CBS News Radio Goes Chirpless

July 13, 2009 by

NATIONWIDE -- If you catch the top-of-hour news on WIBX/Utica, WTNY/Watertown, WHCU/Ithaca or any other CBS affiliate, you'll notice something missing today: those quick little "chirp" tones that had been part of the newscasts for more than three decades. first learned about the change through one of the local radio personalities we're following on Twitter -- who re-tweeted the message from WCBS afternoon anchor Steve Scott:

End of an era: Familiar chirp tone from CBS Radio goes away Monday after 30+ years. Technologically no longer needed. RIP chirp! - WCBS 880

In 140 characters or less, that's basically the story.  In an apparent response to a listener's question, a few moments later, Scott tweeted:

For the record, the top of the hour "bong" or "boing" remains. It's the chirp cue tone just before it that's being retired.

For decades, local stations relied on the networks to send various tones in order to trigger various elements.  But with the advent of digital satellite feeds over the past 10 years or so, many of those tones have been replaced by contact closures, digital signals that basically perform the same purpose, but don't make any sounds on-air.

Trying to find more history and details on the CBS News Radio chirp, we found a rather plain looking page called "Some History of CBS," which provides the following:

The chirp is an automation start pulse. It can be used by stations to switch equipment, but it actually was used in the network control room to start cartridge machines. The producer of the newscast who sits in the studio alongside of the newscaster had a toggle switch on the table to sound the chirp. The chirp before the bong might start the jingle. The chirp before the ads starts the ads. They had a bank of three sets of four cart machines for the ads, one machine for each of four segments of the country. If there were split-ads that were heard in only part of the country there might be different ads in the machines on the same bank. If the ad was nationwide there was an identical cartridge in each of the four machines. The bongs were automatically sounded by a clock, but the chirps were manually hit.

Not much else came up in our search, so we're not sure exactly how true that is.  But we'd have to find it hard to believe CBS was still using old-fashioned cart machines for these functions up until yesterday.  No details on whether there were any "holdout" affiliates relying on the audible chirps either (considering networks, not affiliates, usually provided the StarGuide receivers), or if they were just included for nostalgic purposes, or perhaps for any affiliates staffed with live board operators.

6 comments on “CBS News Radio Goes Chirpless”

  1. Another radio tech fixture gone off to wherever dead tech goes to die. Signals like that, which were on all the networks in some form, were also used to alert stations about upcoming news bulletins.

    Back when Mutual first converted to satellite (25 years ago), there was talk of a plan to silence the "bee-doop" signals with inaudible, subchannel controlled relays at the sat receiver. The problem was that stations that received their net feed via landline from a receiver located somewhere else other than their studio would be out of luck. (Many stations at the time had their 6 foot or bigger dishes with satellite receivers at their transmitter sites.) Mutual ultimately quieted the bee-doops by modifying the square-wave signal generators (which originally came from similar equipment used in the two-way radio industry) to send barely audible, but easily detected, sine-wave signals instead.

    I suspect similar difficulties with distant landline-connected downlinks also delayed CBS and possibly other nets from eliminating such in-band signals for many years. How big is a CBS downlink dish today?

  2. Mutual was more like "blue-doop" than "bee-doop". After working at Mutual stations for years, to this day My Wife looks at me and says "blue-doop", and we both smile and laugh. How can they eliminate something like this without seriously affecting us radio people? What will replace a good "blue-doop" or "chirp"? We'll just have to find something else to amuse ourselves. Heck, I'm still in mourning over the elimination of the tone beep on telephone conversations broadcast over the air. Listen to an old aircheck with a phone conversation or an interview done over the phone to relive the exciting days of radio. Remember when you called some chick for a date using the radio station telephone, and she would say..hey, are you recording me?

  3. I'm glad that the top-of-hour "BONG" will remain! I first remembered hearing the "BONG" on CBS-TV in the mid-1960s, when I was about 5 years old, every weekday morning before "The Captain"! I then noticed it every hour on CBS-TV, and then later on CBS Radio. (I was a big fan of the Mystery Theater in the 1970s, and dialed around late at night to hear numerous CBS Radio affiliates carrying Mystery Theater at various times). CBS-TV stopped going "BONG" at the top-of-the-hour in the early 1980s, but CBS Radio has continued the hourly "BONG" ever since. And as a collector of old radio/TV/moves/nostalgia, I found out that CBS Radio began the "BONG" circa 1938! I have several old radio shows on tape or mp3 from the 1940s/50s-era which start off with the "BONG" tone.

    As for the "chirps", they are officially called NetALERT tones. CBS began the first version of NetALERT "bleep" tones in 1961, which was a single multi-frequency BLEEP tone for automation. Different functions would be done by "bleeping" sequentially every 1/2 second... i.e, five quick "bleeps" would indicate a NetALERT bulletin to come down the line. I remember hearing this happen during the CBS Mystery Theater several times in the 1970s, such as during the Summer 1977 NYC power blackout.

    In June 1978, CBS replaced their 1961 NetALERT system with the one used until this past Monday (13-July-2009). This second version fo the NetALERT system had numerous combinations of multi-frequency chirps, so any specific function could be signaled with ONE unique chirp, rather than a sequence of two to nine uniform bleeps (of course a single bleep was the most common one) in the 1961-78 NetALERT system.

    I have heard several 1961/62 era episodes of the CBS Radio drama series of the "old days", "Suspense" and "Johnny Dollar", which have six Net-ALERT "bleeps" sounding during the program, but there was no news bulletin breaking in! Maybe CBS was testing out the new NetALERT system back then?

