Electrical Transcription

Fessenden invented radio broadcasting. Bell invented the Telephone. Berliner invented the Spring-Driven Gramophone and the Lateral Disc Record. Thanks to these three men, pioneer radio broadcasters were able to establish, sustain and expand a revolutionary service to mankind.

From 1919 to 1927, Canada’s first broadcasters struggled along using only these “tools” to inform and entertain the public. The telephone transmitter (mouthpiece), which gradually developed into a microphone, was the sole means to convert live voices and entertainers on gramophone records, into electrical impulses to be fed into the AM radio transmitter. Lacking proper microphones, the gramophone records themselves were made by placing musicians and singers in front of the bell of a horn connected to a recording stylus. The sound of the music passed through the horn to the diaphragm associated mechanically with the stylus, vibrating it as it cut corresponding grooves in the wax master. Gramophone records pressed from these masters were broadcast over radio stations by placing a microphone in front of a hand-wound Victrola (one of several trade names).

The records made by the “acoustic” process had a frequency range of only 350 to 3,000 cycles, whereas the range of the live music by the performers could be from 30 to 12,000. The reproduction of the record could be further impaired by the limited quality of the radio station’sVictrola and microphone.

Broadcasters and record buyers the world over waited impatiently for inventors to come up with an electronic method of vibrating the stylus and the creation of an electronic pick-up head that would improve quality and permit the removal of the Victrolas from the control room.

In 1924, in the U.S., Dr. F.B. Jewitt, working with scientists at Western Electric, finally developed such an electronic system, thereby in effect archiving the acoustic record, and in the summer of 1925 Victor and Columbia, followed by Brunswick, started marketing records made electronically. Western Electric began making electronic pick-ups, and radio stations installed 10-inch electric 78 rpm turntables.

Record buyers were accustomed to listening to 12 inch records that gave them up to 4 minutes of music, but the radio broadcasters hoped for longer playing records to make their life easier and perhaps have better quality. They also wanted to get that gramophone with its big horn out of the studio/operating room. Their dreams came true with the invention of the “electrical transcription”.

The Webster Dictionary defined it as:

“1. a phonograph record especially designed for use in radio broadcasting; 2. a radio program broadcast from an electrical transcription”

The word “transcription” had served to identify a work originally written in one form and copied, arranged or adapted perhaps in an art form or in other media. One example is a song on a gramophone record originally available only as sheet music. The record itself could be classed as a member of the transcription family, (as, indeed, could an audio or video-taped recording, filmed movie, LP or CD), but the term through common usage came to apply solely to a long-form device made and used only for radio broadcasting and such music program services as Muzak. In radio broadcasting throughout the world, an electrical transcription or transcription would be visualized as a single or doubled sided record which was 16-inches in diameter and revolved at a speed of 33.3 rpm, using the same stylus as for a 78 rpm disc, and affording up to 15 minutes of entertainment – music, comedy, drama or other fare – per side. It looked like an oversized 12.inch LP. Had the micro-groove record been invented by the late 20s, the 16-inch concept would have been abandoned. A 30-minute radio drama took up two sides; an hour show, 4 sides on 2 discs. To enable uninterrupted presentation, parts one and two were recorded on separate discs. But if it was an episode in a series of programs, tomorrow’s or next week’s show could be pressed on the reverse sides. For about 40 years, 16-inch and 12-inch transcriptions also were used extensively for national commercial radio announcements.

A production hazard in the making of any early recordings or transcriptions was that if the actors or musicians made one mistake, the master had to be scrapped and the recording session would have to start from the beginning. When sound tape-recording came into professional usage, the program or tracks would first be taped, and after the session, the “perfect” copies dubbed to the master disc. This was a great saving in talent and studio overtime costs.

In the early making of records and transcriptions, wax masters were used. However, wax was replaced in the mid 30’s by lacquer-coated aluminum discs. During WW II, aluminum for this purpose was hard to come by and plate glass replaced the metal. Breakage of a glass master was an ongoing hazard, especially in shipping.

It took a few years for the Dr. Jewitt 1925 invention to be developed and to have the “electrical transcription”, and the related machines to play them on, installed in radio stations across the continent. It was not until the late 1930’s that most stations were so equipped.

In the 30’s and 40’s, there were two methods of recording transcriptions, the vertical process which required a diamond or sapphire-equipped pick-up head. But most transcribed-program producers adopted the lateral process, but in all cases pick-up arms were lengthened to accommodate 16 inch turntables. Until vacuum tubes were attached to the cutting head to remove the peeling-off thread, some transcriptions were made with the stylus beginning on the inside of the disc. In the mid-30s, radio stations were able to buy recording equipment and make their own transcriptions. Usually, the unit would be mounted on an existing turntable in a second control room and was thus able to make recordings at either 78 or 33.3 rpms. Often they were referred to as “soft cuts” and sound-wise were not as durable as a pressed record. Unlike mass-produced recordings, they were not mastered and primarily were used only on the station itself, mostly for local advertisers’ commercials. However, sometimes copies were dubbed for broadcast on a small number of stations. During WW II, local stations recorded programs of personal messages to men and women in Canada’s armed forces from family members, and the recordings were sent to war zones for broadcast on military stations. The CBC often used “soft-cut” transcriptions for “delayed broadcasts” of actualities and speech that could not be carried earlier. The soft-cut records also were used to make archival copies or air-checks of regular broadcast programs.

