"We will interrupt all programs": Radio Drops a Bombshell

It certainly threw a wrench into the well-oiled works of radio as a commercial enterprise. The attack on Pearl Harbor, that is. On this day, December 7, in 1941, American broadcasters had to find ways of accommodating the “word from our sponsor” to the considerably more “important message” that would alter—or end—the lives of people the world over. Comedians Edgar Bergen and Jack Benny were both on the air as scheduled that Sunday, entertaining the multitude with their commercially sponsored programs. Both broadcasts were prefaced by the following announcements: “Ladies and gentlemen. We will interrupt all programs to give you latest news bulletins. Stay tuned to this station.”

The bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war on Japan and its allies marked an uneasy transition of American radio as a source of advertising to one of propaganda, of information and indoctrination. As US President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared in his public radio address on 9 December 1941, “free and rapid communication” needed to be restricted in wartime. It was “not possible to receive full and speedy and accurate reports” from all theaters of war, since even in those “days of the marvels of the radio” it was “often impossible for the Commanders of various units to report their activities by radio at all, for the very simple reason that this information would become available to the enemy and would disclose their position and their plan of defense or attack.”

Still, the medium that had long fallen into the hands of corporations, had an obligation toward the American public it ostensibly served, a duty to operate in the “public interest” that it might have neglected over the years, notwithstanding the President’s occasional and popular Fireside Chats. Necessary delays in reporting aside, Roosevelt vowed “not hide facts from the country” if such were known and the enemy would “not be aided by their disclosure.” He reminded “all newspapers and radio stations, “all those who reach the eyes and ears of the American people,” that they had a “most grave responsibility to the nation now and for the duration of this war.”

While “sudden” the “criminal attacks” were but the “climax of a decade of international immorality,” Roosevelt argued. From Japan’s invasion of Manchukuo, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Hitler’s occupation of Austria and his invasion of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Russia; Italy’s attack on France and Greece, the Axis domination of the Balkans, and the Japanese attacks on Malaya and Thailand, to the bombing of Pearl Harbor—each occurring “without warning”—the events were “all of one pattern.”

America had “used” their awareness of that pattern “to great advantage. Knowing that the attack might reach us in all too short a time,” the US “immediately began greatly to increase” its “capacity to meet the demands of modern warfare.” The war, Roosevelt cautioned, would not only be “long” but “hard,” warning of shortages and a general cutting down on consumerism. He expressed himself confident that businesses and individuals alike would “cheerfully give up those material things that they are asked to give up,” and that they would “retain all those great spiritual things without which we cannot win through.”

Those who recall the attack on and fall of the World Trade Center towers might recall the sudden change in significance of a medium that could be relied upon for its mindless and commercials-riddled entertainment one day and then, suspending all advertising and most regular programs, engaged in an image blitz on a stunned audience that, having had so little introduction to the events leading up to them, regarded them as unprovoked, inexplicable, and without any historical connection to the dramatically altered present.

The image bombardment and the relative blackout of comprehensive world news by a largely irresponsible commercial medium did much to get Americans in the mood for the war that is still being waged and lost to this day. By comparison, the broadcasting day following the attack on Pearl Harbor proceeded pretty much according to schedule; it was only gradually that commercials made way for—or merged with—public announcements, that comedians told topical jokes and soap operas dealt with the realities of war. Before one can fully understand what it means never to forget, one has a lot of catching up to do with the world.

Having spread this “important message” about the imperative of keeping up with and following up on the allegedly out-of-date and the seemingly unrelated or tiresomely repetitive news of the world, the broadcastellan journal will go on a brief hiatus and won’t resume regular day-to-day postings until the beginning of 2007, aside from a few scattered reports of cultural events and reviews of seasonal radio and television offerings. If you have glanced at, read, perhaps even enjoyed, a few of the roughly two hundred essays shared here throughout the year, I encourage you to drop me a line.

2 Replies to “"We will interrupt all programs": Radio Drops a Bombshell”

  1. Not only did the commercial stations have to learn how to juggle the radio programs which were controlled by the sponsors, but radio journalism began its climb to coming of age during this period.As to 9/11, ironically, I was in Washington DC doing research at the Library of Congress on Pearl Harbor and broadcasting when the city went into a lock down as the confusion around attacks mounted. Despite the confusion that was reported on the media, it was impressive to see the country\’s capitol sink into a protective shell.


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