The Beep, and How to Make It

Long-time listeners to Hillbilly at Harvard (HAH) will know how we have preserved older styles of music broadcasting, especially ‘top 40’ radio, with breaks after every song, and also our custom to begin and end the program on time, to ‘make the beep’ by banging on an old hubcap. Newer listeners might think these are just parodies of old-time radio, or just one of our ‘inane traditions’, as Ol’ Sinc called them, like playing Terry Allen’s ’Truckload of Art’ at the end of the show on the day of the Harvard-Yale game. But they have deeper roots, in the history of the program, which dates back to a time when 78-rpm records were the main fare, and only slightly more recently, when station members made a deliberate attempt to emulate professional broadcasters.

In radio and TV the clock rules, though in the modern era, it may seem different. Local and non-commercial radio often operate on flexible schedules, where one program may meld into another with little notice or fanfare, and only a rough approximation of the actual hour. But in the ‘real world’ of commercial radio and television, especially where networked stations may share programing, commercials, IDs, break-aways, and other elements, the clock reigns supreme.

A local station with no network programming, e.g. college or community stations, need pay little attention to the niceties of timing, especially when programs are staffed by one or two members attempting to manage equipment, programming, and announcements. Still, back when I was an undergraduate at WHRB, Harvard’s quasi-independent radio station, there was an unspoken but obvious effort to emulate professional broadcasting. In those days studio engineers and announcers had separate roles, in separate rooms. At WHRB the engineers were called ‘controlmen’, and had large floor-mounted turntables and rack-mounted tape recorders to manage, in addition to the broadcast board with inputs for all the audio devices and the microphones in the adjacent studio. The controlmen worked on their feet, and communicated with the announcers, usually seated behind the glass, with a ‘talk-back’ microphone, or with hand signals.

If an announcer wished to talk to the controlman, he made an audition signal with thumbs and forefingers, thus:

To start a record or tape, the announcer pointed with his forefinger. To open his mic, he pointed to the microphone. To kill the mic, he used the throat-cutting gesture. There were other signals, e.g. for ‘time left’, or ‘go to tape’. The programs were generally run by the announcers.

We had Western Union clocks in the studios and control rooms, and these clocks were tied to Naval Observatory time by a Western Union line. On the hour, the Observatory would send a signal, lighting a red bulb on the clock and sending a brief tone (a ‘beep’) down the wire. We were expected to ‘time out’ to the hour, i.e. to ‘make the beep’, which would go over the air. If it wasn’t necessary to time out, e.g. when a program continued past the hour, we would pull a two-pronged jumper from the ‘matrix’ (a circuit board with rows of 1/4” phone-plug sockets). If the announcer wanted to avoid the beep coming over the air, he would make a rude signal (an open, grasping hand) to the controlman to pull the jumper and ’castrate the beep’.

On HAH we preserved the tradition of ‘Making the Beep’ long after the Western Union clocks disappeared from our studio walls. We also preserved the AM-radio ‘top 40’ style of popular-music programming, with breaks between every record. I think it was in the mid ’60s, about the time when WBCN-FM abandoned its classical format and Pete Wolf began playing rock-’n’-roll overnight, that music shows began playing ‘sets’, segueing songs together without breaks—yes, before then, it was unusual enough to play songs back-to-back that we had the term ’segue’ for it, and an announcer signal, as well (two fingers together) to request one. Today, ‘sets’ are standard practice. They make life easier when one person is responsible for the whole program and not following a strict playlist. But at HAH we’ve always thought it made a lot more sense to let listeners know what they heard and what was next. Also, it was a lot more fun to talk about the music, the artists, and keep listeners apprised of all the concerts, shows, and festivals going on.

We even used to break and take a few minutes for the Hillbilly News at Noon—back when we had an AP ticker to pull news from. Of course we would ‘make the beep’ before the HAH News at Noon, as well as at the beginning and end of every show. By then there was no Western Union clock, and its hourly beep. So we made our own: for a while I used a resonant lid from an electric frying pan, which I brought from home. Then it was a great-sounding Oldsmobile hubcap. Actually, we had two of them, which we stashed behind a curtain in Studio B at our old digs at 45 Quincy Street, in the basement of Sanders Theater. But sadly the Olds hubcaps disappeared after an overzealous comper cleaned up the studio (‘compers’ are undergraduates trying out for WHRB membership, and were expected to participate in ‘monster’ clean-ups). The standard became a vintage Rambler hubcap, which I hope is still in the HAH library.