In the early 30s, the electrical transcription came to the rescue of Canada’s radio pioneers at a crucial time. The Canadian government was considering nationalization of Canadian radio – and Parliament went on to pass The Canadian Radio Broadcasting Act, which on May 16, 1932, subjected private stations to the control of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission. The Act was repealed and replaced by the Canadian Broadcasting Act, which came into force November 2, 1936, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation established the CBC network. During this era, the CRBC and the CBC regulations were such as to seriously threaten the survival of private stations. With the exception of the CBC and five private stations in Toronto, Montreal and Windsor whose long-standing arrangements were grandfathered, no other Canadian stations could have any connection with a U.S. network. The aim of the CBC was to control and reduce the number of hours of American programs that the Canadian public could listen to. Preventing or limiting the acquisition of U.S. programs by Canadian stations via telecommunications was only the first step.

Cut-off from obtaining the kind of feature programs they needed to attract listeners and generate the revenue needed to serve their communities 18 hours-a-day, private broadcasters were left with only their ingenuity. Fortunately, some enterprising producers in the United States had begun to produce excellent radio programs using electrical transcriptions and they became a staple as indispensable as did filmed and taped television programs two decades later. The stations could buy the rights for their areas and hopefully sell the programs to local or regional businesses to advertise their products.

Some national and regional Canadian companies also turned to transcribed programs to compete against the invasion of advertising of products not manufactured in Canada. For example, the Great-West Garment Company based in Edmonton sponsored The Lone Ranger on a number of western stations. International companies which did business in the four time zones in the United States (and in Canada’s five) found electrical transcriptions more efficient than networks in reaching audiences at better times. For one, Coca Cola for their daily quarter-hour of Singin’ Sam, could buy twelve o’ clock noon from the Atlantic to the Pacific. If they used a network, listeners in New York and Montreal would hear Singin’ Sam at 12 noon, but in San Francisco and Vancouver three hours earlier at 9 am.

In the early thirties, a company in Montreal hired Montreal organist Leo Lesuer for a series of fifteen-minute transcriptions titled The Winchester Organ of Romance, for which it was able to obtain suitable late evening time across Canada.

Even before the CBC was established in 1936, one of the biggest advertisers on radio, Procter and Gamble, made electrical transcriptions of two of its daily programs on the NBC network, Ma Perkins and Road of Life, and bought mid-morning time on Canadian stations across the country.

The importation of U.S. programs by transcription annoyed and angered CRBC and CBC officials. Not to be thwarted in their campaign to reduce Canadian listening to U.S. programs, and overlooking the fact that Canadian talent was starting to be employed in the production of transcriptions, CBC invoked a regulation banning the use of any prerecorded programming after 7.30 pm. The CBC also had antipathy for 2 stations carrying the same program and created another regulation, which effectively could be interpreted to forbid the use of transcriptions to achieve the broadcasting of a program simultaneously on two or more stations other than by a network. One CBC chairman even threatened to ban the use of all transcriptions.

(It is worth noting that when the CBC opened for business in 1936, the CBC Commercial Department sold P&G the hour 3.00-4.00 pm EST for simultaneous carriage of Ma Perkins and three other of its soap operas on NBC, and went on to sell P&G 30 minutes for two more. The private stations which had carried Ma Perkins and Road of Life by transcription lost them to the CBC)

The regulations also stipulated that any station broadcasting any program of records or transcribed program at any time of day must advise listeners that it was recorded or transcribed and make an entry on station logs using the letters “AM”, indicating that the announcement had been duly and truly made. This also applied to transcribed public service messages and commercials of any length. Listeners consistently were subjected to hearing “the following is transcribed”. (Think how TV viewers would react to such an announcement before every TV commercial and pre-filmed or pre-taped program.)

These, and other regulations that hampered Canadian broadcasting and listening over succeeding years, were gradually eased, modified or abolished. Finally, in 1958, the CBC’s power to regulate all broadcasting was removed, and vested in a separate body – The Board of Broadcast Governors later to changed to the Canadian Radio & Television Commision.

In retrospect, it is obvious that the CBC regulations inhibiting or restraining the use of electrical transcriptions were a cover for its resolve to curb Canadian citizens’ listening to American-produced programs. The principal target was not really the transcription but what was imbedded on those that were imported from the U.S. The CBC’s intent, without offending the United States, could (for example) well have read “Radio programs produced in countries other than in Canada shall not be broadcast between 7.30 and 11.00 PM. ” Still, the CBC also saw the transcription of a program (even a Canadian program) as a vehicle that could be used to facilitate the use of two or more private stations to simulate a “network” or a “hookup”.

There was no justification for the required identification of “an electrical transcription” of commercial announcements or commissioned or syndicated programs as they were produced solely for broadcasting. The use of gramophone records was something else.

Despite the CBC’s antipathy for electrical transcriptions they survived and, until they were superseded by audio tape, had become in the 30s, 40s and 50s an indispensable resource in radio broadcasting.

J. Lyman Potts – 2004

For more about the importance of the electrical transcription to radio see Transcriptions – Radio Music Services