Live radio broadcasting

14 Aug

Here’s some idea of the challenges of radio shows before good recording techniques. This description of preparations for  “Empire Builder”, a drama about a railway, comes from June 1931 Popular Mechanics:

On the Air with the “Empire Builder”

You are peering from a little booth through three panes of plate glass into the largest broadcasting studio in the world. A director is shouting, the orchestra is tuning up and there is a clatter of tin plates and snaredrum, but not a sound penetrates the monitor room here the program director, studio engineer and advisory director are seated at a long table overlooking the scene.

Each man has a script, or complete story, of the radio drama in his hands, as a large clock, whose one hand jumps forward one-fourth inch at a time, clicks off the last few seconds before the program is sent out over 33,400 miles of wire to twenty-seven radio stations in all parts of the country, and then flashed through the air to millions of listeners at a cost of about $200 a minute.

All told, nearly three hundred persons take part in such a broadcast. First the play is written and checked for absolute accuracy. Then “sound effects” and a musical theme are carefully woven into it. There follows sometimes as much as thirty hours’ reheasal of the musical conductor, twenty-three musicians, fifteen actors, five sound-effects experts and the two directors. In addition there are eighty-one engineers at the various broadcast statons, and twenty-seven anouncers, or one for each station, and also eighty-one engineers at the repeater stations of the telephone company to see that there is no break in the wires over which the program is flowing.


The scene opens in a railroad telegraph office. The staccato clicks are not faked. A real railroad telegraph operator sends a real message which any Morse operator can understand. At this point the script directions read: “Door opens. Wind up. Closes. Wind down. Stamping of feet.”

A stage hand opens a real door, and on the instant an airplane propeller is started by a motor, and throws off the whistling “whooo-ooo” of the blowing wind. Then one hears the slam of the door. Instantly the propeller stops. The stage hand who opened the door stamps his feet on a mat to simulate a man just coming in.


An airplane engine, if picked up outdoors, would be heard for what it is. Inside a studio, the reverberations and echoes, clashing against the walls, would give the radio listener nothing but noise. But an old-fashioned foot-pump organ makes a noise exactly like an airplane motor.

The “zz-z-zziii–nnn-nngg-g-gg” of a bullet is simulated by plucking the steel string of a guitar. Hoof beats are hard to fake. “Sometimes,” said the production manager, “they sound terrible. I almost considered bringing a horse into the studio and riding him myself, but he couldn’t pass through the corridors.”

Fire is simulated by cracking a bundle of canes together. Hissing water is easily imitated by letting off compressed air. If a house collapses, a box of bricks are allowed to fall down a chute. A firecracker celebration on the roof gives the radio listener an idea that a battle is taking place. Machine guns are simulated by riveting machines.


  • What’s on the air? The “Traffic Board” showing every program presented; the name is at the the top and underneath it are the stations taking it and the time.


  • In the control-room booth – the Advisory Director beating time for sound effects, and the Studio Engineer, or “Gain Rider,” at the mixing panel that controls the volume of sound from five microphones.


  •  “Naught but ice, Master Hudson,” comes a voice, and you hear grinding bergs, screaming wind and the booming of the ship – sound effects cunningly woven into the play.


  • Timed to the split second, this is how the sound effects you hear from your loud speaker are so cleverly woven into the radio drama.

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