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Electrical transcriptions, "recordings made exclusively for radio broadcasting" were widely used in the era of old-time radio, They provided material—from station-identification jingles and commercials to full-length programs—for use by local stations.
Physically, electrical transcriptions look much like long-playing records that were popular for decades. They differ from consumer-oriented recordings, however, in that they were "distributed to radio stations for the purpose of broadcast, and not for sale to the public.... The ET had higher quality audio than was available on consumer records" largely because they had less surface noise than commercial recordings,
Emergence of electrical transcriptions
Electrical transcriptions were created in the mid-1920s. Sources differ as to exactly when (and by whom) their creation occurred. A reference guide to music technology says that Marsh Laboratories, in Chicago, Illinois, produced the first electrical recordings in 1924, using the Autograph label. Meanwhile, a biography of Leopold Stokowski cites Western Electric Company as developing American electrical recording in 1925.
Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll are credited with being the first people to use recordings (albeit an older form predating electrical transcriptions) to distribute their Amos 'n' Andy program to stations other than their home station, WMAQ in Chicago. They used 78 RPM discs to provide two five-minute segments with a commercial break.
One audio historian wrote: "New methods of electronic reproduction and improved record material that produced very little background noise were developed ... By the end of the decade, the use of old phonograph music had largely been replaced by the new electrical transcription ... With the fidelity available, it was difficult to tell a transcription from the original artist." A 1948 ad for a disc manufacturer touted the use of transcriptions on the Voice of America, saying, "A substantial part of these daily programs is recorded and, due to the excellent quality of these transcriptions, such recorded portions cannot be distinguished from the live transmissions."
Electrical transcriptions were often used for recording programs in old-time radio. Using a recording speed of 331⁄3 revolutions per minute (in contrast to the 78 RPM speed that was then standard for records for home use), 15 minutes of material could be stored on one side of a typical 16-inch diameter transcription. In contrast, commercially available 78 RPM records lasted for only 3–4 minutes per side and "had very poor frequency response."
WOR was one of the first radio stations to broadcast transcriptions, beginning to use them in 1929. Other stations joined the trend until soon more than 100 were doing so, largely because "this new kind of recording made programming more flexible and improved sound." Dr. John R. Brinkley is generally credited with being the first performer to provide electrical transcriptions to radio stations. Brinkley's use of the then-new technology arose out of necessity when agencies of the federal government prevented him from crossing from Mexico into the United States to use telephone lines to connect to U.S. stations remotely. "Brinkley began recording ... onto electrical transcription discs and sending them across the border for later broadcast."
"Electrical transcriptions were indispensable from the mid '30s to the late '40s," wrote Dr. Walter J. Beaupre, who worked in radio before moving into academia.
As radio stations' demand for transcriptions grew, companies specializing in transcriptions grew to meet those demands. In October 1933, 33 companies competed in producing transcriptions. Subscribing to a major transcription service meant that a station received an initial group of transcriptions plus periodically issued new discs and a license allowing use of the material on the air. Typically, however, a station did not own the discs; "they were leased for as long as [the] station paid the necessary fees." Those fees typically ranged from $40 to $150 per week for eight 15-minute programs.
Customers for transcriptions were primarily smaller stations. Brewster and Broughton, in their book Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, wrote that transcriptions "lessened the reliance on the announcer/disc jockey and, because [a transcription] was made specifically for broadcast, it avoided record company litigation." They quoted Ben Selvin, who worked for a transcription company, as saying, "Most stations could not afford the orchestras and productions that went into the network radio shows, and so we supplied nearly 300 stations with transcriptions that frequently -— but not always — featured the most popular bands and vocalists." A slogan used in an advertisement for one transcription service might well have been applied to the industry as a whole, "TRANSCRIBED .. so that advertisers everywhere may have 'radio at its commercial best.'"
A 1948 ad for the transcription service World Broadcasting System contained a letter that praised the company. S.A. Vetter, assistant to the owner of WWPB, AM and FM stations in Miami, Florida. wrote, in part, "You will be interested in knowing that I consider the purchase of the World Feature Library as the best 'buy' I have made in my twenty-one years in Miami radio." The popularity of at least one library was indicated in another 1948 ad, this one for Standard Radio Transcription Services, Inc. The ad boasted that its Standard Program Library was "now serving over 700 stations." That same year, an ad for another transcription service, World Broadcasting System, said, "over 640 stations now use this great world library." Another such company, Associated Program Service, advertised its transcription library as being "Not the usual one-shot recording date ... not the routine disc or two ... but real continuity of performance ... a dependable, steady supply of fresh music ... great depth of titles."
