( Originally Published 1932 )
EVERYBODY in the advertising world knows the difference between the two types of radio broadcasting, because it is our business to do so. We under-stand that the electrical principles are alike in both instances. In a direct broadcast—that is with live talent in front of the microphone—the sound waves are converted into electrical impulses and are instantly transmitted to the listener. In a recorded program, the sound waves are converted into electrical impulse in the same way but the transmission of the program to the listener is simply delayed. The sound of the speaker's voice in front of the microphone in the studio passes through over fifty changes before it emerges as sound from the loud-speaker in your home and yet the introduction of electrical transcription adds only two more changes to the fifty. These two changes take care of the delay between the singing of the song in front of the microphone and our hearing of the song a week, a month, or a year later. A direct "in-person" broadcast restricts the advertiser to the use of stations that are connected together by telephone lines. A delayed broadcast, or recorded program, makes it possible to use stations wherever the express company can deliver a package of records. What the listener hears in the case of either program may be nearly the same—but let me emphasize the word "nearly."
We are all familiar with electrical transcriptions that sound weak, sour or muffled and that have far too much surface noise. They hurt the cause of electrical transcriptions because they were not produced right. The acoustics of the recording room were wrong—the wax disc wasn't at the right temperature when cut—or the recording equipment wasn't up to standard—or some serious defect exists which is not in our province to point out but is the responsibility of the recording company. All of us have tuned out badly recorded programs of this kind and pondered cynically over what they were doing to the radio audience.
On the other hand I think it is safe to say that most of us have heard high-grade transcriptions and believed them to be direct broadcasts until the radio station announcer came in at the end with his inevitable label insisted upon by the Federal Radio Commission, "This program is an electrical transcription for broadcast purposes exclusively."
This latter sort of program, the highest type of recording, has without question almost all the tonal qualities of a direct broadcast. This statement can be made with assurance because it is entirely possible for an electrical transcription record to carry almost everything that the orchestra or the voice has sent into the microphone. The leading broadcasting stations, using a modern transmitting apparatus, are capable of sending out a signal with a frequency range of from 60 cycles on the low end to 5,000 cycles on the high end, and recordings produced for broadcasting purposes should be capable of carrying registered impulses of at least this frequency range. A good record goes beyond this and has a frequency range of from 30 cycles to 9,000 cycles. Why is this necessary? The answer is simple when we consider that it takes this range to cover all the instruments used in the orchestra from the lowest bass voice to the highest soprano. The standard piano of eight octaves has a range of from 26 cycles to 8,000 cycles. Thus, in order to take in all the orchestral instruments and human voices, this wide range of frequency is necessary, and a properly recorded pro-gram carries it all. Therefore, if a recorded program sounds weak and thin we are not getting the full worth of our money because we are not hearing everything in the band.
All of which is another way of saying that for all practical purposes recorded programs may bring the listener as fine and as faithful a reproduction of the music or the speech as a direct broadcast if the transcription is properly prepared, and if the pick-up equipment at the station is right.
Assuming that recorded programs meet our standards of quality, where can they be used to best advantage? I think the answer is very simple. They can be used wherever the networks are inadequate. The basic net-works of the NBC Red Chain and Columbia include twenty-one stations. If your advertiser wants to cover only twelve cities, a recorded program will serve him. At the other extreme, the largest possible number of stations which can be secured on a chain is seventy-nine. Chevrolet needed twice that number. Recorded programs were the only answer—and there were 162 stations on the list —forty-six NBC, thirty-nine Columbia and seventy-seven independent.
In between these two extremes perhaps all of us have had the experience of attempting to match up one of the chain networks with some client's branch or distributor list. When they are nearly parallel, the chain certainly gets the business; when they are not, a recorded program is the alternative.
