The Starmaker

One of the most iconic things about the early days of Today is unmistakable here:

As much an icon as Dave’s glasses or his bow tie, it’s that big microphone he wore in those early years.

Wanna see one?

Meet the RCA BK-4A “Starmaker.” Last year I was fortunate to acquire this one, and it’s got an interesting history of its own. We’ll get to that in a moment.

RCA didn’t make the BK-4A for very long. But when it debuted in 1950, this was an incredible achievement. Unlike the Altec “Coke-bottle” microphone, which was part of a system, the Starmaker was self-contained; just plug the cable in and go.

RCA made great promotional hay about the BK-4A being a “vanishing” microphone. Unlike the larger RCA 44 or 77 microphones, a singer or speaker could use a BK-4A and not have their face concealed in a head-on shot. (Although I take exception to RCA’s insistence that the Starmaker was “little larger than a big fountain pen.” At 12 inches in length…just how big were the fountain pens they were using in Camden back then?)

The Starmaker was designed for use on television, and that accounts for that dark silver color. RCA called it “TV Gray.” Sometimes you’ll see an RCA 77 in this color, too. Bright silver finishes reflecting the intense studio lighting played havoc with television cameras, and this non-reflective finish made life so much easier. In the case of the Starmaker, it also helped the microphone blend in against a necktie, scarf or jacket.

The Starmaker had a small grille at the top of a long barrel. It doesn’t look like much, but if you’ve heard audio from those early Today programs, you know these microphones did an excellent job against the clatter of a busy newsroom.

At the bottom of the microphone there’s a threaded adapter for a mic stand. It also unscrews, allowing other fittings as needed. Since Garroway and company needed to move around in the RCA Exhibition Hall, NBC constructed those wire hoops with angled mounting brackets that you see in the archival photos. Someday if I can get happy about how they were designed, I’ll construct one for this mic. The Starmaker weighs about a pound, and after three hours it must have felt good to take that hoop off at the end of a day’s telecast. Dave and company also had to mind that long cable, lest they snare themselves on-air.

I don’t know about you, but I sure do miss this logo, and I sure do miss when the letters “RCA” truly meant something. This little circular logo is beautifully fit into the microphone’s case. It testifies to the care and pride RCA put into its design and manufacture.

The most intriguing aspect of my BK-4A is this rollmark on the back. What stories could this microphone tell? Could this have been the one Garroway wore that morning in January 1952? Or did Jack Lescoulie wear it, speaking those very first words into it that morning? Or was it Jim Fleming’s microphone? Many’s the time I’ve wished this microphone could tell me its story, the people who spoke into it, the programs it was on. But it enjoys keeping its secrets.

Fortunately, according to the seller, it’s still a functional microphone. It has about 25 feet of cable and its old Cannon UA-3-12 connector. I have no interest in rewiring this microphone – it’s too significant – but there are folks who make XLR adapters for obsolete Cannon connectors. And I do have access to a very good production room. So there’s a chance this microphone will live again. (Side note: how neat would it be to have an audio version of the Garroway book that was recorded using this mic? It could happen.)

For more on the BK-4A I recommend the Modesto Radio Museum’s very nice write-up, and this page has not only some nice photos of a restored Starmaker but also a modern clip that lets you hear how this microphone sounds in use.