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Tabernacle Choir broadcast marking 80 years

Sunday's 30-minute broadcast will begin as it has the past 80 years — the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's opening of "Gently Raise the Sacred Strain" leading into a voice-over of "From the crossroads of the West, we welcome you to a program of inspirational music and spoken word."

So starts the ninth decade of "Music and the Spoken Word," the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's weekly live broadcast and the world's longest running nationwide network program.

The first network radio broadcast on July 15, 1929, featured a single microphone hanging from the Salt Lake Tabernacle's ceiling, an engineer receiving his starting "on air" signal by telegraph, and the announcer perching himself on a tall ladder for a half-hour to speak into the hanging mike.

Program milestones have snowballed since for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' iconic choir and its signature show, with the Bonneville Communications-produced "Music and the Spoken Word" broadcast by more than 2,000 radio, television, cable and satellite stations as well as the Internet.

"For many people, it is one of those few anchors they can come to every week," said choir music director Mack Wilberg. "And for some people, it has been that for an entire lifetime."

Added choir President Mac Christensen: "When you listen to 'Music and the Spoken Word' — even rehearsals — it's like Christmas. It's like opening presents. It doesn't get any better."

With a fine line separating continuity and stagnancy, the goal for "Music and the Spoken Word" is a harmony between tradition and vibrancy.

"I think of that every Sunday — that we stand on the shoulders of all those who have come before us," said Wilberg, the former associate to music director Craig Jessop who took over after Jessop's departure last year.

"We want to be true to the legacy and heritage of 'Music and the Spoken Word' because it is loved and recognized by so many people," said Lloyd D. Newell, the program's voice since 1990, following the late Richard L. Evans and J. Spencer Kinard. "People want sameness, but they also want freshness."

The obvious addition over the past decade is the Orchestra at Temple Square, which now performs most Sundays a month. Other subtle amendments deal with the "spoken word" — they're shorter, often anecdote-driven, with accompanying visuals or on-location video clips for televised broadcasts.

Each "Music and the Spoken Word" installment is planned from several weeks to several months out. Wilberg and Newell discuss program possibilities — the music usually dictating direction.

"You're only as good as your most recent broadcast," Wilberg said.

Added Newell: "We have a hungry beast that has to be fed every week."

Both acknowledge hope and comfort as common themes for the nondenominational program. Wilberg strives for a blend of religious hymns and what he calls "music of the masters," with a sprinkling of inspirational popular songs and folk music. For Newell, his call from then-LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley rings in his mind: "Each week needs to be an inspirational gem."

With a repertoire of nearly 400 selections, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir's sole weekly rehearsal is a two-hour session on Thursday nights. After practicing the selections, the choir, orchestra (when performing), and stage and production crews go through a "tape and time" of each piece to confirm the program's script.

At 7:25 a.m. Sunday, the choir warms up and rehearses, with a program run-through at 8:30 a.m. Wilberg calls for five-plus minutes of "tweaking" at 9:05 before "Music and the Spoken Word" goes live at 9:30 sharp.

"To do this live, week in and week out, is quite a miraculous thing," he said, "and attests to the great abilities of not only the musicians but all the technical crew, too."

Make that great "volunteer" abilities. Of the 600 people involved — including the 360-member choir, orchestra, stage and production crews, librarians and wardrobe specialists — only 11 are in paid positions.

With live broadcasts available locally on KSL-TV, KSL Radio, BYU-TV and BYU Radio, most Utahns assume "Music and the Spoken Word" is carried live elsewhere, as well. However, Christensen says a majority of out-of-state stations show the weekly series on a tape-delayed basis; others contract single "special" showings for Easter, Christmas, Memorial Day or Mothers Day.

"In 2008, there were more than 10,000 specials broadcast through the United States and Canada," he said. "That's millions and millions of dollars worth (of broadcast exposure)."

During summer months, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir shifts its Sunday broadcasts and many Thursday rehearsals from its namesake home to the Conference Center to accommodate the influx of visitors and tourists.

"A lot of times, we get from 7,000 to 10,000," Christensen said. "We don't want to turn anybody away."

For the actual "Music and the Spoken Word" anniversary date, the choir performed Wednesday at its annual Ogden Pioneer Day Concert; Friday night's Pioneer Day Concert in Salt Lake City will include tributes to weekly program's 80-year anniversary.

A brief commemoration following Sunday's broadcast will feature a proclamation from Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and remarks from Christensen, Bonneville president/CEO Bruce Reese and LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson.

But only after the trademark sign-off of "Music of the Spoken Word" — the choir singing "God Be With You" and Newell providing the oft-recited lines: "Again we leave you from within thew shadows of the everlasting hills. May peace be with you, this day and always."