Transcriptions – Radio Music Services

In the 1930s and 40s, as Canadian radio stations increased their time on the air from a few hours a week to 18 hours a day (and in the forties would go to 24 hours a day), finding programming to fill those hours became a challenge. Phonographs records were a help, but the output of the few pioneer record companies was insufficient to fill the needs of Canadian broadcasters. Further, to attract listeners and advertisers to radio, the stations had to come up with various types of programming that could simulate and compete with the live shows available in Canada over the air via the American radio networks, and which could be sold to local advertisers.

For example, the NBC and CBS networks offered such sponsored musical programs as The American Album of Familiar Music, Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, The Carnation Contented Hour, Waltz Time, The Firestone Hour, and programs featuring (among others) popular American orchestras such as Wayne King, Guy Lombardo, Ben Bernie, Fred Waring, Benny Goodman, Glen Gray, and Andre Kostelanetz. Network house orchestras were the mainstay of hour-long daily variety programs such as ABC’s Breakfast Club and Club Matinee. Canadian stations found that they could simulate programs of this type using pre-recorded music. The problem was, where could they get enough of it?

In the mid-30s, with the advent of the electrical transcription, there emerged a number of American producers of pre-recorded music whose output became known as “library services”. New York was headquarters for four companies – World Broadcasting System Inc, Associated Broadcasting Company (affiliated with Muzak), Lang-Worth (owned by Sy Langlois) and Thesaurus (produced by the Radio-Recording Division of NBC). Hollywood was home to the Standard Program Library and C. P. MacGregor (a pioneer in transcribed dramatic programs), and in the forties, a division of Capitol Records.

Physically, their electrical transcriptions looked like the yet-to-be-invented 12-inch microgroove long-playing (LP) records, except they were 16-inches in diameter. They, too, revolved at 33.1/3 rpm, but because of the wider 1-mil groove, could accommodate only 15-minutes of playing time. Again, unlike the LP, the selections on the disc were not connected. Depending on the length of each piece of music, the number of tracks per side usually ranged from 4 to 6, but could be more as the length of a track was not limited to the conventional 78 rpm record maximum of 3 ¼ minutes.

These libraries of music were not retailed but were leased to radio stations – a basic supply of perhaps 200 discs, with a commitment to furnish around 4 new discs per month. While stations could program the music in any way they wished, for several years the music services also provided on a weekly basis scripts for a number of programs that could save a station the cost of choosing the music themselves. The transcriptions were filed in numbered folders in special steel cabinets designed to hold 200. In metropolitan markets, the services were non-exclusive and some stations subscribed to three or four.

Most of the big bands of the 30s and 40s, and many singers not on domestic record labels, recorded at one time or another for the ET libraries. In the early years, they adopted pseudonyms to mask their identity against the day when they might be hired by an advertiser for a network radio program, and could guarantee exclusivity. On World, Benny Goodman was identified as “Bill Dodge”; Ozzie Nelson was “Bill Burton”; Isham Jones was “Jimmy Hale”; Hal Kemp was “Hal Keen”; Russ Morgan was both “Ralph Martin” and “Reed Murray”. Goodman, in an all-day session for Thesaurus, recorded an unusually large number of tracks under the moniker “The Rhythm Makers” – an umbrella title for subsequent recordings by Joe Haymes, Les Brown and Artie Shaw. Shaw’s vocalists were given aliases (but no name could hide the unique voice of Tony Pastor who was called “Bill Ralston”).

Pseudonyms were also found for rising vocal stars like Frank Parker, Bea Wain, Evelyn MacGregor, Dick Robertson, Margaret Speaks, Thomas L. Thomas, and Jan Peerce, who under the name of “Paul Robinson”, rose to international fame on radio with his World transcription of The Bluebird of Happiness, which, for years, was not available as a record.

The “pseudonym era” didn’t last for long, and the library services started to create their own orchestras and musical groups and to record the big bands under their own names. The bandleaders began to recognize the promotional value of airplay in popularizing their brand of music – in supporting the sale of their records and their one-night stands across the USA and Canada.

The library services provided a wide variety of music – from swing to symphony – from country to classic – special arrangements of themes for programs – production music for radio dramas, fanfares, sound effects and even 3-minute comedy skits. Examples of the latter wereThe Honeymooners starring Grace and Eddie Albert, Senator Frankenstein Fishface, Pinky Lee, and Joey and Chuck). Another feature was The Tune Detective in which Dr. Sigmund Spaeth detected plagiarisms in music. Of course, library service music could be included in any program and it greatly supplemented the then meager stock of music on phonograph records.

From Day One and until tape recording was perfected, library service transcriptions were recorded “direct-to-disc”. Each number was rehearsed, then recorded on the master of the 16-inch disc. If a performer hit a wrong note on a number, recording stopped and the master was scrapped. All numbers previously recorded to that point had to be re-recorded on a new master, and so on, until all tracks had been completed, Fluffs ran up the talent bill, especially when a large orchestra was used.

Originally, the World and Associated transcriptions were recorded vertically, which entailed a station equipping its turntables with second pickup arms with a diamond or sapphire stylus. Later, dual purpose lateral/vertical pickup arms were invented. Some early transcriptions were made starting at the inside of the disc. Cueing to the start of the music was also a problem as it could take from 3 to 4 turns on the average, and sometimes longer. Until cueing amplifiers were introduced, an operator had to count the number of turns and then re-cue to a half-turn less.

In the mid-40s, the phonograph record market was flooded with a flock of new labels as independent non-affiliated network radio stations popped-up everywhere. The record industry introduced two new speeds – 33.1/3 and 45 rpms. In radio, quarter and half-hour programs disappeared as stations began to program large blocks of records of popular music, hosted by disc jockeys. The need for and use of library services gradually diminished, and by the mid-60s they were gone.

Most of the 16-inch discs and their “priceless music” ended in garbage dumps, but some were rescued by avid record collectors. As copyrights in the master records expired, entrepreneurs transferred to LPs and CDs hundreds of tracks (especially those made by the big bands) and made them available to the public. Some were on the market even during the 50-year protection period.

While the American music libraries were fading from the scene, in 1962 a transcription library service was created in Canada by Standard Broadcasting Corporation. The Canadian Talent Library (CTL) was set up as a realistic and practical vehicle to help Canadian broadcasters meet the demands of the Government for greater employment of Canadian performers and a larger presence of Canadian talent in their programming.

Written by J. Lyman Potts – September 2005