Behind the scenes with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Published: Monday, Nov. 1 2010 6:00 a.m. MDT

Choir members get dressed and prepare for the Oct. 17 broadcast of "Music and the Spoken Word" at the Tabernacle. The choir will be inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame next month.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — At 9:30 sharp on Sunday morning, the cue is given and soft music caresses the Tabernacle: \"Gently raise the sacred strain, for the Sabbath's come again, that man may rest, that man may rest.\"

For the next half-hour, the Tabernacle will be filled with the glorious sounds of \"Music and the Spoken Word.\" And not only this building, but through the magic of radio, television and cable, the sounds will go out to fill the homes and buildings and centers served by about 2,000 stations around the country.

It has been that way, week in and week out, for 82 years now, the longest-running, continuous broadcast in the country.

Today's broadcasts, of course, are much different from those in 1929, initiated by LDS Church President Heber J. Grant. On July 15, as the famous story goes, KZN radio, forerunner of KSL and a stepchild of the Deseret News, temporarily went off the air so that its only microphone could be transported to the Tabernacle, where a technician perched atop a 15-foot ladder could hold it for the 30-minute musical program.

Nationwide radio had only been operating for a few years, but KZN immediately began lobbying for a coast-to-coast broadcast. Thirty radio stations received the first NBC transmission. By the next year, quality of broadcasting had improved to the point that the New York Telegram noted: \"Somewhere in the world there may be more than one brilliant choral organization other than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but there is no broadcasting in America today to equal the one that comes from the air over the National Broadcasting System.\"

The program grew and changed as technology grew and changed, staying at the forefront all along the way. Eventually, the CBS radio and television network became the national partner.

Some things have not changed: the heartfelt messages, the musical expressions of faith — and the fact that it is still a live broadcast, or, at least, has come full-circle back to a live broadcast.

\"Live is almost a lost art,\" producer Edward J. Payne says. \"No one does a very complex show of music and art live anymore. They want several takes. They want to fine-tune the audio.\" He's had colleagues who can't believe he even tries a live program. \"And then they see our broadcast, and really can't believe that it is live.\"

There are stations that carry the program on tape delay, and occasionally, a number will be rerecorded after the broadcast to be inserted into what goes out, Payne says; sometimes a technical, sometimes a musical problem. \"But we do go live to a lot of stations. It's a great tradition we want to continue. When (LDS Church) President (Gordon B.) Hinckley was here, it was very important to him that it be a live program.\"

They make it look easy, but it takes a dedicated staff of producers, directors, sound and light technicians, camera operators and more to put together the weekly broadcast. \"They say the choir is as good as each individual singer,\" Payne says. \"Our broadcast is as good as each individual technician. We have incredible camera people, incredible directors. Our crew stacks up with any crew I've ever known, with the quality of work they do.\"

Technicians \"aspire to stay out of the way of the artists,\" he says. \"They do incredible audio. The video matches the music. The visual and audio presentation makes it as close to being in the Tabernacle as is possible.\"

* * *

Any given \"Music and The Spoken Word\" program begins about six weeks ahead of time, when Choir Director Mack Wilberg and \"Spoken Word\" head writer and deliverer Lloyd Newell get together.

They talk about what they would like to sing, what messages might be appropriate. Programs are firmed up a month ahead, and the scheduling begins.

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