Among the companies providing transcription services were radio networks. NBC began its electrical transcription service in 1934. Lloyd C. Egner, manager of electrical transcriptions at NBC wrote that with the NBC Syndicated Recorded Program Service (later named the RCA/NBC Thesaurus Library) the company sought "to make available to stations associated with NBC our extensive programming resources to help in the sale of their facilities to local advertisers." He added: "Each program series ... will be as completely programmed as if it were to be for a network client. In other words they will be designed to sell a sponsor's product or service." A 1948 ad for NBC's service touted "Now 25 better shows tailored for better programming at lower cost," adding that the company's material was "programmed and proven over 1000 radio stations." CBS also had a transcription division, Columbia Recording Corporation.
Capitol Records, better known for its popular recordings, also had a transcription service. An ad in the trade publication Broadcasting asked in a headline if the reader was "finding it tough to sell time?" The ad's text promoted 3,000 selections—with more added monthly—from Peggy Lee, Jan Garber, Johnny Mercer and other "top stars," adding, "more than 300 stations already use it."
One source estimated, "by the end of the 1930s, [transcription] services had built up a market of $10 million."
Transcription services' programming was not limited to music. Mystery, drama and other genres of programming were distributed via transcription. At least two transcribed dramas, I Was a Communist for the FBI and Bold Venture, were distributed to more than 500 stations each. NBC's transcription offerings included Aunt Mary (a soap opera), The Haunting Hour (a psychological mystery), The Playhouse of Favorites (a drama) and Modern Romances.
Use by advertisers
Advertisers found electrical transcriptions useful for distributing their messages to local stations. Spot advertising is said to have begun in the 1930s. "The spot announcements were easily produced and distributed throughout the country via electrical transcription" as an alternative to network advertising. In 1944, the spot jingle segment of transcriptions was estimated to have an annual value of $10 million.
Benefits for performers
Transcriptions proved advantageous for performers, especially musicians in the Big-Band Era. Using transcriptions helped them reach one audience via radio while making personal appearances in front of other audiences. Additionally, if more stations used their transcriptions, that increased the audience for their music even more. An item in a 1946 issue of Radio Mirror magazine noted: "Bing Crosby's transcription deal with Philco has started a rush of other sought-after radio performers for deals of a similar nature. Their advantages from such a setup include more free time and corporate setups to relieve their tax costs."
Government use of transcriptions
World War II brought a new use for electrical transcriptions—storage of audio material for broadcasting to people in the military. The American Forces Network began using ETs during that war and continued using them through 1998. More than 300,000 AFRTS electrical transcription discs are stored in a collection at the Library of Congress.
Transcriptions "were often used for ... government-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 ... the United States Government shipped many programs during wartime as transcriptions."
During the war, the federal government, in conjunction with the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, provided "approximately eight 15-minute transcribed programs every week to each of ... 35 college stations." The United States Department of War, United States Department of the Navy, United States Department of the Treasury and United States Office of Education contributed to production of programs related to the war effort, such as The Treasury Star Parade and You Can't Do Business with Hitler.
The demise of transcriptions
Beginning in the 1940s, two factors caused radio stations' use of transcriptions to diminish. After World War II, use of transcriptions diminished as disc jockeys became more popular. That increased popularity meant that stations began to use commercial recordings more than they had in the past. The trade magazine Billboard reported in a November 22, 1952, article, "Transcription libraries have come upon rough times, owing to the fact that records have largely taken the place of the old-fashioned E.T.'s."
In the 1940s, decreased demand caused transcription services to reduce the royalty they paid copyright owners from $15 per tune per year to $10 per tune per year. By 1952, still less demand resulted in negotiations for a percentage of gross sales to replace the flat fee.
By late 1959, at least two transcription service companies had gone out of business, selling their libraries to a company that provided recorded background music on tapes and discs. The purchaser acquired a total of approximately 12,000 selections from the two companies.
Magnetic tape and tape recorders became popular at radio stations after World War II, taking over the functions that transcriptions had served. Tape's advantages included lower cost, higher fidelity, more recording time, possibility of re-use after erasing, and ease of editing.
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