E-Mailbag: Is The Time Right On The Radio?

We get lots of different questions in our e-mailbag, some serious and some offbeat. Here's one of our early favorites about CBS Radio:
Ron N. asks,

Every hour and half hour CBS Radio has a "tone" announcing what is claimed by CBS to be the exact time. If one goes to the official U.S. Government site ... [where] the time is reported to be accurate to within .01 second, you will find that your "tone" is approximately 10 seconds late. Is there a reason that CBS chooses to be out of step? I can tell you that WGN Radio in Chicago WLS Radio in Chicago have their "tone" synchronized with the U.S. Government's official time clock.

We spoke to Joe Janikian, technician supervisor for CBS and Westwood One Radio Networks, who told us the discrepancy might have something to do with the way in which Ron is listening. "If he's listening online, it could be a little delayed. When you stream audio, it takes time to encode on the website end and decode on the receiving computers' end," he says. Live on the radio, Janikian says, the tone is accurate to one one hundredth of a second. Also, many radio stations build in a 10-second time delay, which could obviously be a factor.

We also spoke to Kendra Jessen, an assistant producer at WBBM 780, the CBS radio station in Chicago – where Ron appears to be listening from although we were unable to verify that with him. "We don't do the tone anymore," Jessen told us. "We haven't done it since we began broadcasting digital, one or two months ago." Was it possible that there was a 10-second delay before the station made the switch to digital? Not according to Jessen. "The tone," she says, "was always right on."