There are many other tremendous advantages in recorded spot broadcasting. One of the most important is the time factor. Not only can we buy as many or as few stations as we desire, but we can almost pick our own time for a program to go on. A chain broadcast originating in New York at 8 P.M. is heard of course in San Francisco at 5 P.M. In spot broadcasting we have the opportunity to ask for an evening hour, and if we can't get it on one night of the week, we can get it on another. This flexibility in time has another aspect. Perhaps an advertiser isn't ready to go into one section of the country with his message but he is very anxious to start in some other part of the territory. Of course he can do this in recorded spot broadcasting. He can do the same thing with a local studio program, but it has been the experience of many advertisers that it is very difficult to put on local studio programs and preserve a standard of quality and showmanship right across the country. There are many wonderful studios with staff orchestras and entertainers who can do a splendid job with a piece of continuity, but for large coverage and with a great mass of stations this could hardly be expected. Fortunately, with the high quality of recordings available today this system need not be resorted to, except in the few cases where stations will not accept recorded pro-grams. However, as there are only ten such stations out of a total of nearly six hundred commercial stations in the country, they are hardly a factor.
With the exception of these ten the rest are anxious for a certain amount of spot business because it gives them seven or eight times as much revenue. For instance, the Chase & Sanborn program which featured Maurice Chevalier at $3,800 per program of one hour was heard in Detroit for only half of the hour. The station cut off the other half to put on a good recorded program which paid them eight times as much as they got from the chain.
Recorded programs have another point to recommend them, such as eliminating the necessity of two broadcasts per night—of which Amos 'n' Andy is an example. This costly method is used, of course to reach the east and the west at favorable time periods. Recorded pro-grams also permit the advertiser to proofread his pro-gram before it goes on the air. The program is recorded and then played back to the advertiser who constitutes an intensely interested and frequently highly critical audience of one. When the recording is released to the station for broadcasting it has all the careful proofreading of a Saturday Evening Post advertisement. These are important features of spot broadcasting, but after all, doesn't the big advantage lie in the fact that the advertiser may pick and choose the cream of the time and the cream of all of the NBC, Columbia, and independent stations and take as many or as few of them as he desires?
In order that no one may have the impression that we are partial to recorded spot broadcasting, let me say that I would favor a chain program whenever it could possibly be used in the interests of the advertiser. There can certainly be no doubt but that it is number one in popularity with the listener. There is a romance and fascination about enjoying a song or a speech and knowing that the "flesh and blood artist" is standing there in front of the microphone, a thousand miles away, speaking or singing right to you. We all like it—we are all for it—and we would undoubtedly never depart from it if it could be made to serve the varying needs of our advertisers; but when the direct broadcast over a given group of stations does not serve, it is very pleasant to realize there is an alternative which can be put to work and which has been developed to an exceedingly high point in three short years.
Perhaps an amusing example of recorded spot broadcasting reduced to the lowest degree might be interesting here. Our agency had planned a recorded program for an advertiser because the territory he wanted to cover could only be served by spot broadcasting. It looked like a pretty nice piece of business and a pretty pretentious program, but due to conditions, the advertiser commenced to cut his schedule. Station after station was struck from the list with the blue pencil. Opening day for the program was put further and further away. Finally there was nothing left but two stations, and any self-respecting radio department would ordinarily hand what was left of the schedule back to the advertiser and suggest that he buy some high-grade newspaper advertising measuring about two inches on one column. However, we hated to see any advertiser backslide after being so close to going on the air, so with the assistance of a transcription company we made up a cueing record on which was recorded a special theme song and opening announcement. By using the double turntables with which every studio is equipped, we alternate back and forth between the cueing record and the best of the popular orchestra records taken right off the shelf. The result is a very happy advertiser. He's only sorry that the two cities on his schedule aren't New York and San Francisco so he can call it a coast-to-coast broadcast.
Seriously, though, this advertiser has found a way to use the great power of radio with the best of announcers, the best of talent, and yet on just two stations. We are enthusiastic about this little account because we feel that his message is going to percolate into other territories where other jobbers are going to ask for similar support and we expect that schedule to grow just as fast as it ought to grow and no faster. In fact the advertiser is calling on jobbers at this moment with his recorded program under his arm. If he gets the order they get the pro-gram. This little incident simply shows the elasticity and flexibility of recorded spot broadcasting. Perhaps this same advertiser will have a schedule of recorded programs as soon as the number of stations will warrant it, and after that perhaps we shall put him on one of the chains if they offer a parallel to his distribution. Perhaps even beyond that he may revert again to recorded spot broadcasting if his business builds up where he requires one hundred stations or more.
