June 04, 2004

Significant Alerts

SigAlerts have become part of the vernacular, especially on drive-time radio. It's never good news to hear that there's a traffic jam up ahead, but it's better than not knowing, even if sometimes you have to resign yourself to a stop-and-go fate. Anyway, I've always wondered what the "Sig" in "SigAlert" stood for. "Signal" always seem liked the most likely guess, but the LA Times Obituary set the world straight. The SigAlert was actually named after a person, Bill Sigmon.

In Los Angeles, he set up a system [in 1955, at radio station KPMC] that enabled police dispatchers to transmit an inaudible radio tone that could be picked up by special SigAlert receivers in local radio stations. The receivers would then tape-record the dispatcher's emergency bulletin and flash a red light and sound a buzzer to alert the radio-station engineer.

By pressing a button, the engineer could broadcast the message to listeners in a matter of seconds.

I didn't know there was an actual system to it. That's so cool.

Five decades later, the SigAlert tops everybody's list as one of the most distinctive aspects of L.A.'s car culture, said Matthew Roth, founding curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum and historian for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

"It's uniquely Angeleno that this guy came up with this, broadcast it daily and it became a mark of local experience," Roth said. "It's the perfect summary of a large swath of daily life here."

Well, I'm not sure if I'd go that far. When you consider that a SigAlert is now issued only when one more more lanes will be blocked for more than half an hour. Hmm, I guess that does make it a major part life in Los Angeles after all.

Posted by mikewang on 08:47 PM