Between 1939 and 1945, most Americans relied on radio to stay informed about the latest developments of World War II. Whenever a major battle was being fought or the President spoke to the nation, everyone remained glued to their radio sets. Many listeners even went so far as to keep maps of the major battlefronts of the world close at hand, so that they could quickly locate the places that war correspondents and military analysts were discussing. (This writer's grandfather updated his maps using colored pins while listening to a Philco Model 40-195 XX console radio.)
Recognizing the historical value of their wartime broadcasts, the major networks and some of their larger affiliates often transcribed them. Heard today, these recordings still have the power to give listeners a sense of the here and now, as dramatic events are described, often while they were taking place.
For those listeners whose tastes run to news and commentary from radio's "golden age," a wealth of World War II material is currently available. For only a modest investment, a collection in the MP3 format, for example, can be acquired that is extensive enough to allow you to follow the progress of the war on a week-by-week, and in some cases, hour-by-hour basis. (Hearing the war unfold in near-real time is quite a different experience from reading about it! Listening to radio news reports from the war years, it is possible to sense some of the tension and apprehension that came from not knowing for certain what the final cost of victory would be.)
Here is a list of some of the collections that I've found to be particularly worthwhile listening to:
THE WJSV BROADCAST DAY
On September 21, 1939 (three weeks after war had been declared in Europe), President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a special session of Congress to ask for changes to the country's neutrality laws to allow the sale of arms and munitions to warring nations on a "cash and carry" basis. Partially as a result of this momentous occasion, CBS's Washington D.C. affiliate WJSV (today's WTOP) transcribed its entire broadcast day -- from sign-on at 5:58 a.m. until sign-off at 1:00 a.m. the following day -- for the National Archives. The program schedule included recorded music hosted by Arthur Godfrey, news programs, soap operas, the special session of Congress, a baseball game between the Washington Senators and the Cleveland Indians, Amos 'n Andy, Elmer Davis' news commentary on the situation in Europe, quiz shows, Major Bowe's Amateur Hour (one of radio's most listened to programs back then), the Columbia Radio Workshop, more news commentary, a repeat of the President's speech from earlier in the day, broadcasts by "name bands" such as Teddy Powell, Jerry Livingston and Louis Prima, etc. Available inexpensively on a single MP3 disc, it is something that anybody interested in what radio was like during its "golden age" will enjoy listening to.
Complete Broadcast (1939): 8 PM Broadcast
ELMER DAVIS AND THE NEWS
During the opening months of the war, CBS commentator Elmer Davis provided a daily 5-minute summary and analysis of important events that had occurred that day in Europe and Asia. Even though America was not yet involved in the war, many realized that what was happening "over there" would eventually affect them as well, and therefore tuned into Davis' program to stay current on the deepening crisis. 74 of his broadcasts are available on a single MP3 disc. They provide an almost a day-by-day look at how the war was initially fought in Europe, when both Germany and Soviet Russia were actively engaging in naked aggression against their smaller neighbors.
Elmer Davis and the News (1939): Oct 3, 1939 Broadcast
"THIS IS LONDON"
Fifty-six of the reports that Edward R. Murrow made to American radio listeners from London via shortwave radio between 1939 and 1946. Many of his reports from late 1939 and 1940 describe how the average British citizen was bearing up under the pressures of war-time shortages, blackouts, air raids, and so on. One particularly memorable broadcast is Murrow's report from December 3, 1943, where he describes his experiences while accompanying the crew of Royal Air Force bomber "D-Dog" during a nighttime bombing raid over Berlin. Almost 65 years after it aired, it remains an example of radio reporting at its finest!
Edward R Murrows [WWII Collection Vol. 3] "D-Dogs" bomber crew bombing Berlin (Dec 3, 1943)
WILLIAM L. SHIRER
Of the news programs hosted by veteran CBS newsman William L. Shirer between 1938 and 1944, one of the highlights is Shirer's eyewitness account of France's surrender to Germany on June 21, 1940, on the same spot and in the same railroad car where Germany had surrendered to the Allies at the end of World War I.
