the broadcasting of world news events, who make possible the maintenance of high quality radio service.
The casual studio engineer may notice the control room engineer sitting behind the glass window of his booth
busy at the monitoring panel. He may also notice the announcer's apparatus with its switches and tiny colored lights.
His main interest, of course, is in the program this side of the microphone. If he is the average radio fan he knows
nothing whatever about what happens to the program between the two physical points - one of them visible to him
of the studio microphone and the antenna of the broadcast transmitter. What happens to the sound in that comparatively
short and instantaneous travel is not his concern in the slightest. It is one of those things that he takes for
An Important Work
And yet the safeguarding of a program between those
two points is a work of engineering art as important, in every respect, as that of the artists and announcers. Scores
of trained engineers are constantly on the job, planning, testing, monitoring. Taken in toto their work may be described
as designed to preserve two things in any given broadcast-fidelity and continuity.
Broadcast programs originate
either in a studio or in the field, the latter being otherwise known as "Nemo" pickups.
The first named
type is comparatively simple. For a brief picture of the engineering methods employed let us look in at 711 Fifth
Avenue, in New York, NBC headquarters.
It is the announcer who actually controls the switching of a program
from the studio, where a broadcast is about to begin or end. Let us assume that the artists, the announcer and the
control room engineer are waiting for the preceding program to end and receive their cue to begin. The announcer,
who is standing before a row of push-buttons and lights on a little panel, is listening by means of headphones to
the concluding minutes of a program coming from another studio. At the conclusion he receives a signal which tells
him that the other program has been completed and that his studio now "has the air."
Our announcer now strikes the familiar four-note chimes and gives the station identification.
These chimes are utilized as switching cues by individual stations and supplementary networks joining or leaving
the chain. A problem of synchronization arises here as the smaller chains which tap the basic networks at a distance
from New York may take program service from either the basic Red or Blue networks. If one network program finishes
a few seconds ahead of schedule the announcer for the other network takes control of both for the time necessary
to give the chimes. All personnel - announcers. control room engineers, etc. - are in possession of essential information
concerning the distribution of a program and either the announcer or the studio engineer can set up or release the
required program channel.
The duties of the studio engineer who monitors the program from the control room
are fairly familiar. It is his job to control sound levels and faithfully follow his program cues, such as those
calling for the fading down of music behind an announcement or the balancing of microphones.
has a twenty-four-hour reserve storage-battery supply for use in case of failure of the commercial power source.
So much for the individual studio set-up - and there are eight such at headquarters in New York.
Because of the fact that several programs may be on the air simultaneously, from either studio or Nemo points
of origin and that combinations of local transmitters and networks are continually shifting, it may safely be said
that the main control room at headquarters is the nerve center of operations. Responsibility for the operation of
studios and the distribution of programs is centered here.
Some idea of the complexity of the layout immediately
surrounding the main control room may be obtained from Figures 1 and 2.
Through constant supervision at
this point, programs are dispatched to designated places at proper levels and at definite times. This requires two
things - an interlocking system for transferring the outputs of various studios to one or more distribution channels
and facilities for checking the program at important points.
The control room supervisor has available volume
indicators and a loudspeaker, the former showing output levels of studio and line amplifiers while the latter may
be connected to either of these points. In addition, the signal light shows whether the local transmitters, WJZ
and WEAF, are "on" or "off" the air, and a neon lamp indicates whether the carrier is being modulated and, roughly,
the degree of modulation. A circuit can be quickly patched around any faulty unit as the input and output connections
of most of the equipment in each studio appear on jacks in the control-room apparatus.
connections to all monitoring booths and telegraph circuits to all networks and local transmitters are available
to the control-room supervisor.
Present-day broadcasting depends, very largely for uninterrupted service,
on the efficiency of the network of telephone lines which connect cities, studios and transmitters. The telephone
company is responsible for the maintenance of program service between network stations. Few persons realize that
dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of wiremen are stationed at strategic points during an important network program
where, because of the single factor of geography, almost any kind of climatic condition may be encountered - to
say nothing of an "act of God" which might cause a truck loaded with high-explosives to collide with a telephone
However, engineers of the broadcasting company frequently check the transmission characteristics of
all long-line networks. The shorter local lines, which seldom give trouble, are checked daily and then rechecked
immediately prior to a broadcast. Frequency characteristics are also taken covering the entire circuit from microphone
Before outlining the more intricate problems involved in the handling of a big news event broadcast,
such as the arrival of the air armada over New York or the initial trip of the Graf Zeppelin, let us consider the
transmitter - the comparatively new WEAF, for example, which is the last step in the engineering chain required
to put a program on the air.
