Day 6

The beginning of the long dash: Happy 80th anniversary to CBC Radio's longest running segment

The National Research Council's official time signal airs on CBC Radio every day at 1 p.m. ET. For CBC Radio fans, it's one of the most iconic and beloved sentences uttered on the network. Laurence Wall is one of the voices of the time signal.

The National Research Council's official time signal began on Nov. 5, 1939

For 80 years, the National Research Council official time signal has helped keep Canadians in sync. It celebrates a milestone anniversary on Nov. 5. (Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images)

In the 1930s, it helped sailors properly set their instruments for navigation.

It allowed railway companies to be punctual, and helped Canadians set their watches with precision every day.

Today, if you're a CBC Radio aficionado, you may recognize its repeated beeps over the airwaves every day just before 1 p.m. ET.

To many, the National Research Council official time signal is a fixture of Canadian society. And on Nov. 5, the longest running segment on CBC Radio turns 80 years old.

Day 6 host Brent Bambury spoke with Laurence Wall, one of the current voices of the National Research Council time signal, about its origins, its importance, and where it stands in the digital age.

Here is part of their conversation.

Laurence, I love hearing your voice, and people must recognize you when you're out in public. Have you ever heard someone say, "Hey, are you the time signal?"

It's usually taxi drivers, because they listen to the CBC all the time.

I was at an event that I was hosting and the organizer introduced me as the guy who does the time signal. And a young man came up to me after the event and told me that he had lived in Hong Kong for two years, and at different times he was terribly homesick.

So his solution — because there's a 12 hour [time] difference — he would stay up until 1 a.m. and listen for the time signal opener, and that got him through. Every time he heard that, he was reconnected to home.

Laurence, why do we even have a time signal?

It goes back to 1939. The [Second World War] had just begun. It was two months old at that point and timekeeping was still relatively primitive. People had watches, they had clocks, of course. But these had to be constantly wound and you had to readjust it all the time, and you never really knew if your time was accurate or not.

It was critical for groups like railways, shipping companies and so on. So they brought in the Dominion Observatory time signal — that was the original form.

The observatory was on Carling Avenue in Ottawa near the experimental farm. And they would take astronomical observances and then they would combine that with a pendulum clock which was state of the art for 1939. And that gave them time that was accurate to within one second a year. Now we've got the atomic clock which is accurate to within a second or two every million years or so. 

The premiere time signal broadcast was included in the Nov. 5, 1939 edition of the CBC Program Guide (CBC Archives)

But the time signal script the part that you voice has changed over the years. What has changed in the script, and why has it changed?

We got some new equipment in the Toronto master control as we call it, which is the electronic nerve centre of the CBC Radio operation. And this new equipment couldn't handle the 10 seconds of silence because it would interpret that as going off the air. So it would electronically freak out and bad things would happen from there.

So they decided they would drop that reference to the 10 seconds of silence and just go without. So we had to change the opening for that.

I have a clip here of what was then called the Dominion time signal. That was because, before 1962, a branch of CBC Radio was known as the Dominion Network. And let's listen to this.

The CBC's Alan Maitland voices the National Research Council official time signal in 1962.

That's Alan Maitland, who's the CBC legend probably best remembered for reading The Shepherd on As It Happens every Christmas. So how much pressure, Laurence, comes with following a voice like that and being the voice of the time signal now?

It's not pressure so much as an acknowledgement that I am standing on the shoulders of giants and I greatly appreciate being able to do this. I've done it now for 12 years and I really feel that I am part of that wonderful history of CBC Radio.

You were once part of a War of the Worlds-type radio play … the famous broadcast by Orson Welles. But somehow the time signal got included in that play. What was going on there?

The director is a part-timer at the CBC and she said, "Why don't you ad-lib something about the time signal?" because this was the point when the broadcast crew was freaking out realizing the kind of panic that they had inadvertently caused by talking about the Martian invasion.

Let's hear how that went down in the room. Here's a scene from that play featuring Laurence Wall as one of the actors.

The CBC's Laurence Wall, acting in a play, voices his lines for the National Research Council official time signal.

Every night it got big, big laughs. But there was one night I found out about later. There was a group of teachers from Spain who was in the audience and … they [had] been brought to this play by their hosts who thought this would be fun to see and get a little bit of Canadiana at the same time.

When I started launching into the time signal opening, everyone around them was laughing and they were looking around thinking, "What are these crazy Canadians talking about?" And their hosts had to explain to them, "Well, we have the time signal and this is why it's so reflective of what Canada is all about."

It really underscores for me the very Canadian-ness of the time signal and how we can never change it.

The time signal was created in the world of analog. Now we're in a digital world. Do you have any concerns that the CBC might one day say this thing is an anachronism, we don't need it anymore, it's going out the door along with Don Messer and everything else we've cancelled over the years?

I can't predict what the CBC would do of course. But my suspicion is it's become such a part of the Canadian firmament that I don't think they would be very quick to want to change it or heaven forbid drop it altogether.

Yes, we've got accurate clocks now. But people still like to listen to it, and I still run into people who say, "Aren't you the guy who does the time signal?" not "Aren't you the guy who does the news in Ottawa?"

So it's that time signal that really resonates with them still, and I think it always will.

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Click 'Listen' above to hear the full conversation.