SALT LAKE CITY — When the Tabernacle on Temple Square closed to the public as a precaution during World War II, it seemed “Music and the Spoken Word” would have to end.
It was March 1942, and the broadcast put on by what was then called the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had been going for almost 13 years, reaching live audiences in the Tabernacle and even more people by radio.
The Tabernacle remained closed until August 1945, according to author and historian Heidi Swinton, but “Music and the Spoken Word” didn’t skip a beat. The Tabernacle was empty, but the choir continued to sing. And when it came time for then-announcer Richard L. Evans to share his message of hope, he faced away from the vacant seats and presented it to the choir.
But many people, including soldiers, were also listening from afar.
“During the war, they really ramped up the capacity of the radio signal so that even the military out in the Pacific could get that ‘Music and the Spoken Word’ broadcast,” Swinton said. “They also had a contract with the government to provide music to the European front. … Soldiers could hear (the choir), and also people who were in their very lives being threatened by the Third Reich. So there was a broad reach, even though there wasn’t an actual congregation to sing to.”
Not having a live audience is one of the challenges “Music and the Spoken Word” has faced during its long history, which began three months before the devastating market crash of 1929 and celebrated a 90-year milestone on Sunday, July 14. But throughout nine decades, the program has never missed a week.
“No one knew it at the time, but July 15, 1929, marked the dawning of the longest continuously broadcast network program in history,” longtime “Music and the Spoken Word” announcer Lloyd Newell said during Sunday’s 90th-anniversary program. “There are other things in this world that have lasted 90 years or longer, but it’s rare in the world of broadcasting.”
‘A crude beginning’
For a program to have the longevity of “Music and the Spoken Word,” its history would have to date back to the early days of radio.
“Radio was in its infancy when the choir began; they are kind of side by side in history,” Swinton said. “(Radio stations) were looking for programming — everyone was looking for something that people would want to listen to, and an obvious was a program that provided music that would go into peoples’ homes and be uplifting. The choir was one of the well-known choirs in the country, and I think it was just a natural that it evolved. They tried it and it worked.”
On a hot summer Monday afternoon in 1929, NBC aired the first “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast. A single microphone captured the sound of the choir and organ, and organist Edward Kimball’s son, 19-year-old Ted Kimball, remained perched on a ladder during the entire broadcast, speaking into the microphone to announce the songs.
“It was kind of a crude beginning in terms of what we see today,” Swinton said.
Thirty stations carried that simple program, which extended across the country and reached NBC headquarters in New York City. Today, around 2,000 television, radio and cable stations throughout the world — including the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand — carry the weekly broadcast, which is also live-streamed online.
“In such a difficult time for our country, the Great Depression, this little tiny broadcast from Salt Lake City goes on the air, and who could’ve imagined 90 years later it would still be on the air, growing and reaching more people than ever because of the media possibilities now?” Newell told the Deseret News. “There are just scores of different ways to access the broadcast today that didn’t exist years ago.”
‘The voice of America’
Today, Newell and choir director Mack Wilberg typically plan the message and music for any given program three to four weeks in advance. But sometimes, as “America’s Choir,” The Tabernacle Choir on Temple Square shifts its weekly broadcast to reflect national events and even tragedies.
Which is why on Nov. 24, 1963 — two days after John F. Kennedy’s assassination — the choir, under Richard Condie’s direction, paid tribute to the former president in a special program CBS requested be expanded to 90 minutes, according to a timeline provided by the Church History Department (CBS carried the “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast from 1932 to 1995). The program, however, was interrupted about halfway through with the breaking news that Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been shot. KSL-TV rebroadcast the program in its entirety later that evening.
Two decades later, on Feb. 2, 1986 — a few days following the space shuttle Challenger disaster — the “Music and the Spoken Word” broadcast paid tribute to the seven lives lost with patriotic songs, including “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ‘tis of Thee,” according to the Church History Department timeline. Copies of the broadcast were sent to the families of those who died, and one was also sent to then-President Ronald Reagan.
“The choir’s kind of agile,” Swinton said. “They are able to respond and be the voice of America in a way that is soothing and brings peace and hope and guidance, that gives voice to what people are feeling all across the country.”
From the Great Depression to Pearl Harbor to Kennedy’s assassination to the Vietnam War, “Music and the Spoken Word” has persisted with music and messages crafted to inspire. All of which helped prepare the choir for one of the most challenging and emotional broadcasts of its 90-year history: The Sunday following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I had another message written, ready to go. The music was programmed. And then 9/11 happened and we said, ‘We can't just go with the regular program we have scheduled,’ so we changed the music and I wrote a (new) Spoken Word that day,” Newell recalled. “We’re not a news organization, we’re not editorializing, but there are certain things that we feel like we need to say something about through music and spoken word. … We would’ve looked irrelevant and somewhat ridiculous if after 9/11 we just went with our regular programming.”
The choir’s president, Ron Jarrett, sang with the choir from 1999 to 2008, and 18 years later, he can still vividly recall that program on Sept. 16, 2001.
”The broadcast was very special, extremely moving and emotionally satisfying,” he said. “Knowing that people were hurting — the nation was hurting — but we were there to comfort, was a very special experience.”
‘A trusted friend’
“Music and the Spoken Word” was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 2010. The program added in television broadcasts in 1962, and today, the double impact of both radio and TV allows the choir and now Orchestra at Temple Square to reach even more listeners. But even with the technological advances, Newell said the spirit of the broadcast remains the same.
Which is why on Sunday the choir, accompanied by organist Brian Mathias — who grew up listening to “Music and the Spoken Word” from his home in Minneapolis — opened its broadcast the same way it did 90 years ago: by singing “The Morning Breaks.”
“Even though that song is the same, what you (heard) Sunday (was) different from what they heard 90 years ago,” Newell said. “It’s the same song, but now we have a Mack Wilberg arrangement of it and we have the orchestra … and there’s the visual appeal. So it’s the same song, but it’s different 90 years later.”5 comments on this story
But the purpose of “Music and the Spoken Word” is unchanging, to be a source of “light, goodness, inspiration, beauty and peace” for its listeners, Newell said. The broadcast’s weekly messages and music cut through religious persuasion and political beliefs. It is, as Newell puts it, designed to be a constant companion.
“I look at the broadcast as a trusted friend. It’s been there through good times and bad, ups and downs in the world, the nation and in our own communities and individual lives,” he said. “It’s a free gift, an offering to the community and to the world every week.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said the "Music and the Spoken Word" 9/11 tribute program took place on Sept. 4, 2001. It took place on Sept. 16, 2001.