The new 300,000 watt transmitter was installed in a recently constructed wing
of the WEAF operating building at Bellmore, Long Island. O. B. Hanson, manager of plant operation and engineering,
and Raymond Guy, radio engineer, declare that this apparatus, which embodies the latest ideas of radio transmission,
now makes every sound picked up by the microphone audible to listeners as far away as New Zealand.
operates with a maximum power of 50,000 watts. With the modulation increased from less than fifty to one hundred
percent, listeners receive the signals several times louder. High and low notes, sibilants and certain sounds, heretofore
heard indistinctly or lost entirely, now are transmitted perfectly. The equipment includes the latest refinement
in crystal-control apparatus to hold the station on its assigned wavelength, giving increased frequency stability.
Careful observations show that the fluctuation is only ten cycles in 660,000. The transmitter employs two 100-kilowatt
type tubes which stand five feet high and require thirty gallons of water, per-minute, to cool them.
central control panel gives the operator an unobstructed view of the apparatus, while an oscillograph gives a moving
picture of the transmitter's output.
Every possible safeguard is present to insure continuous operation
of the large water-cooled tubes. Tube failure may often endanger surrounding apparatus. For one thing, the supply
of cooling water must be adequately sustained. Furthermore, operational steps must be taken in the proper order
- as, for example, the application of filament power only when an adequate flow of water is assured and the application
of plate power, after that of grid-bias voltage. An interlocking relay system functions in the event of failure,
or overloading, of any unit, thus disconnecting service before any serious damage can result.
is handled by a push-button arrangement on the desk of the transmitter engineer. Duplicate units and rapid replacement
facilities are also provided for other apparatus.
Lightning has long been a great danger to a transmitting
station - and still is - although radio engineers have recently developed certain safeguards. Charges of lightning
which have entered the station on the lead-in have been known to melt 30-inch condenser plates to molten liquid.
Today the modern set-up includes static drains which consist of a coil and a resistor, across the apparatus from
antenna to ground.
But what happens when an SOS signal is on the air?
Every broadcast transmitter
is equipped with a special receiving set, adjusted for the reception of 600-meter waves, the wavelength assigned
by international agreement, for SOS signals. A big loudspeaker is placed at an advantageous point so that the transmitter
crew can hear any signals that come through. The operators, who work in eight-hour shifts, are constantly alert
to any signals received. If any signal even remotely suggesting an SOS is heard, the station immediately telephones
the nearest U. S. Navy Yard for advice. If the station operators are confident of the signal they immediately discontinue
broadcasting, otherwise they await orders from the Navy Yard. Broadcasting is resumed when the Navy department sends
out permission to resume by 600-meter signals.
The ordinary distribution problem involved in a network broadcast
is difficult enough but in point of complexity the Nemo broadcast, often requiring seven or eight announcers, a
corps of engineers and the supplementary use of short waves, takes the grand prize. Engineers and announcers have
often spent days of preparation and rehearsal in advance of such an occasion.
Before describing some of
the interesting engineering hook-ups used on important news broadcasts, it is necessary to speak of the piece of
apparatus, recently designed, that serves as the nerve center coordinating all activities in the field.
Technically known as the "semi-portable Nemo switching equipment," the extremely flexible, compact and efficient
apparatus developed and built by the engineers is a miniature broadcasting studio.
This apparatus, supplied
with batteries for use where regular power supply is unavailable, is contained in a box measuring approximately
2½ x 4 x 7 feet and weighing a half ton. The "box" may be shipped to any desired centralized point from which
wires are radiated to whatever locations participate in the broadcast.
When completely installed, the equipment
is capable of providing ten-way communication, among as many locations. Ten announcers, within any radius - even
scattered throughout the country - could talk among themselves and also to the broadcast listeners. This intercommunication
is accomplished by means of special "feedback" amplifiers which permit each point to hear every other point. Inter-communicating
telephone circuits are also provided. Each of these ten broadcast circuits may be controlled for volume, or switched
"on the air," separately or simultaneously.
The program director at the central control point can talk to
any of the distant announcers by means of the feedback amplifiers and, unknown to the listening radio audience,
can direct the entire broadcast.
Provision is made for testing a set of circuits while the others are being
used, for broadcast and testing equipment is provided for the rigorous checking of telephone circuits required in
the broadcast field:
It is probable that only a small fraction of the millions of listeners have the slightest
knowledge of the men sweating behind the scenes, in radio. They listen to a broadcast as a simple, matter of fact
and connected narrative, without realizing that many men have worked for days - or, at the very least, for hours
- to make it possible. That is as it should be.
But it is these "unknown" workers, unseen, unheard and unsung,
who have produced a radio-minded nation which today accepts with utter calmness the voice of Col. Lindbergh speaking
from Tokyo, music from Chicago or an address from Rome.
October 20, 2013