"Gallantly Streaming" Sign-off
Posted July 4, 2007
If you're an avid Siteseeing reader, you know that I like to pay homage to the earlier days of television. I love working in television, especially at WRAL, but I was born about 30 years too late. Have you ever seen "Anchorman"? It was one of the worst movies I've ever seen, but I do wish I could have worked in that magical era of TV news.
Anyway, if you're younger than 20 or 25 years old, you may not know that TV stations used to sign off the air for a few hours in the middle of the night. Seriously! There were times when nothing was on television. That's a shocking thing to ponder in our modern 24-hour society, but I remember it well. In my cable-less childhood home, our TV had nothing but static from about 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. each morning.
TV stations used to give a bunch of this odd, arcane technical information about the station, then they would usually play a version of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Some color bars and tone might follow for a while before an abrupt explosion of static. (Do you realize that some kids probably haven't really seen "snow" on a TV? Many haven't heard dialtones on telephones. Wow!)
A guy has assembled many of these sign-offs on a Web site, called tv-signoffs.com. He's got the one we used to air on WRAL-TV for years. This is the one I remember from childhood. Retired weatherman Bob DeBardelaben is the announcer on this clip. He's followed by a wonderful, epic version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" -- a three-minute visual tour through U.S. history.
So, click on the link for a nice way to spend a few minutes this July 4th.
Enjoy that independence, and remember those who made it possible.
UPDATE: One of our commenters noted that WRAL-TV used to sign off the air by playing "Dixie," then "The Star-Spangled Banner."
I did some -- ahem -- exhaustive resarch (I Googled "WRAL-TV dixie"). I found Dave Langley's very cool site, which I'd never seen before. It has some great pictures and film (!) from the early days of WRAL-TV. These are from the middle and late 1950s, when our studio was in a garage at our transmitter site in Auburn -- before we built our studios on Western Boulevard.
At any rate, the caption for one of the pictures says:
"[WRAL-TV] was the first in NC to sign on in local color. Slides
of scenes from NC were shown while a slow version of 'Dixie' was played. It was the regular sign on and sign off."
I did some further Googling. This practice was not uncommon among Southern TV and radio stations during the 1950s and 1960s. We still don't know when it ended on WRAL-TV. Anyone remember?
UPDATE 2: I sent a note to Dave Langley, asking him what he remebered. He was a staff engineer here at WRAL-TV when we first signed on in 1956.
He says "Dixie" was the sign-off when he left the station in June 1960.
Langley also including a cool story, explaining how it all worked back in the day:
"The Chief Engineer, Virgil Duncan, had me to install the audio system starting on Monday before sign-on Saturday, December 15 . He told me to get J. D. Lewis to help. J. D. and I pulled wires, hooked up microphones, wired up the announcers console and turntables and checked out the system.
"When the color slide was put up for sign-on and 'Dixie' was started on the turntable, the only thing we didn’t check didn’t work. The audio didn’t get to the transmitter and I jumped over to the audio patch panel and for some reason, I put a plug in the jack that went to the transmitter and pulled it out. The music was there. Missed the first few seconds! Lucky! Figured it was just a dirty jack connection. Never had the problem again. That was when we were at the transmitter site studio. Seventeen months later, we signed on the new studio at Western Blvd.
"At the studio, staff engineers were master control operators. I enjoyed the technical work but also enjoyed master control. About April, 1959, they decided that they wanted production people at master control instead of engineers. George Hall came to me and asked if I would transfer to production and stay as master control operator because I made very few mistakes at master control. He also wanted me to direct the 6 and 11 o’clock news blocks. I agreed if I could do some technical work also. For about the last 14 months that I was there, I worked Monday through Friday from 5 PM to 1:15 AM.
"When I went in at 5 PM, I would talk with Bill Armstrong (news), Ray Reeve (sports) and Bob Knapp, (Atlantic weatherman) to set up the news block timing. I directed the block from the upstairs control room and then ran down at 6:30 when a 1 minute commercial was running to get to the master control position.
"There, I would switch to the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC. I was at master control until sign-off, including directing the 11 PM news block from there. It was only 15 minutes because Jack Parr came on at 11:15 and finished at 1 AM. At 11:15, everyone left except the announcer and the engineer to run the video tape machine. The engineer left at 11:30 so I was also engineer on duty (an FCC requirement back then).
"At 12:30 AM, the announcer left so I was the only one in the building on Western Blvd. I had one 2 minute break in the last part of the Jack Parr Show and started and stopped the projector from master control with a 2 minute film.
"When the show was over at 1 AM, I put up the preloaded color slides of NC and pushed a button to start the audio tape recorder in the announce booth behind me to play 'Dixie' while I changed slides. The announcer cued up the tape before he left.
"When it was over, I shut down the studio equipment, locked the building and went home! In December 1959, I also had to go to the basement after sign-off and turn off the tower Christmas lights. A picture of the tower is on my site and it was used by the last tower lighting ceremony show in 2006."