I think the first time I ever saw one Nat King Cole was using it. Then again it may have been Frank Sinatra or could have been Hoagy Carmichael. See, when I was a boy in the 1950’s, they came into my living room, by way of television. It was a new thing then, television, and everybody was excited about it, couldn’t get enough of it, it seemed. Reception wasn’t very good and always seemed to be at its worst when there was a show on you really wanted to see, sort of like cell phone reception today; hitting a dead spot at the most important part of a conversation.
The early TV’s had small oval screens in large wooden cabinets similar to the ones used to house radios in the 1930’s. The vertical and horizontal controls were used frequently, you see, the picture always seemed to roll one way or the other. Seems funny to me that people now watch videos on tiny iPod or cell phone screens.
Johnny Pekoc was our television repairman. He made house calls. My curiosity always piqued when he brought in his toolbox, slid the TV away from the wall and removed the pegboard masonite back. That mass of wires and tubes inside was more than enough to fascinate any eight year old boy. Johnny was a nice man, a Korean War veteran, who had decided television repair was the future. He was patient too, took the time to answer all my questions. When my mother would tell me not to bother him, he would reply, “Naw, that’s alright, curiosity is a good thing.”
Looking into the back of that old TV set for the first time, I expected to see something other than tubes and wires. I expected to see Sid Cesar and Imogene Coca, Loretta Young, Milton Berle, Perry Como, Nat, or Frank or Hoagy, but instead it was just a mass of electronics. “Where’s all those people I see on the TV, how do they get through those wires and tubes?” I asked Johnny once. My eyes grew wide at his reply. He said simply, “Magic.” And I believed him.
No matter how well it works initially, the newness of technology fuels excitement.
In the late 1940’s RCA developed a new microphone, the RCA 77. The 77 would become the industry standard until it was discontinued in 1967. RCA also created an icon in that, this new microphone became known throughout the world as a symbol of what we think of when we think of a microphone. It’s what Nat and Frank and Hoagy were singing into when they magically appeared on our living room TV. Elvis sang Hound Dog into one on the Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan Shows. Johnny Carson used one and David Letterman had one of Johnny’s on his desk for years. Even Larry King uses a dummy one; its physical presence creates an image that still says, “vintage microphone.”
The RCA 77 is what is known as a ribbon microphone and resembles a large capsule. It had numerous adjustments, new technology, which expanded its versatility over its predecessor, the RCA 44. The 44 is a microphone that conjures up a slightly different era to me, a young and very skinny Frank Sinatra crooning to swooning girls, of Billie Holiday and Edward R. Morrow’s December 7th broadcast. It was the microphone of the war years with its flat angular physical planes.
Ribbon microphones like the 44 and the 77 produce a rich warm sound. Today the mic of choice is the condenser microphone. Its voice is sharper, crisper, lot more high end. They’re the style of the day, the sound people want to hear, the current technology.
I spent a mess of years in broadcasting. For a long time I was a disc jockey. Back in October of 1966 this seventeen year old kid climbed on a train in Aurora, Illinois and 26 hours later arrived in New York City. I went there to attend the Career Academy School of Famous Broadcasters. Once I was actually working in radio I discovered the consensus was that broadcast schools were definitely not the away to go if you really wanted to get into the business.
Coming from a small mid-western farm town of two thousand people and knowing absolutely nothing about radio, going to a school in New York City actually turned out to be a good thing. I learned a lot just being in the city. Our instructor was a radio guy named Jim Scott. He looked a bit like Steve Allen and although I think he would rather have been working at some New York station than teaching radio wannabees, he was tolerant and helpful.
The first class convened just over two hours after my train arrived at Grand Central Station. We assembled at the school on 40th Street, across from the library. It was sort of an orientation session. The main speaker that morning was a man whose name I can’t remember, but he’d been in the business, his name just wasn’t familiar to me. Apparently he had something to do with the school. I was still a bit overwhelmed just being in New York City that morning, everything was new and a bit of a blur. But, that morning he said something I have never forgotten. He said, “The most important thing you can learn here is to become and always strive to be a good broadcaster.”
Up until that point I always looked at them as radio guys or disc jockeys, but the way he said it added a great deal of weight to the term, “Broadcaster.” As it turned out, it was an excellent piece of advice.
Prior to 1922 the term “Broadcast” meant, “to scatter or sow, as with seeds or to make widely known.” Growing up in a farm town that was a meaning I understood. After 1922 the word quickly came to mean, “…to transmit or makepublic by means of radio,” later the definition included “or television.”
I have always had great respect for good broadcasters and there’s been a lot of them, Fred Foy and Don Pardo, Lowell Thomas, Winchell, a news guy I worked with Chris Stanley was awful good and there were a couple disc jockeys in Chicago, Franklin McCormack and Joel Sebastian.
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