The perplexing thing in recorded spot broadcasting is where to have recordings made. Which firm excels in program arrangement, in equipment, and the highest grade recording? It is pretty difficult for a layman to sit down and listen to a dozen electrical transcriptions submitted by a dozen producers and put his finger on the one that is actually best. We don't all hear perfectly—we don't know just what to look for—and oftentimes we don't recognize what is missing. In fact it has been proven that most of us have defects in hearing. We don't all pick up the same things.
However, like almost every other problem, this one yields to analysis so that if we cannot say with assurance, "This is the best recording made," we can at least know for a certainty that we have picked one of the best. And if every one charged with the selection of recordings would come that close to the target, electrical transcriptions would have a higher standing with the public.
The common types of reproducing apparatus are quite unsuitable for testing electrical transcriptions, as only very carefully designed and engineered equipment will actually disclose the true nature of a recording. There is an audition test which will determine with reasonable certainty whether a transcription is suitable for broad-casting from a technical standpoint.
The larger electrical companies have in their various offices throughout the country demonstration apparatus of a highly perfected character which will reproduce faith-fully the perfections and imperfections of any recording. This perfected equipment, though costly to make, is now being offered by lease arrangements to advertising agencies for installation and use in their offices. How-ever, any one wishing to have records tested may take them to the offices of these electrical companies and obtain information without charge. It is also possible to go beyond this test, and have "frequency range analysis" made of any recording to determine its true values.
There are several laboratories which perform this service, and there is the Bureau of Standards in Washington which will also give the answer.
Here are a few points which must be regarded if a satisfactory transcription broadcast is to result:
1. Is recorded speech distinct and crisp?
2. Is the upper or lower register cut off? Is there proper brilliance in the music, or, on the other hand, evidence of over-loading, causing "muddiness" in reproduction?
3. Is there any flutter or discord on sustained notes, indicating improper speed regulation of either the recording machinery, or reproducing apparatus?
All of these factors are watched and checked in the good recording studio and the degree of perfection which may be attained at point of broadcast is primarily de-pendent upon a combination of two fundamentals:
1. Have the recordings the proper sibilance of the speaking voice, the definition and brilliance of the higher register, the depth and mellowness of the lower?
2. Is the apparatus to be used for reproducing the recording at the station capable of responding fully to the characteristics in the record?
In other words, do these two essential elements match? Coming down to more simple tests, it is a very easy thing to compare recordings. Our own policy is to compare a questionable recording with one which we think is good.
We have a line piped into our radio department from station WJR and the records to be compared are played on twin turntables at the station. We hear them through our receiving set. If the singer's words are not crisp and clear-cut; if both the lower tones and the higher tones are not well defined and full, we have the chance to find it out by comparing it with the other recording by switching back and forth between the two records on the twin turntables.
If there is one orchestra instrument more than another which stamps a poor recording, it is a piano solo.. If a marvelous Steinway sounds like a ten-cent-store piano, there is something wrong. Also, the best recorders are delighted to have you hear their violin solos, but a poor recording makes a violin's sustained note a wavering and sickly thing. Undoubtedly all of us have tuned them out many times.
Surface noise, or needle scratch, has been criticized somewhat, and some recordings are advocated for their quietness. However, a recording which has been burnished down to remove surface noise is in danger of having some of the recorded characteristics wiped off at the same time, thereby damaging the quality of the music.
Still another type of recording which is to be avoided in the interests of a good program and the future welfare of transcriptions is the so-called "dubbed" program. There are several good-sized "dubbed" programs on the air to-day which are undoubtedly sold on a price basis. If a recorded program is a first cousin to a direct broad-cast, then a "dubbed" program is a second cousin at the very least, because a "dubbed" program is not made with live talent in front of the microphone but is recorded from records taken off the shelf. In other words, a "dubbing" is a recording made from another record. Obviously, there is some loss of quality just as there is a tremendous saving of expense in artists and orchestra. The exploiting of a poor recording, either "dubbed" or otherwise, is one of those passing things which is to be expected in a new industry. As long as the buyer is care-less in selecting, there will always be those to sell an inferior product.
