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The legend of the NBC chimes

They are undoubtedly the most recognizable musical sounds in broadcasting, the progression of three notes that make up the NBC chimes. Their use on NBC television and radio to introduce programs and signal station breaks is well documented. What is not clear, however, is precisely where the sounds originated.

WSB(AM) in Atlanta may have been the first radio station to use a musical set to end a program block. WSB, which signed on in 1922 and became an affiliate of the NBC Red radio network in 1927, used a small xylophone early on to close programming segments. Its 1974 history (Welcome South, Brother: Fifty Years of Broadcasting at WSB, Atlanta, Ga.,
Cox Broadcasting, 1974) says an NBC executive heard the instrument, liked it and obtained the station's permission to use a similar sound to identify network broadcasts. The original xylophone is on display at WSB's Atlanta studios.

Historians at WCSH(TV), Portland, Me., tell a slightly different tale. WCSH claims to have "the only surviving, original NBC chimes" on display in its lobby. It says the chimes sounding the notes G-E-C were first carried on its radio airwaves in 1929, emanating from a small hand-held chime box.

WGY(AM) Schenectady, N.Y., also lays claim to the idea. In its 50th anniversary celebration in 1972, it reported broadcasting the notes G-E-C on a piano in 1923. The initials stood for station owner General Electric Corp.

NBC maintains that three employees conceived the idea for a program signal in 1926. Using dinner chimes from a New York silver maker and much experimentation, the story goes, they came up with the three-note sequence, first carried on the radio network in late 1929.

"There were a lot of stations using various musical identifications in those days," said radio historian Bill Harris, who operates a Web site devoted to radio history ( "But we will probably never know who at NBC decided to use the chimes."

Whatever the true story, the chimes play an important role in NBC history. The network obtained the first audible service mark from the U.S. Patent Office in 1950 and used the chimes regularly on television and radio until 1971. It sold its radio network to Westwood One in 1987, and NBC television today uses an electronic version of the chimes infrequently.