Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Clock

We are there again; that day that we spend hours resetting clocks back an hour after Daylight Saving Time ends. It seems that we spend most of that hour we got back messing around with clocks.

The analog clocks are the easiest, and they all work the same. Just grab that knob on the back and crank until the time is right. Worst case scenario with them is that on most analog clocks, you can only crank forward so you must crank through 11 hours and heaven forbid that you crank too far because then you have to crank 12 more. Boom! Done!

The problem with the digital clocks is that each and every one has a different method and button selection to reset it. And to top that, none are intuitive. “Press the third button on the right while holding your tongue to your left cheek” will get you where you want to be on one clock when “Standing on your head, press and hold the left button until the hour digit is correct” sets the next one.

The radio controlled clocks are supposed to be the easiest. Supposedly they will set themselves off of the signal from the National Bureau of Standards atomic clock broadcast from Fort Collins Colorado on WWV. The only problem with that is that if you live in the Southeast part of the country, the signal from WWV is spotty and a little bit unreliable. So half the radio controlled clocks in the house made the change but the other half didn’t. To that point, I have three in my studio and two of them did not make the shift. One pair is less than a foot apart! Go figure.

Left: THE Clock Naturally, the clock that the most difficult to set is one that I have to set by hand. It is a radio controlled analog clock! You might ask why I mess with an analog clock. The answer is simple; when I give time on the air from the shows that I produce in the studio I want to be able to say “20 minutes until the hour” instead of “40 minutes past the hour.” All those years reading from the analog clocks on studio walls had trained me to be able to do that almost automatically. I still can’t do that from digital clocks as easily as I can read the hands on the clock on the upside of each hour.

So, in the next hour or so, I’ll pull this clock down off the wall, change the battery and then fiddle with it to get the time as close to the actual time as I can. The problem is the second hand. It resets to zero when your push the set button to advance the hour and minute hands and then starts ticking when you release but button. So the trick is to be able to time it to get the hour and minutes to align with the correct time at the exact second that the correct time starts the next minute. You can count on language that cannot be used on the air will be uttered before I get the second hand close enough for me to use and to where it will align off the radio signal the next time conditions are right for the clock to receive the signal from WWV.

Each time I go through the clock resetting period, my mind’s eye wanders back in time to those iconic Western Union Clocks that were connected by a telephone circuit to the US Naval Observatory. They were ubiquitous to almost every radio or television station in which I worked. There was red light just above the numeral 6 at the bottom of the clock that flashed each time the clock received the reset signal at the top of the hour. None of the clocks that I ever worked with were very accurate, but they were extremely stable. For example, I knew that the clock in the control room at WCOS was 2 seconds fast, the signal always came at 2 seconds past the hour, the light would flash and the second hand on the clock would snap to attention momentarily under the number 12. So it was easy to time out the record and the station ID and hit the network program at the top of the hour. At WCOS, there were not many network programs, so that kind of accuracy was not really necessary. I still practiced hitting the top of the hour because I knew that someday I would need to be able to do that.

The clock in the Master Control Room at WIS-TV was a second and a half slow. So each top of the hour at 1 and ½ seconds before the hour, I knew that we had to punch the network button on the switcher to pick up the time tone from NBC. That wasn’t too hard because each station break was 1 minute and 15 seconds long. There was time for one 60 second commercial (or two 30 second commercials) a 10 second promotional announcement and a five second station ID. I would always check the clock at the beginning of the station break to make sure that the clock was the usual second and a half slow. And, you know what, it never varied!

The most accurate Western Union Clock I ever used was the one at WIS-Radio. It was exactly one half second slow. When I was chief engineer there, I would help out the programming department by filling in on a weekend show every now and then when the regular weekend announcer was out. I could back time my last record of the hour to end at 5 seconds before the hour so I could announce “This is Radio 56, WIS Radio, Columbia, SC” while turning up the network channel on the audio board and have the NBC Time tone put the period on the sentence; that was as satisfying as walking up a record and hitting the post. Oh MY!

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