On November 29, 1929, NBC debuted the now world-famous NBC Chimes for the first time on broadcast radio. From its introduction to today, these chimes have a unique history. Here’s the story on why the NBC Chimes were created, and how they helped pioneer the concept of sonic branding.
The Importance Of Sonic Branding
Today, brands are very aware of sonic branding. They all use sonic branding and jingles in TV commercials, movie studio opening animations, and video game console start up screens.
There’s no debating whether or not jingles work (they do). Just watch this video of DJ Derek Lee getting random people on the street to name that brand after he plays its jingle.
Some popular examples of sonic branding include the jingles for McDonald’s “Ba da da da daaaa… I’m Lovin’ It”, “Intel Inside”, or the XBox 360 and PlayStation startup sounds.
These short little combinations of music and sound effects are BIG business! In 2019, Mastercard famously paid $15 million dollars on a new sonic brand.
However, one of the earliest forms of sonic branding was created by NBC in the late 1920s.
Why The NBC Chimes Were Created
In 1926, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), then owned by General Electric (GE), Westinghouse, AT&T, and United Fruit Company, combined their radio stations into a “network” called the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).
The NBC radio network was a huge success and the company quickly acquired more local radio stations across the United States. But as the company grew, it began to experience a variety of coordination challenges. One of NBC’s biggest issues was how to signal their stations when national programming was ending and when local programming needed to resume.
The NBC Chimes Notes
A small team within NBC was tasked with creating an NBC jingle that could be used as an audio switching cue for the NBC radio affiliates. The group included Oscar (O.B.) Hanson from NBC engineering, orchestra leader Earnest LaPrada, and NBC announcer Phillips Carlin.
Between 1927 and 1928, the group experimented with several NBC chimes notes. One of their ideas used a seven-note chime sequence using the notes, G-C-G-E-G-C-E. Because the chimes needed to be played live by a radio announcer, the long sequence proved to be too difficult. Announcers had trouble remembering the sequence, playing the notes, and voicing their announcements at the same time.
In an effort to make the sequence simpler, and help announcers remember what notes are in the NBC Chimes, the team shortened the sequence to just three notes, G-E-C. Not only was this sequence simpler to play, but it was also easy to remember. The NBC chime notes notes were the abbreviation of NBC’s parent company at the time, the General Electric Company.
If someone ever asks you what the NBC Chimes notes are, now you know! G-E-C for General Electric Company.
The Radio Debut Of The NBC Chimes
On November 29, 1929, the new NBC jingle made its radio broadcast debut. That day, an NBC announcer said…
“This is the National Broadcasting Company.”
And then they struck the NBC Chimes notes sequence, G-E-C, by hand using a set of Deagan Dinner Chimes.
The NBC Chimes Were Actually Just “Dinner Chimes”
The NBC Chimes were played using dinner chimes? Yes! At the time, dinner chimes were fairly common. They were a melodic way of signaling dinner time, or other important events. Even railroads and cruise ships utilized dinner chimes to call passengers to the dining car.
Today, one of the few venues that still use dinner chimes are theaters and concert halls. Ushers will often use them as a way to indicate the beginning of a performance. And since the initial premise of radio was to bring the theater experience into the home of listeners, the early use of dinner chimes by NBC wasn’t as strange as it sounds.
So, to execute this new audio signal, every announcer booth at every NBC radio station across the country were all outfitted with several sets of dinner chimes for their announcers.
The Chimes Find Life Beyond Their Initial Purpose As A Switching Cue
Between 1929-1941, the NBC Chimes were struck 30 seconds before each hour, and half hour, as a signal to engineers at all NBC local stations.
In 1938, the Federal Trade Commission (FCC) began an investigation into broadcasting monopolies. NBC was the dominate broadcaster in the United States and was clearly in their sights. At the time, NBC was operating a network of so many radio stations that they had to spilt them into two separate networks, a Red and Blue network.
The FCC’s report was released in 1941 and it recommended that NBC split off one of its networks, which they did. NBC spun off its Blue network and sold it to Edward J. Noble, the owner of the Life Savers candy company, on December 8, 1941. Noble called his new broadcast company the American Broadcast Company (ABC).
After the split of the Red and Blue networks, the chimes were no longer necessary. The original purpose of the NBC Chimes was to provide a signal for engineers to switch between the Red and Blue networks. Yet, both NBC and ABC continued to use the same chimes sequence in their programming. That’s right, both companies that were now competitors, still wanted to use the same chimes!
The battle over the chimes continued for several years, until in 1946, Congress enacted a new law giving recognition to trade symbols used in services, as opposed to trademarks applied directly to merchandise. On November 20, 1947, NBC submitted an application to the United States Patent and Trademark Office for registration for …
“A sequence of musical chime–like notes which in the key of C sound the notes G, E, C, the G being the one just below Middle C; the E the one just above Middle C, the C being Middle C, thereby to identify applicant’s broadcasting service.”
The Patent and Trademark Office granted NBC’s request, thus giving NBC the first registered Service Mark in U.S. history on April 4, 1950. It also made NBC the first company ever to register a sonic brand.
NBC Lets Their Radio Trademark For The NBC Chimes Lapse
One of the more perplexing parts of the NBC Chimes story, is why NBC let their chimes trademark lapse.
The trademark for using the chimes to identify radio programming expired on November 3, 1992. Not only is registration #523616 for the NBC Chimes expired, but the record was destroyed in 1996. Just 40 years prior, NBC was fighting with ABC for exclusive use of the chimes. So why did they let it go?
NBC got out of the radio business in the 1990s. Under the leadership of NBC president Bob Wright, NBC made the strategic move to sell its radio assets and expand into cable television with channels like CNBC and MSNBC.
Although NBC let their claim on the chimes for radio use lapse, the trademark for using the NBC Chimes in television and other digital purposes is still live and actively maintained.
The History Of The NBC Chimes: From A Switching Cue To World-Famous Sonic Brand
What first started as a simple switching cue in 1929, slowly evolved into something much more. The Chimes became part of the NBC brand. Radio listeners loved the Chimes so much that NBC began selling novelty sets NBC Chimes in 1938.
NBC originally asked Oscar (O.B.) Hanson from NBC engineering, orchestra leader Earnest LaPrada, and NBC announcer Phillips Carlin to create an audio switching cue. Little did they know at the time, but their solution to this problem would make history. Not only did the NBC Chimes serve a practical purpose, but they became the sonic branding identity for NBC, one of the most famous brands in the world.
NERD NOTE: The Chimes were so popular that they were even used as NBC’s official logo between 1953-1959.
Where You Can Find NBC Chimes For Sale Online
Over the years, NBC has made collectable NBC Chimes sets for clients and executives. If you are lucky, you can occasionally find some official NBC Chimes for sale online (~$250+ via eBay). I own a set of these novelty NBC Chimes. They are a great desk toy, but don’t have a powerful tone.
You can also buy an antique set of Deagan Dinner Chimes (~$80+ via eBay). That’s what the NBC announcers used in the early days of the NBC Radio Network. Because Deagan Dinner Chimes are musical instruments, they can create a fuller “chime sound”.
Or, if you have trouble finding both NBC Chimes and Deagan Dinner Chimes, then try searching for meeting chimes. Just make sure you buy a set of meeting chimes that include the notes G-E-C.
Frank Wilson is a retired teacher with over 30 years of combined experience in the education, small business technology, and real estate business. He now blogs as a hobby and spends most days tinkering with old computers. Wilson is passionate about tech, enjoys fishing, and loves drinking beer.