Direct URL stream: http://atosradio.com:8001/;stream/1
Station website: https://atosradio.org/atosradio/landings.html
ATOS website: https://www.atos.org/
I profiled this Hitchhiker Station in January of 2020 when I was writing Recommended Stations for Como Audio’s blog. Theater Organ Radio is the kind of station name that gets my attention. To be honest, when I think organ music, I think of being at a hockey or baseball game, in church, or riding a vintage carousel. ATOS Radio, however, is not that kind of station.
The American Theater Organ Society funds and runs ATOS Theater Organ Radio. The ATOS is focused on the preservation and promotion of the theater pipe organ and its music. Founded in 1955, the non-profit has over 60 chapters worldwide with over 3,000 members. I wonder if their members are organ donors as well. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
It’s hard for us to imagine going into a movie theater today and seeing and hearing a live organ, but in the 1920s and 30s when films were silent, the mighty organ provided the soundtrack. According to Wikipedia, there were over 7,000 organs in US cinemas between 1915-1933. Wurlitzer was perhaps the best-known theater organ and the company built more than 2,000 of them into the early 1940s. According to Smithsonian Magazine, in 1926 at its height, Wurlitzer shipped an organ a day. After the early 1930s, many theater organs were sold or scrapped. Less than 40 organs remain in their original venues today.
Since I wrote about this station 3 years ago, there have been some important changes. For one thing, ATOS Theater Organ Radio now streams at 128 kbps in the AAC codec instead of MP3, so the sound quality is even better. Secondly, the station has added more music to their library which now includes 6,000 CD tracks, 2,500 vinyl remasters, 1,200 live concert recordings, 500 archival tracks (78’s etc.), and exclusive content drawn from their archives. There’s even a new station logo.
What will you hear on ATOS Radio? The selections are surprisingly diverse. Here’s a sampling of songs that were piped into my ears during my listening sessions: On the Sunny Side of the Street, My Heart Will Go On, Brahms Lullaby, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, We’ll Meet Again, The White Cliffs of Dover, The Way You Look Tonight, Send In the Clowns, Shaking the Blues Away, How Great Thou Art, As Time Goes By, Baby Elephant Walk, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Ebb Tide, The Man I Love, Send a Little Love My Way, and Puttin’ on the Ritz.
You won’t hear commercials (the station is funded via listener donations) though there are occasional public service announcements for ATOS sponsored events. There’s only one announcer- Steve Ashley- host of the specialty show, “Hot Pipes”. There’s also two “curated” specialty shows from two of ATOS’ chapters, Dickinson and Eastern Mass.
ATOS sponsors a kind of annual organ summer camp mid-this month “designed for young theater organ enthusiasts who are interested in learning, developing, or refining their skills with the theater organ.” That should make for an interesting “what I did over my summer vacation” essay!
ATOS sponsors a kind of annual organ summer camp mid-this month “designed for young theater organ enthusiasts who are interested in learning, developing, or refining their skills with the theater organ.” That should make for a unique “what I did over my summer vacation” essay!
I reached out via email to Steve Worthington who recently retired after 30 years as ATOS Theater Organ Radio Producer, to get the story behind the station:
Peter: When did ATOS Radio first start streaming?
Steve: “The original stream was ‘Theater Organ Replay’ which featured older vinyl records and started in 2000 on live365. ATOS radio started in 2008.”
Peter: What decades does your music library span? What qualifies as “theater music”?
Steve: “Our library runs from 1920’s thru today, so basically 100 years. Theater organ music really spans a mix of entertainment played on the unit orchestra as built by Robert Hope Jones and Wurlitzer and refined by a number of other builders such as Barton, Kimball, Morton, Möller, etc.”
Peter: Do you play any rare recordings?
Steve: “Yes, we have a number of 78 [RPM] and acetate records in the playlist. Some of the most famous are those of Jesse and Helen Crawford.”
Peter: Are the recordings strictly solo organ or do some pieces include other instruments or vocals?
Steve: “There are lots of tracks that include more than just organ, be it vocals or more – examples are Billy Thorburn’s The Organ, The Dance Band & Me or recordings featuring Buddy Cole with [his] orchestra or big band, or Bob Hunter records with orchestra. Another example I’d [cite is] Gerhard Gregor with military bands.”
Peter: Do you know what and where the rarest working organ in the USA is?
Steve: “No such thing – lots of operational organs – there are remnants of one of the earliest Wurlitzer organs from Seattle in a Church in Spokane.”
Peter: Does ATOS Radio broadcast any live concerts?
