1930s Magazines · Blog posts · Radio

“Secrets Of The Mike”: A New Development In 1930s Radio Broadcasting.

For us today the use of a microphone in radio, recording music, in live events and television is so usual, so we perhaps can’t imagine just how new and marvellous it was for people in music and entertainment in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Previous to this people had to project their voices and use megaphones (which unfortunately tended to distort the voice). I won’t linger on the history of early recording techniques, but for anyone who’d like to read about that there is an overview on Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_sound_recording

The invention of the microphone opened up many new possibilities and was an exciting development for radio broadcasting and amplifying the human voice. For the first time a singer could sing softly in a theatre and be heard at the back! It’s not surprising then that the style of singing named “crooning” became popular. The microphone was a gift to a crooner (more on that later). The invention of the microphone has an interesting history, going back to the megaphones of fifth century BC Greece. The carbon microphone was actually invented in the 19th century, by David Edward Hughes.

http://www.microphone-data.com/media/filestore/articles/History-10.pdf

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microphone#History

From the January 12th, 1935 edition of Popular Music And Dancing Weekly magazine here is an article by Bertram Fryer who was a BBC radio producer.

Here are some of the things Bertram Fryer had to say about the microphone:

Radio broadcasting does, I suppose, look easy—at first glance. You just stand up and say things to a small box arrangement ! Well, at first sight, so do stage and screen acting look simple, but we know that talent and training go to make up the actor.

And, though few people realise it, there is a very great deal more in radio broadcasting than saying a few words to a microphone. There is a definite technique of broadcasting, different from stage work, or screen acting—a new “third dimension” of entertainment art.

The all-conquering microphone is the cause of it. The mike is a queer affair. It does the most peculiar things to the human voice. Scarcely anybody who has heard their own voice coming from a loudspeaker (which can be done by means of the “speak back ” recording system) has recognised it.

The last paragraph I find especially interesting because he states that people were unable to recognise their own voice when hearing it on a microphone for the first time. I suspect that has more to do with the the human ear hears its own voice, rather than any deficits in the microphone technology of the 1930s. People were simply not used to hearing their voices amplified, so it was a “startling” experience, as he says in the next paragraph. Even today it can be so. It can make one feel self conscious.

So, the mike demands a brand-new technique from all performers. It also creates a new typo of audience reaction, and therefore demands new style material. It was because I realised what a startling new art broadcasting had become that I am to-day working hard teaching people the tricks of the mike in my own studios.

Your favourite radio star does not, of course, just stand up in front of the B.B.C. microphones and say his or her piece. The real radio artiste plays to the mike. The good broadcaster knows where to stand, how to pitch the voice, how to achieve the right touch. He knows what words or sounds will jar your ears ; he knows how long his material should run.

The unfortunate inexperienced broadcaster, however, confronts the microphone, probably for the first time, at his long-awaited B.B.C. audition, and fails hopelessly, either through ignorance of the “mike ” or through nerves.

This is something that hasn’t changed! Despite the microphone no longer being a new technology; people new to entertainment, just starting out in their career, can be nervous stood in front of the microphone, or, more usual today, holding it in their hand.

The most experienced orator, artiste or instrumentalist dreads his introduction to the microphone. Unfortunately, the actual meeting proves to be worse than he had anticipated. Gone are his familiar stage, his audience, his limelight; he is alone – or practically—in a futuristically decorated studio, with a glistening microphone waiting with a relentless grin (or so it seems to the unhappy broadcaster) and a strange, overpowering “deadness.”

Reading the above all these years later after it was published, the type of studio they had in the 1930s would look quaint to 21st century eyes, not at all “futuristic”. Imagine what Mr. Fryer would think if he could see all the computers they use these days! You can see an idea of what he had to work with in his photograph:

Since I’m not in the least bit technical (although I’m fairly good at using my Chromebook and Linux netbook), I can’t properly judge how much the difference between levels of technical skills would be required in a 1930s radio studio and a 21st century one. I suspect though, that the level of expertise in the 1930s studio might be higher; in that a modern day computer might have a lot of the settings and controls pre set so that the broadcaster doesn’t have to set them manually as they would have had to have done back then.

I would love to visit a museum that has a 1930s radio broadcasting room, so I could see how it worked. There used to be one near Chester which unfortunately closed in 2000. I wish I’d known about that as it wasn’t that far for me to go on the train to visit it. Oh well; at least they have a website with some great photographs of what used to be there.

http://www.vintageradio.co.uk/htm/museum.htm

The science of sound means nothing to him, and “acoustics” is something which he probably associates with unfortunate lack of hearing. He is very, very ill at ease. A white light flashes at him; his heart commences to sink—the red light is before him; he must begin . . . and he is paralysed!

The safest policy the inexperienced broadcast artiste can adopt is to forget that the microphone is a medium through which he is reaching millions and to regard it as one intimate friend to whom he is speaking or performing. Personality, in an artiste, is, more often than not, the intimate touch. Take for example, Mr. Christopher Stone. The listener adores him because he feels that each little remark is sent personally to him. This “intimate touch ” is not an art—and can be acquired.

Christopher Stone was Britain’s first D.J, with an informal style of presenting that was unusual for the time, but the norm now.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Stone_(broadcaster)

Here is a clip of one of his broadcasts:

He has the typical “Received Pronunciation” of those days, which is rarely heard today, but his style is conversational and warm. I can see what Mr. Fryer meant: Christopher Stone does sound like he’s having a chat with his audience. I can imagine someone at home alone would have felt like they had some company when he was on the wireless.

And now onto the use of the mike in singing, especially the crooning style:

The vocalist must not linger through verse and chorus ; the listener is impatient, and variety is the spice of his programme. The “straight ” singer, likewise, must avoid numbers of undue length.

And now a special word to the would-be crooner : Do not attempt to copy any well-known , crooner, no matter how popular. Study your own style, develop your own personality—and take your job seriously.

“I do,” protests the potential crooner indignantly. Perhaps. On the other hand, the crooner forgets that he needs a basic knowledge of singing, that his diction must be perfect. and his breath control above reproach. Crooning, like all radio work, is a real art.

Crooning, like all radio work is a real art. I’m pleased to see that statement, because Al Bowlly in his book Modern Style Singing (Crooning), published in 1934, wrote about how some people were rather derisive of the crooning style and the use of the microphone. You can read what he had to say about that, and his knowledge of the use of the microphone in these links:

https://albowlly.media/2019/01/18/modern-style-singing-crooning-1934-al-bowlly/

https://albowlly.media/2019/01/21/modern-style-singing-crooning-chapter-two-al-bowlly-1934/

After reading his book I think you’ll see that there is real artistry in how he used the microphone. We can see that in his performance of My Melancholy Baby. Here he is in colour!

Secrets Of The Mike can be downloaded here as a pdf file:

2 thoughts on ““Secrets Of The Mike”: A New Development In 1930s Radio Broadcasting.

  1. I agree that it must have been more challenging techically back then. And I remember the first time I heard my own voice, on a ‘very modern’ Philips radio cassette player that my dad bought in around 1965. My first reaction was , “That doesn’t sound like me”.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Yes, a new technology that chaps had to learn how to use! I think we all don;t hear ourselves in the same way as others hear us but amplification makes us hear ourselves as others do.

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