    The MutALERT BEE-doops can still be heard on some regional and statewide networks. Mutual itself was still using bee-doops as late as 1999 when they were completely folded into CBS/Westwood.

    NBC Radio had low-pitched "gurgle" tones for their "Hotline" alerting system. Those tones were still heard on CBS/Westwood-produced, NBC-branded newscasta as late as May 2004, when "NBC-branded" CBS/Westwood-originated newscasts at the top of the hour ended. NBC's Hotline system dated back to the 1950s. There are probably copies of MONITOR with the Hotline "gurgle" tones/signals.

    ABC Radio had a signaling system which began in Jan.1968 when the four ABC Radio format brands/packages (Information, Entertainment, Contemporary, FM) began. It was a tone that sounded like an insect buzz, used before certain comercial breaks or program starts/stops. In 1982, when ABC Radio added two more format packages (Direction, Rock) and their TalkRadio satellite service, they upgraded to a new automation system, using a more subtle squeak or "buzz", and one which was more advanced, with different frequency combinations for different functions. The 1968-82 system was a single buzz-tone which simply cue'd up things, or could simply alert that a bulletin was about to break in. In the mid-1990s, ABC Radio eliminated audible cue-tones and sent "control" functions down a data channel separate from the program audio channel.

    Some other smaller radio networks (APRadio, UPIRadio, state/regional networks, sports networks, etc.) have been known to use all sixteen of the full telephone touchtone (DTMF) keypad buttons for various control functions.

    And finally, CBS Radio seems to be the ONLY network to still have some kind of top-of-the-hour tone, the BONG. CBS-TV stopped going BONG in the early 1980s.

    ABC Radio and ABC-TV had a 1-Kc "bip" tone in the 1968 thru early 1980s period. It disappeared from ABC-TV in the early 1980s, and from ABC Radio in 1984. (Prior to 1968, ABC Radio -- I don't know about ABC-TV -- had a "chord" sounding tone at the top-of-the-hour, but since the hourly news was at :55, it wasn't heard all that much, except for the various occasional commentaries that started at :00, such as Paul Harvey, Edward P. Morgan, etc; Prior to 1954 or so, ABC Radio was still using NBC/RCA studios in NY, Chicago, DC, Frisco, Los Angeles, and used NBC's tones).

    NBC Radio was still using their 700-Hz BEEEEEP tone at the top of the hour until Sept.1992 when Westwood/Mutual Arlington absorbed NBC Radio's functinos. I have tapes/mp3s of MONITOR and NBC-Radio-News-on-the-Hour from the 1960s with the BEEEEEP at the top-of-the-hour, and there are numerous old radio shows of the 1940s/50s with that tone. NBC-TV also went BEEEEP at the top-of-the-hour until the early 1980s -- I can remember hearing that BEEEEP as the 1960s-era "Laramie" peacock would start fluttering its feathers with the harps and flute music. And as mentioned, at least ABC Radio (the old NBC Blue Network) was still co-located with NBC/RCA until around 1954, and ABC Radio used the same 700-Hz BEEEEEP tones that NBC was producing.

    Mutual had a multi-frequency awful sounding BLOOOOP tone at :00 and :30 back in the 1970s. But I've heard Mutual programs from the 1940s/50s/60s that had the same 700-Hz BEEEEEP that NBC (and ABC) was using at the top of the hour, back then.

    [chirp; BONG; dee-Dee-DEEE-doo-dah -- "CBS News, Douglas Edwards reporting" ...
    "This is the CBS... Radio Network"; chirp]

  4. Will miss the chirp. It made the broadcasts unique. I remember in the 60's the chirps were much louder and I would sometimes hear them during local broadcasts when a Net-Alert report was forthcoming. (I guess WKAT in Miami left the network line on most of the time) I hope they don't get the idea to drop the top of the hour tone.

  5. To Mark-in-Louisiana: would love to hear your mp3 recordings of the NBC 700-hz beep tones. I have set up my computers to sound off at the top of the hour, with the still-current CBS "bong," and replicated versions of the ABC "pip" and a 700-hz tone in honor of the NBC network. But I am not sure about the DURATION of that tone. Are your NBC mp3 files of the top-of-the-hour Monitor and hourly-news segments posted anywhere? If not, let me know and if you could e-mail them to me, I would be forever grateful. Thanks in advance!

  6. @charlestace
    There's a tribute site to NBC Monitor, -- it's NOT my site, but the work of Monitor-fan Dennis Hart in California. He has mp3 and realaudio examples of Monitor throughout its nearly 20-year history, some of them include the NBC-Monitor-News-on-the-Hour at the beginning, including the BEEEEEP tone. 700-Hz is probably not the "exact" frequency of the old NBC Radio (and TV) tone on the hour, but close to it. Also note that some of the audio clips of Monitor might run a bit "fast", so the tone might run quicker and a bit higher pitched than it should though. And on youtube and elsewhere, there are some clips of NBC Radio hourly news taped from WBAP Dallas/Ft.Worth, on Tuesday 26-Nov-1963, the day AFTER the Kennedy funeral, when things were back to... "normal". NBC Radio hourly news is running commercials again, but the news is still related to immediate aftermath of the death of Kennedy. WBAP joins the network right in time for the BEEEEEEP and the "whistling" and "tympani boom" NBC News sounder of the late 50s thru early 70s. I remember NBC News used that sounder for both radio and TV newscasts back then.


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