Master Control Console

Right: One of NBC's master control engineers in action. The photograph is taken from the June 15th, 1932 edition of Broadcasting magazine. Master control console

On the board in front of the engineer, there are rows of lights for each of the six studios and whatever temporary inputs have been patched into the control board. The rows of lights to the right indicate the outgoing channels to which the inputs might be delegated. Lights at the top of the board indicate which of the eight outgoing channels are presently in use (the channels were duplicated in anticipation of the temporary failure of one or more of them).

The master control operator was able to simultaneously handle the switching for two networks and two local stations because he merely preset (via relays) the channels in advance of their activation. The actual switching was done by the announcer for a specific program in a given studio.

You will note in the photographs of the studios that there were small control panels on the wall, generally near the windows to the control rooms. These panels contained lights indicating the status of the channel (or channels) delegated to the particular studio. They contained switches by which the channels, preset by the master control operator, could be activated. And they contained a jack field into which the announcer could plug his headset to hear the output of the studio whose program came before his.

Here's a hypothetical example of how the program worked in progress: Let's suppose that Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink, conductor Charles Previn and announcer Harlow Wilcox are nearing the end of a Red network program(carried in Chicago by WMAQ) in studio E. Announcer Vincent Pelletier is standing by in studio M (a small announce booth located just off the south end of the master control room), ready to give a thirty second station break for WMAQ. Announcer John Paul King is standing by in studio C, ready to introduce a fifteen minute Red network broadcast (carried locally by WMAQ) of singing and ukelele music by Wendell Hall, the "Pineapple Picador".

Near the end of the Schumann-Heink/Previn opus, the master control operator presets the WMAQ channel to studio M. Vincent Pelletier (the announcer in M) notices that a yellow status light on his control panel has started to glow, indicating that his channel has been preset. When Harlow Wilcox has made his concluding announcement at the end of the broadcast in E, he rings his chimes (at a later date, he would have pushed an additional button on his panel to activate the mechanical chimes) and presses a button on his panel that drops the channels from studio E to the Red network and to WMAQ. That automatically turns off the yellow light in studio M and activates a green one in its place. This tells Vincent Pelletier that he now has the channel to WMAQ. He presses a button activating the preset route set up by the master control operator---and he is on the air. While Pelletier is reading his copy, the master control operator presets the Red network channel (and the WMAQ channel) to studio C. John Paul King sees a yellow light on his panel. When Pelletier has completed his station break, he presses a button dropping his channel. Simultaneously, John Paul King sees a green light on his panel, the signal that the channels to the Red network and WMAQ are now ready for him. He pushes the button that activates the channels. And thus he and Wendell Hall are on the air.

NBC found this an efficient procedure. It was replicated in the design of the Radio City Studios at 30 Rock---where twenty-two studios were switched to sixteen channels in a similar manner.

The announcers in Chicago occasionally found this system confusing. It was often difficult for them to remember whether it was the Red or the Blue network they were supposed to identify. And were they to give a station break for WMAQ (NBC's Red network station in Chicago) or WENR (its Chicago Blue network counterpart)?

On one occasion, Vincent Pelletier had just such a memory lapse prior to a station break. He handled it thus: "This is WM---. No, this is WE---. No, by God, this is WMAQ!".

An additional pitfall awaited the "standby announcer". In the early days of the Merchandise Mart studios, there was some fear that the network lines might fail. A "standby" announcer was thus stationed in studio M in anticipation of such events, with a preset channel to whichever network he was monitoring. "Stanby" musicans were likewise on duty either in studio G (an organist) or studio H (a pianist). A preset channel to G or H was likewise always in place. If there was a network failure and 15 seconds of dead air passed, the announcer in studio M would activate his channel and say, "One moment, please." If another ten seconds of dead air passed, the standby announcer would reopen his channel and begin to read the "Due to circumstances beyond our control" message. Simultaneously, he would push a button that rang a buzzer in G or H, hopefully awakening the standby musician. When he had finished his copy, he would drop his channel and activate the channel to G or H, where the musician would start playing. (In the mean time, the master control operator entered an intense trouble-shooting mode.) When programming was restored, the standby announcer would make an appropriate announcement, drop his channel, drop the channel from G or H, and reactivate the network channel. Then he would ring the buzzer to G or H again---the signal to the standby musician that he could relax until the next mishap. On more than one occasion, the standby announcer would fail to tell the standby musician that then network was again operational. And the musician, unaware that he had lost his audience, would complete his shift, playing non-stop.

By the early 1940's, NBC had acquired enough confidence in its network lines to eliminate the standby announcers and musicians except in two cases. (The continuing clout of the American Federation of Musicians was a key factor in their being retained at all.) Standby musicans remained on duty during remote broadcasts (where there was a greater probability that temporary lines or portable equipment might fail). Standby musicans were also on duty during all news broadcasts---the rationale being that the newscaster might run out of copy, or that there might simply be no news to report.

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