From 1928 until 1943, NBC operated two networks— the “Blue,” which in the latter year became the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), and the “Red,” the more commercial of the two. In NBC’s San Francisco studios, the announcers’ booth contained a panel of switches and signal lights known to its users as the “announcers’ delight.” Upon hearing the network cue, the announcer on duty would flip the proper switch to open the mike for the local station’s call-letter identification, an act which required a certain degree of concentration.
On this particular morning in 1931, KPO — feeding the Red network — was carrying its daily “happy time” program, “The Shell Ship of Joy” (sponsored by the Shell Oil Company), with its “skipper,” Hugh Barrett Dobbs, as the master of ceremonies. Simultaneously, KGO — hooked into the Blue Network — was transmitting the first world-wide broadcast of Pope Pius XI, who was making a plea in behalf of global peace. A friend of mine, veteran announcer Cecil Underwood, was on duty when the network cue for the “happy time” program was given: “This is the Red Network of the National Broadcasting Company.”
Cecil snapped to, and flipped the switch. Unaware he had opened the mike for KGO on the Blue Network, he cut into the Pope’s address with, “The past hour of fun and nonsense has come to you over KPO, San Francisco.” He told me later that the network’s telephone switchboard lit up like a pinball machine with complaint calls and that NBC ultimately made a formal apology to the area archdiocese.
A similar impiety — though local, not on a network — occurred on KTAB (now KSFO), the Pickwick Broadcasting Corporation’s San Francisco-Oakland station which I then managed. It was on a Sunday morning and the Reverend Phillips of Oakland’s Tenth Avenue Baptist Church was fervently preaching a sermon from his pulpit as the station carried the broadcast by remote control.
Standing by in the KTAB Oakland studio was an announcer, engrossed in the comic section of the Sunday paper. It was the custom, whenever a remote control broadcast was in progress, to have a phonograph record on the turntable ready to fill in dead air in the event of a line failure. The announcer, of course, had no reason to anticipate such an emergency, for the Sunday sermon broadcasts had been a regular feature for years without mishap. Except on that day.
The line suddenly went dead, and a second or two elapsed before the announcer realized what had happened. He then acted quickly and efficiently: he dropped his paper, switched on the turntable and spun the record. Raucous jazz music blared forth with Cab Calloway himself singing in his gravel-voiced tones, “You’ll Never Get to Heaven That Way.” Peace on earth was eventually restored, but it took some fast explaining.
Al Ryan was a good announcer but occasionally had trouble with foreign words. I was sitting at my program director’s desk at KTAB one day when he entered my office to ask how to pronounce hors d’oeuvres in a spot announcement for a local delicatessen. I gave him the Anglicized version “ore derve,”which he repeated several times until I assured him he had it correct.
As he hurried back into the studio, I switched on my loudspeaker and listened. Following a musical selection, his clear, mellow voice came through with his usual authority, the words of the commercial nicely articulated until he came to the final line:
“In addition to these specialties, the Blank Delicatessen carries a complete line of whore’s doors.”
At this late date, I don’t recall whether there were any repercussions. In retrospect, however, it’s possible the sponsor may have had a good response from male members of the audience.
Other “smutterings,” innocently spoken, often burst from loudspeakers to shock thousands of listeners. One such boo-boo came from the announcers’ booth at San Francisco’s famed Mark Hopkins Hotel from whence, in the late 1920’s, station KFRC regularly broadcast, by remote control, dance music from the elegant dining room, Peacock Court. One evening, cutting into the broadcast to give a station identification, the announcer poked the button on his control panel and proclaimed, “The music of Eddie Harkness and his Orchestra is coming to you from Peacourt Cock.”
He immediately attempted a correction but the spoonerism persisted as he said, “I mean, Peacourt Cock.”
Aghast, he pressed the button to isolate himself from his public, took a deep breath, poked the button again and said, authoritatively, “Peacourt Cock!” He then cut off the mike once more and slumped helplessly in his chair.
While much of KTAB’s programming was “live,” some of it consisted of phonograph records, especially in the early morning and late evening. The station’s transmitter was in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, but the main studio and business offices were in the Pickwick Hotel in the latter city.
This meant that the announcer might be on duty by himself — particularly in the morning before the business offices opened up — reading commercials and spinning his own phonograph records. With no recorded commercials in those days, and the average recording of a popular song seldom running over three minutes, it was sometimes difficult to find time in which to answer Mother Nature’s call. And most people are certainly aware of how urgent those calls may be after a cup or two of hot morning coffee.
To one of San Francisco’s early-day popular announcers, the now long-departed James Kendrick, goes the credit for solving this problem— at least temporarily. In the station’s record library was a then rare item: an electrical transcription. These transcriptions, nowadays seldom seen, were huge disks 16 inches in diameter, played at the then unusual speed of 33-1/3 revolutions per minute. The running time was approximately fifteen minutes. Jimmy, often alone on duty in the early morning, found it very convenient to play this recording during a session in the men’s room. For the enlightenment of his fellow announcers, he scrawled across the label, in bold, black letters, two words:
On one particular morning, Jimmy started the record and headed confidently for the bathroom. What he was unaware of was that through wear and tear, the record had developed a flawed groove. Thus it was that with the studio sounds shut out by a closed door, he was happily oblivious to what was going out over the air: the primitive voices of a country-western group were bleating out the famous ballad “Home on the Range” when the needle stuck in the damaged groove. What the radio audience heard was something like, “Oh, give me a home/ Where the buffalo clunk, buffalo clunk, buffalo clunk, buffalo clunk…”
Fortunately, I arrived at the studio in time to prevent the buffalo from clunking all over the studio. Hearing the malfunctioning “corral” group, I raced into the control room, lifted the tone arm, and substituted a “pop” record on one of the 78-RPM turntables. Just as I went looking for Jimmy, the men’s room door opened and he emerged.
“Oh, boy — I sure feel better!” he said with a smile and a sigh of relief, unaware of what had been happening.
“Your crapping record was stuck,” I informed him sternly.
“So was I,” he grinned. Then, realizing the import of what I’d just told him, his jaw dropped. Recovering, he added, “I’m glad I didn’t know about the record. It’s terrible to get caught like that with your pants down.”
We got caught with our switchboard down, too: the unattended PBX, swamped with calls from listeners, buzzed like a hornets’ nest until the operator came on duty at nine o’clock and pulled the jack cords.
Copyright © 1979 by Glenhall Taylor. All rights reserved.
Photos of Hugh Barrett Dobbs and Glenhall Taylor on
this page from the Bay Area Radio Museum Collection.