William Shirer (Sept 7, 1939) in Berlin
THE DEBATE OVER AMERICAN NEUTRALITY
Even before war broke out in Europe, most Americans were opposed to the U.S. becoming involved in another foreign war. One of the most prominent (and controversial) figures to speak out in favor of American neutrality was Father Charles E. Coughlin "The Radio Priest" who first took to the airwaves in 1926. A charismatic and gifted public speaker, Coughlin's weekly discussions on politics and economics were heard by millions of Americans of all faiths. By 1939, when it became apparent that war in Europe was inevitable, Coughlin began to speak out against what he saw as a plot by the British, the "International Bankers," and the Roosevelt administration to draw the U.S. into the coming conflict. (One of his broadcasts was a rebuttal to FDR's speech to Congress about changing the neutrality laws.) Although some of Coughlin's political beliefs are still considered objectionable by many, he was an important figure in the history of broadcasting.
Father Coughlin (1939): An Appeal To The Laboring Man
Reflecting the uncertainty and confusion of that day, radio's coverage of December 7th consisted primarily of short bulletins and some (understandably) uninformed commentary and analysis. Pearl Harbor radio programs are available from a number of different sources. Covering most of the broadcast day, it includes, in addition to commentary from the likes of Drew Pearson, H.V. Kaltenborn and the correspondents on CBS' World News Today, extended excerpts from regularly scheduled programs (everything from Chats About Dogs to American Album of Familiar Music) that were interrupted by announcements updating listeners on the attack.
CBS WORLD NEWS TODAY
Airing every Sunday afternoon, CBS's World New Today, offered 30 minutes of the latest war news and analysis.Each broadcast featured one or more shortwave reports from CBS correspondents serving in different battle theaters around the world. (Sometimes these reports had to be cancelled or cut short due to poor reception conditions or enemy jamming!) CBS's chief military analyst Major George Fielding Elliott was often on hand to comment on the current military situation. In addition, each program usually featured interviews with someone directly involved in the war effort: the commanding officer of the American camp in Tennessee where German and Italian POWs were being held; the commandant of the U.S. Army's Ranger School in Hawaii, the crew of a Liberator bomber that had recently participated in an important raid over enemy-held territory, etc. (Although the voices were undoubtedly genuine, many of those interviewed sounded like they were reading from a script.) The program was sponsored by the Chicago-based Continental Radio and Television Corporation, makers of Admiral radios. (Since no new consumer radios were produced during the war, the commercials mostly described the role that Admiral was playing in helping to supply radio equipment to the war effort.) Despite some gaps in the program sequence, this collection provides one of the most complete looks at how the war progressed from late 1942 until its conclusion in 1945.
Early on the morning of June 6, 1944, just as most east coast radio stations were signing off the air, Germany's international shortwave service reported that the Allies' long-expected invasion of Hitler's "Fortress Europe" had begun with landings along the northern coast of France. CBS immediately alerted all of its affiliate stations that it was now providing continuous news coverage of what everyone knew would be one of the most listened-to broadcast days in the history of radio. At first, the only available news was what little could be picked up from German radio. Later in the morning, official confirmation of the invasion was received from the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in England. As the day continued, more shortwave reports were received from correspondents in London, some of whom had just returned from having observed the first waves of troops being landed ashore. (Wright Bryant's account of riding onboard a transport plane that delivered airborne troops to France is almost as riveting as Edward R. Murrow's 1943 account of his experiences onboard "D-Dog.") Even after the networks resumed their regularly scheduled programs, there were frequent interruptions for news updates. That night, President Roosevelt spoke to the nation and then led a prayer for the troops. Most of the June 6, 1944 broadcast day was transcribed. Some collections only offer highlights of the day's coverage, while others are extensive enough so that the listener can follow "the longest day" beginning when the first announcements were picked up from Germany, and continuing right on through until midnight.