Sinc and I at WHRB studio in Memorial Hall, with Rambler hubcap, used for beep. Boston Globe Magazine feature on HAH by Christopher Kenneally , 13Sep87 (original photo by Janet Knott)

Of course we could ‘make the beep’ at whatever time we chose, though we endeavored to announce “The time at the tone” right on the hour, unless we were running late for one reason or another. We always asked permission of the following DJ to run over, which was always granted—except when we had to end on time for the football pregame show, or (in more recent years), the Metropolitan Opera. That is called a ‘hard break’ in radio today. I remember one time when we thought the Met was going to start at the usual time, but it was earlier, and David Elliott came running in, frantically yelling “Stop!” We were innocently yapping away, so of course we stopped, real hard.

Usually we were better at keeping time. There are easy ways to end the show on time. If you listen to news or talk radio, you’ll hear music fading in, and announcers, anchors, hosts winding up their current gab fests in time for a logged commercial or program break. That’s called ‘bumper music’, and if you’re good, like the late Rush Limbaugh, it’ll time out and end with a bang right when it should. If you’re not as finessed, it’ll just fade or disappear when the new signal appears.

In my undergraduate days, most programs had themes—musical themes, to open and close. They served two purposes: to identify the program, and to separate it from others, to serve as bookends. Usually we talked over the themes, to introduce the program or say goodbye (“You’ve been listening to. . .”). Are many DJs using headphones these days? If you want to talk over music, you need headphones. We have two themes on HAH, both from Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’s classic album, Foggy Mountain Jamboree (1957): ‘Foggy Mountain Special’, to open, and ‘Randy Lynn Rag’ to close. Ol’ Sinc was famous for his breathless recitation of the Country Calendar over the closing theme (hat tip to Harvard Gazette writer Beth Potier for ‘breathless’).

Closing themes serve another purpose: to time out and make the beep. The easy way to do this is just to end your last song a couple of minutes before your scheduled close, play the theme, and if it’s too long, just fade it down. The more elegant way is to ‘dead-roll’ the theme during your last selection, then fade it up and have it end right on time. That’s the way we’ve always done it on HAH. ‘Randy Lynn Rag’ is 2:00 minutes long. So if you want to end at 12:59:50 PM, leaving 10 seconds for the station ID and the beep at 1:00 PM, then you start the theme at 12:57:50, dead-rolling if your last song is still playing. If you didn’t plan right and your last song is too long, then you might be reduced to ‘cross-fading’, fading down the song as you fade up the theme. You end on time.

In the old days it was fairly rare to combine the roles of announcer and controlman; in the late ‘50s in the Dudley Gulch basement location (under Dudley Hall, where Holyoke Center stands now), there was a small control room overlooking the large Studio B, called BC (B Control) and that was set up for ‘one-manning’, used mainly during Orgy® Period. My first time on the air was a nervous half-hour in BC by myself, called ‘Old Timey Music Time’ that eventually became a two-hour bluegrass and old-time show called ’Saturday Morning Jamboree’, which I hosted with Cousin Mike Eisenstadt; being two-man it moved to Studio A with a controlman in Central Control (CC).

Commercial music radio quickly favored single disk jockeys who became ‘personalities’, a development made easier with ‘carts’ (tape cartridges with individual songs and commercials, which were quick to insert and self-cueing) and strict playlists. WHRB through all its moves (to Claverly Hall, then Memorial Hall, then the current Pennypacker Hall) maintained the two-room studio-control-room architecture, even though ‘one-manning’ became the rule (and the term disappeared). We never had cart machines. Our main on-air studios at Memorial Hall and even our current Pennypacker location were laid out for a controlman standing, or on a stool, not for a DJ in a comfortable chair. That actually worked well for HAH, as Sinc and I worked together on two mics, in and out of the studio, and had frequent guests.