Steve: “We have looked into live broadcasts of concerts but this is now mainly done through YouTube as video is as important as audio. All the concert material is recorded.”
Peter: Why do you encourage people to see organs in action?
Steve: “Not so much see as hear. Pipe Organs are about a presence that needs to be felt not just heard!”
Peter: Is there anything about organs or organ music that most people don’t know?
Steve: “Theater organs and church organs are very different and the repertoire is also different. Theater organs are about entertainment and a wow factor that can only be understood by attending a live theater organ event.”
William Gelhaus sits on ATOS’ board and took over administration of the radio station in January of this year. I hit him up with a few more questions:
Peter: What’s the purpose of the ATOS Theater Organ Radio stream?
Bill: “To promote Theater Pipe Organs, to make people aware of them and the wide variety of music they can provide. It also provides background music for those that want a more-gentle sound.”
Peter: What are the top 3 countries where the bulk of your listeners are based?
Bill: “USA, England, Australia.”
Peter: Are there any particular recordings you’re very fond of?
Bill: “As to favorites, with 12,000 items in the library, it is really hard to pick one. I do tend to enjoy some of the more current interpretations of music from the 60s on. The fun thing is that the Theater Pipe Organ can play almost any type of music with a little work and imagination by the artist.
“One example is one of the younger artists records ‘backing’ tracks with full drums, synthesizer, and other ‘sounds’ and uses that to add to the experience. Others do duets with various instrument and vocalist, one even did several songs with full harp, not something you would expect to see or hear.”
Peter: Do you know how low some of the recordings go? For example, 20Hz? Audiophiles and people with subwoofers will be interested!
Bill: “It depends on when and how the original recordings were made, and on which instrument. The pipe organ has a frequency range of 8Hz or below with sub-harmonics from a 64 ft pipe like those on the Atlantic City organ (typically most have 16 ft pipes with some larger instrument having 32 ft or equivalent) to 20kHz and above with the shortest pipe and their overtones (also the tuned percussion like bells, chimes, and the like, have very high harmonics). The instrument can also have a dynamic range of over 120db depending on the size of the instrument and its blower(s) and the voicing. You don’t want to spend a lot of time in a chamber when it’s being played. Of course, the older the recording, the less of a range, but it is surprising as to their quality.
“On the original recordings I’ve made to digital you can definitely see the subwoofer pumping. What’s interesting is if you are listening without it, you might not miss it, and then turn it on and you may not realize it’s there, but when you turn it off it’s like the floor disappeared. With today’s microphones and digital recorder[s] you can capture the full sound of the instrument.”
Peter: Back in the day, live organ music in a movie theater was standard, right?
Bill: “They were designed to accompany silent movies. That’s the reason they have what’s known as traps, percussion, and a toy counter. Today they are used still to accompany silent movies, along with walk-in/out music and stand-alone concerts.”
Peter: Anything else to add, Bill?
Bill: “If it’s in the online library you can request the system to play it, as long as it does not violate any of the streaming rules that exist.
“There are thousands more recordings that need to be saved, restored and transferred to digital in our archive. You can donate to its support at: https://membership.atos.org/donate/by-program
“Much of the current library has been ‘encoded’ over a 30-year period under various standards, requiring us to either re-in-code or ‘re-level’ the online library if the original source material is no longer available.
“We are also in the process of updating the software and website but it’s going to take a while.”
After the early 1930s, many theater organs were sold or scrapped. Less than 40 organs remain in their original venues today.
If you love the organ, or the theater, or just want to close your eyes and imagine how it felt to sit in a cinema 100 years ago, tune in ATOS Theater Organ Radio…and go ahead and turn up the bass a few notches!
Trivia (from Yamaha.com):“The biggest pipe organ in the world is the organ in the main auditorium of the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, United States. It is so big that the number of pipes is not accurately known. Published documentation suggests there are 33,114 pipes, and it is said that there are at least 32,000.”
Trivia (from Smithsonian Magazine): “The Smithsonian’s instrument is a rare, completely original Wurlitzer donated by the estate of Lowell Ayars, a New Jersey music teacher, in 1993. Ayars kept it in museum-quality condition during the 30-some years it was played in his home. When Ayars died in 1992, he willed it to his friend Brantley Duddy, and Duddy contacted the Smithsonian, which gratefully accepted it for the musical instrument collection of the National Museum of American History. For now, it sits in storage, its burnished white-and-gold console protected by a sheet of plastic. But there are plans to restore it to glory.”
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