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December 7, 1941: When “Radio News” Came of Age

| December 7, 2021

On the “Day of Infamy,” radio news had to grow up in a big hurry

By Mark Wainwright

 

SYRACUSE — In the midst of today’s 24/7/365 news cycle, when “breaking news” is an hourly occurrence, it’s worth remembering that broadcasting was very different 80 years ago.

The concept of news on the radio barely existed in the early days of the medium. While radio had been covering important happenings since its beginning — Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats,” political conventions, elections, major sports events and such — news, as we know it, was a low priority. It wasn’t until radio’s “Golden Age”in the 1930s that regular updates of the day’s news began to take hold. Americans typically depended on newspapers to get their daily news fix, even more so when “breaking news” happened. Radio wasn’t really equipped to handle these situations, so it fell to the wire services and newspapers to break the news. Those old movie scenes of reporters running in and yelling “stop the presses!” or of street-corner newsboys hawking “extra, extra, read all about it!” were not just dramatic license.

The rise of Nazi Germany through the 1930s (and the subsequent outbreak of World War II in 1939) convinced the major networks to establish full-time, fully staffed news departments to keep the public updated. Several stations in larger markets also built their own local news departments, but these were regarded as secondary to the role of the local paper (in fact, the newspaper publishers often owned the stations themselves). Still, when “breaking news” happened, it was typically left to a staff announcer — whether local or network — to break into the program to read a bulletin from the teletype, and not much else. Follow-up reporting was spotty, at best.

By late 1941, Americans were becoming more worried about Hitler’s military successes in Europe, not to mention Imperial Japan’s aggression in the Far East. Nonetheless, the United States remained neutral (at least officially) in both those conflicts, and the nation was at peace. December 7 looked to be a quiet and uneventful day, with many Americans finishing their Sunday papers… then tuning the radio to enjoy music, afternoon variety shows, and church services. And WOR in New York (Mutual Broadcasting’s flagship station) was airing — what else on a Sunday afternoon? — a pro football game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn (Football) Dodgers at the Polo Grounds.

At about 1:23 pm Eastern Standard Time, 7:53 am in Hawaii — yes, the time zones were a bit different back then — the first Japanese bombs were dropped on targets at Pearl Harbor. The Navy got word to the West Coast a few minutes later, and President Roosevelt was informed of the attack at 1:47 pm EST. At 2:22 pm EST, White House Press Secretary Steve Early conducted a conference call with the major wire services and read an official statement about the Japanese attack. The news flash hit the wires within moments.

It appears that Mutual Broadcasting and WOR got the word out first. At about 2:26 pm EST, the game was interrupted with the initial bulletin. Here’s one version of many available on YouTube:

Mutual/WOR interrupts game with Pearl Harbor bulletin

At about 2:29, NBC broke into both of its networks with the first news. NBC “Red” (the primary network) had the bulletin at the end of “Sammy Kaye’s Sunday Serenade.” NBC “Blue” interrupted its broadcast of “Inspector General,” part of its “Great Plays” series.

Meanwhile, CBS did not interrupt a program in progress. Their news program, “The World Today,” began at its scheduled time of 2:30, with John Charles Daly reading the first bulletins at 2:31, followed by other correspondents who added details, commentary, and analysis. The original audio has evidently been lost, or perhaps was never recorded; the famous recording of Daly reading the initial bulletin was apparently re-created several years later, using other audio from that day. (An interesting sidelight here: Daly was known for his precise delivery and flawless enunciation, and his colleagues were reportedly stunned that he mispronounced “Oahu” in his early reports; he rarely made that kind of mistake. We’ll have more about John Daly in our Epilogue).

But getting the first news out there was one thing; expanded, continuing coverage was a very different matter. It was a Sunday afternoon. Network news departments and local radio news operations were thinly staffed, and they had to scramble to get resources in place. Given the circumstances, the regularly scheduled broadcast day was largely left intact, with additional bulletins breaking in as needed.

CBS continued with its scheduled broadcast of the New York Philharmonic, although John Daly broke in several times with headlines, along with an update during the concert intermission. Mutual evidently continued with the football game, with a couple interruptions during the broadcast (by the way, the New York Giants lost to Brooklyn 21-7).

NBC had particular issues with attempting to balance this momentous news with regular shows; they left their afternoon program “Family of Five” untouched (were they worried about offending the sponsor, Vicks VapoRub?), while their popular comedy “The Great Gildersleeve” had the odd juxtaposition of gags and laughter interrupted by five war bulletins. These conflicts continued throughout the afternoon and evening.

There were also a couple bizarre “you can’t make this stuff up” moments. NBC was victimized by one of these; the network managed to get a telephone link to KGU, its affiliate station in Honolulu, where a local announcer was observing the attack from a vantage point on the roof of their building. About two minutes in, a local telephone operator interrupted the link to inform NBC that the line was needed for an emergency call… understandable, since several Japanese bombs fell on civilian areas of Honolulu, and there was probably an urgent need for fire and rescue services. The reporter pleaded that he was on the air to the network in New York, but it didn’t help. NBC had to say “aloha” to their folks in Hawaii.

Here is raw audio of the KGU announcer, supplied to YouTube by NBC:

Pearl Harbor report from KGU, Honolulu

And here is an edited, highly produced version of that report (including the operator interruption) supplied to YouTube by The Smithsonian Channel:

KGU report interrupted by the operator

Radio’s disorganized response to the events of December 7 was a wake-up call for network executives, and as the United States declared war on Japan the following day, the radio business redoubled its efforts to get reporters and resources in place and ready to go live when necessary. The efforts paid off; when the Normandy D-Day invasion occurred in the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, it was still the middle of the night in the United States… but network radio immediately picked up on the news and continued coverage, almost seamlessly, throughout the night and into the day.

For the next several decades, Americans relied on radio as the trusted source for breaking news. Our industry learned an important lesson on Pearl Harbor Day, eighty years ago.

EPILOGUE

While there is a lot of Pearl Harbor audio available from YouTube and various other public sources, I was surprised to learn that much of this material is not quite “authentic.” Some of it has been extensively edited for dramatic purposes, or to fit into various retrospective or “radio history” productions. Audio clips have sometimes been rearranged so that the timeline doesn’t hold, and a few segments were “re-created” from scratch, years after the events. I did my best to find YouTube content that was close to the actual broadcasts as aired, in the proper timeline.

Finally, a few words about John Charles Daly, who was a prominent voice on CBS that day… John Daly had a broadcasting career that most of us would envy. He first became known — his “Oahu” gaffe aside — as an outstanding reporter and anchor. He worked as a war corespondent for Edward R. Murrow at CBS, reporting from London and from the front lines in Italy and North Africa. He was later a news executive and a radio and television anchor for ABC, and had a brief tenure as director of the Voice of America.

Yet, with his affable personality and quick wit, Daly often crossed over to the entertainment side of television, where he was in demand as an emcee, host, and game show panelist. Among other things, he was the host of the Miss Universe telecast for more than a decade (Bob Barker took over the gig in 1967); Daly was just as comfortable conversing with Miss Sweden as he was reporting from an artillery bombardment. Today, he is probably best known as the emcee of the iconic CBS game show “What’s My Line?” from 1950 to 1967.

John Charles Daly did it all, and then some.

Mark Wainwright is a voiceover artist and former talk radio host who most recently served with WSYR-AM, Syracuse. Email him at: markwainwright@earthlink.net.

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Category: Features