In these latter days, when HAH is reduced to two hours, and I’m recording them at home, I’m not ‘making the beep’. I can’t be certain when the show will begin and end. But I’m still maintaining ‘top 40’ programming, and some semblance of the old days. If you’ve heard any of the Archival shows I produced last year, you will have gotten a feel for the way it was when both Sinc and I were hosting, and we had a steady stream of guests contributing music and comaraderie. HAH may have originated when we strived to emulate professional radio, but continued for decades as a vital part of the grown-up country music community in the Boston area. We made it fun at the same time, as our hubcap beeps demonstrated. They were a tradition, but not an inane one.

Here’s Ol’ Sinc squeezing in the Country Calendar over the closing theme, picked at random from November 11th, 1987, ending on time for Harvard Football:

PS You can still buy those ‘self-winding’ Western Union clocks from a company called Surplus Sales of Nebraska. No time signal from the Naval Observatory, though. /CL

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11 Responses to The Beep, and How to Make It

  1. Byron Marshall says:




  2. Steve Bartlett says:

    Hi, Lynn,
    I remember the closing theme “dead roll” from days visiting when Sinc and Cousin Dave held forth, done with a rack mounted reel tape machne. Now I know the name.

    Time signals are still available on line, via the MorseKOB program, which provides an almost unlimited number or real Morse code “wires.” It is possible to connect to any of several that provide the time signal and countdown as Morse sounder clicks, normally only on the hour, but a couple of the Wires have continuous signals for demonstration purposes.

    I can elaborate it there is any iinterest. The program will play the sounder clicks from built-in sound files, and it is easy to connect a real telegraph sounder to the computer for an authentic experience. Communication with other telegraphers, using Morse code, is also possible.

    Note these are the sounder clicks and clacks of real land line telegraph, not the beeps of radio commnication.

    Steve Bartlett

  3. Gerry Goss says:

    Excellent comparison of Old Time to New Time radio.


  4. dwbcoan says:

    You know I think I have been listening to Hillbilly at Harvard since the late 80’s when I lived in Concord, MA. Now I listen to it via the internet every saturday morning. I am wondering when HillBilly at Harvard first radio show began. Was it in the early 80’s? dr. bill

    Dr. Wm. Michael Coan New Port Richey, FL


    • Howdy Doc— Hillbilly music on WHRB dates from the 1940s, when WHRB began ‘broadcasting’ closed-circuit to the Harvard campus (by modulating the AC current). The Acknowledged Founding Father (as Sinc called him) was ‘Pappy’ Ben Minnich who hosted a show called ‘Barn Howl’ in 1948. Ben and others worked from 78-rpm records, a few of which survived when I joined WHRB in the late ’50s, by which time the name ‘Hillbilly at Harvard’ had become a fixture of Saturday morning programming. I don’t know the year the name changed.

      WHRB launched its FM transmitter in 1957 (and maintained its AM closed-circuit transmitter for several years thereafter), and now a true broadcast program, began to accumulate loyal listeners in the area. In the mid-’60s it looked like undergraduate interest had disappeared, but a few of us, all graduates still in Cambridge, managed to keep HAH going; see this post:

      HAH History: The Committee Saves the Show!

      And the rest is history. . . /CL

      • Wm. Michael Coan says:

        Thank you sooooo very very much for getting back to me on this. Holy Smokes.. HAH has been going on much longer than I ever thought! Thank yo CousinLynn for taking the time to get back to me. I almost never miss a Saturday of HAH! thnk you very much for bringing me up to speed on this. And thank you for all of your efforts behind the mike! Dr. Wm. Michael Coan in New Port Richey , FL

  5. Cindy says:

    Very interesting Cousin Lynn! Thanks for the history lesson. I’m still listening to your home shows every Saturday morning. My Saturdays would not be Saturdays without HAH!

  6. Bill Nowlin says:

    I’ve always enjoyed the hubcap!

  7. Pingback: Castrate the Beep and other radio terminology – Articles of Interest

  8. Pingback: It’s 1985, and The Critton Hollow String Band Are in Town! | Hillbilly at Harvard

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