Complete Broadcast (1944): Evening Broadcast Hour
No collection of World War II radio programs would be complete without some examples of Command Performance, the spectacular, 60 minute variety show produced weekly by the War Department for direct shortwave transmission to troops fighting overseas. All of the top entertainers of the day appeared on it, and yet it had no budget and no one was paid. All talent was donated, including the production staff. Both CBS and NBC made their studio facilities available at no charge. The program's basic premise was that the servicemen themselves would write in and "command" who and what they wanted to hear. It was not uncommon for the likes of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, the Andrews Sisters, Red Skelton, Edgar Bergen, Ethel Waters, Spike Jones, Dinah Shore, Kay Kyser and Charles Laughton to all appear on same broadcast. (Eventually production had to be shifted to Los Angeles to accommodate the flood of requests for appearances by Hollywood screen stars.)
Command Performance (1942): Christmas Special
THE WEAF BROADCAST DAY
On August 10, 1945, when news was received that Japan had started taking steps to submit a formal surrender offer, radio station WEAF in New York City began transcribing its broadcast day. Since the surrender offer still had not been officially received by the U.S. Government, it soon became obvious that this would not be VJ-Day, and WEAF eventually returned to its regularly scheduled programs, which it continued to transcribe. As a result, about 9 hours of a typical WEAF broadcast day in 1945 were preserved for posterity. It provides still more interesting listening for anybody who wants to know what radio was like during its "golden age."
WEAF Broadcast (1945): News with Lyle Van
THE RADIO THAT HELPED TO WIN THE WAR
If there is one radio that is closely associated with World War II, it is Zenith's Model 7G605, the Trans-Oceanic "Clipper". Introduced only days after Pearl Harbor, the Clipper was not only the first Trans-Oceanic, but also the first portable radio to offer shortwave bands. Only about 35,000 of them were made before Zenith stopped producing consumer radios in order to do war work for the U.S. Government. Even though they sold for the relatively high price of $75 (the equivalent of $934 in today's dollars!) many Clippers were bought by U.S. military personnel,who took them into battle zones around the world. Zenith soon began receiving letters telling of Clippers that had been subjected to extreme tropical heat and humidity, sand storms, enemy bombardments, being dropped into the surf during amphibious landings, and all manner of rough treatment, and had still continued to work. In many of the out-of-the-way places where U.S. troops found themselves, someone's personal Clipper was often the only means of getting news and entertainment from back home. With no new Clippers available at any price, considerable ingenuity was used to keep these deployed sets operational. (Zenith files contain an account of one Clipper that was successfully repaired using parts salvaged from captured enemy radio equipment.) It is probably safe to say that, wherever U.S. troops served during the war, a Clipper or two was also there, serving along with them.
Perhaps this explains why a restored Zenith Trans-Oceanic Clipper is one of this writer's personal favorites from among a modest collection of vintage radios. It is also the radio that he most often uses when listening to replays of World War II news and commentary. (Like many collectors of antique radios, I use a low-power, limited-range AM transmitter to broadcast recorded programs to the various sets I have scattered around the house.) I don't know for sure if my Clipper is a combat veteran or if it even left the United States during the war years. However, it is not too hard to imagine that many of these same war-time programs were probably received on it back when they originally aired.
Listening to radio's coverage of World War II does not have to be a passive experience. I have found it convenient (and more than a little fun) to jot down this information in a notebook while listening to them. Coming up with original broadcast dates can also be an interesting challenge. During one undated news broadcast, the commentator, while waiting for an overseas shortwave report, mentions in passing the terrible fire that had occurred the night before at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston. A little research turned up that the Cocoanut Grove fire had occurred on Saturday, 11/28/42, so the broadcast date had to be Sunday, 11/29/42. Other program dates were arrived at using similar detective work.
This has been just a brief look at what is available in the way of radio news and commentary from World War II. Whether you're a military buff, a fan of Golden Age Radio, or just interested in hearing how breaking news was reported back before television and 24/7 cable news, I think that you will find these programs to be every bit as fascinating as anything you're likely to tune in today.
Eric Beheim is a life-long radio enthusiast. A former commanding officer of a Naval Reserve Combat Camera unit based in San Diego.
Eric Beheim leads a multi-faceted career as a free-lance writer, professional musician, and owner of his own music and sound project studio.
Born in the first wave of "baby boomers" he grew up with radio and remains a life-long radio enthusiast. His particular interests are collecting news and commentary programs from the late 1930s and early 1940s (including World War II news), and programs that feature performances of operettas and musical theater presentations.