What is this saying?
October 18, 2020 2:43 PM   Subscribe

I'm listening to the old NPR All Things Considered theme from between 1983 to 1995 (https://youtu.be/u5MKiTdWo4E) and have always heard Morse code. I can't figure out what it's saying. I hear either - dit-dit / dit-dah-dit-dah-dit or dit-dit / dah-dah-dit-dah-dit. What is it actually saying and is it something composer B.J. Liederman inserted as something for insiders?
posted by CollectiveMind to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry, meant Don Voegeli.
posted by CollectiveMind at 2:47 PM on October 18

My guess is it's meant to mimic, or evoke, the sound of teletype machines that were found in newsrooms. NPR ran a story once about the theme and some variations, though I have yet to find a transcript or a listenable audio file of the story.
posted by knile at 7:10 PM on October 18 [5 favorites]

Well, when I was young a long time ago I was a licensed amateur radio operator. Now I only remember the mnemonics like EISH and TMO, etc. But I looked it up and, dit-dit is "I", a string of 5 is uncommon but perhaps dah-dah-dit and then dah-dit, which would be "GN" so it could be "IGN" but I doubt it.

I also had a friend who had gotten some government surplus teletype equipment and would use it to communicate with other similarly equipped "ham operators". So I am familiar with the sound of a teletype and your audio clip might evoke that, though not as clipped or mechanical as the real thing.

I would add that one of the radio stations in my area (KYW 1060) used to have a faint background teletype sound in the background (as knile points out). See this story about it being discontinued, which has a sample report where you can hear it faintly in the background. I remember listening to the school snow storm closing reports with that sound in the background. Ah, nostalgia.
posted by forthright at 8:05 PM on October 18 [1 favorite]

I worked in a newsroom in a time when AP and UPI teletypes were on their way out of the newsroom .. like, in the early 80s. Their sound is distinctive and consistent; tap, tap, tap tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, return, tap, tap, ... etc. The piano mimicing morse code does seem to me to be morse code more than teletypes. But you're right ... the sequence doesn't make sense. NPR is full of cleverly smart people. I can't believe they would insert a fascimile of morse code and not have it actually spell out something.
posted by CollectiveMind at 9:17 PM on October 18 [1 favorite]

It’s actually doing a famous African/Afro-Latin 12/8 bell pattern sometimes known as the Short Bell: https://youtu.be/ZtokbjPdYhM I would bet that’s more likely the source.
posted by argybarg at 10:44 PM on October 18 [3 favorites]

BJ Liederman is on Instagram under his regular name, you could ask him directly!
posted by mccxxiii at 1:39 AM on October 19 [1 favorite]

It seems to be a recomposed version of the original, which is more electronic, but also sounds even more like a riff on the drum beat argybarg posted.
posted by Jahaza at 9:01 AM on October 19

The "teletype" sound of newscast theme songs is a deeeeep rabbit hole. Here's a bunch of CBS Radio "bumpers" and "beds" from the 1970s. There's that same "urgent-staccato-something" like what you're hearing in the ATC intro, right? Sometimes it's strings (@0:00), sometimes it's bells and synthesized beeps (@0:48. thank Eric Siday for that one)

But if you think harder, that's not a teletype sound, it's closer to Morse code. But it's not quite Morse.

Composer Joel Beckerman points out here that WABC (New York) used pieces of "The Tar Sequence" from Lalo Schifrin's soundtrack to Cool Hand Luke and used it for decades. Other ABC stations used too. It became synonymous with "news". But take a moment and rewind back to the intro of that piece. Sound familiar?

To go back to your question: all of it was probably never meant to spell anything. Everyone was just copying everyone else and now we have an archetype in our heads that says "NEWS!".

And I had fun writing this answer so that's enough for me.
posted by mookoz at 3:42 PM on October 19 [2 favorites]

Argybarg has it. It's an iron bell pattern used in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian religious music like Santeria or Candomblé more often than secular or pop music, although it does show up in jazz sometimes, post-Dizzy.
posted by umbú at 10:31 AM on October 21

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