In the case of an electrical transcription program made up for an advertiser who has had no experience with this medium, it is quite understandable that when the advertiser hears the lively music and the marvelous sound of his own name engraved in wax, he is apt to think it is pretty good—especially if he has nothing to compare it with. He perhaps does not have a trained musical ear, and here's a pleasant new kind of advertising which he doesn't even have to read. He just sits back and hears a snappy dance band and couple of hundred words about his product. He O. K.'s the job and one more inferior electrical transcription is blasted over the countryside—and thousands of radio listeners walk across the room and tune to another station.
However, if we are not all trained musicians with the ability to pick the poor records from the good, we all know something about business and business methods. Certainly a careful study of all the firms in the business of producing electrical transcriptions should bring out facts upon which we can base our conclusions. Who are these recording people? What are their affiliations? What is their experience and background? What do they know about creative service in radio from a musical and a directing standpoint? What kind of engineering and production service do they offer? What is their experience in recording? What are the facilities for playing their product at the stations? What field service do they give?
Such a study narrows down the field to the best class of recording companies and, in addition, we have the station managers with whom we deal to tell us what they think about the various electrical transcriptions now on the market.
Considering the great progress made by recorded spot broadcasting in four years' time we all wonder what its future will be. Certainly if conditions in radio were to remain as they are we could expect an enormous growth in recorded spot broadcasting as more and more advertisers come to learn about it. Certainly the surface has only been scratched in this direction.
The fact that the radio stations, when they play an electrical transcription program enjoy a revenue from the advertiser several times as large as that which they receive from a chain program, assures the growth of recordings, and furthermore, assures for recorded programs the pick of the best broadcasting hours.
There are other factors such as synchronization and television which will play a part. Perhaps with the coming of synchronization many stations now on chains will look to recorded programs to supply them with their finest offerings. Especially would this be true of the stations having little local talent for studio programs and which have depended upon the networks for their quality pro-grams. Certainly with synchronization a factor or with-out it, the real reasons for spot broadcasting will still exist. The advertiser still needs to match his distribution, he still needs flexibility in station selection.
As for television and its effect upon recorded spot broadcasting, who can really prophesy? Wouldn't it seem logical, however, to believe that if you could see Anna Case sing via television you wouldn't much worry whether her voice was coming to you from a record, or sound-on-film, or from an "in person broadcast." The movies are crowded with people who want to see Charlie Chaplin in "City Lights." The fact that Charlie may be in Europe, and they are just looking at a film doesn't bother them. And note how quickly sound films took hold in theaters, displacing the time-honored orchestra. By the same token isn't it logical to believe that the radio enthusiast, sitting in his home, seeing John McCormack as well as hearing him, would not be greatly concerned whether a movie film and an electrical transcription, or sound films, were used to supply him with that entertainment or whether the artist is engaged in a personal broad-cast. In other words, may not television help recorded spot broadcasting?
About the future, perhaps one man's guess is as good as another's, but for the present we know that recorded programs are doing a great job and may be expected to gain in standing and acceptability with the radio audience if their watchword is "quality." It seems to me there can be little doubt that a sustained quality pro-gram with the most intelligent announcer, with the most careful planning of structure and with the world's best in entertainment, will succeed, whether it's a direct broad-cast or a recorded program. But the program should be superlative. Like Caesar's wife, it should be above reproach. If any program needs big names and famous orchestras, it is the transcription program. Big name talent presupposes quality in the recording. The audience does not expect a great singer, a great dramatist or a great statesman to be identified with anything inferior. By employing the finest talent for his transcription pro-gram, the advertiser does not risk the charge of cheapness. And if all advertisers build their transcriptions with quality foremost, transcriptions will come to be known as quality broadcasts. The public recognizes quality and, if they are trained to expect the finest of entertainment when they tune in on a program week after week, they'll think less and less about whether it is direct or recorded. They will judge it for what it really is, they will judge it on the sincerity, skill and talent that have gone into it. In other words, doesn't the real future of the recorded program lie in its quality?