As many of you are aware, on September 21, 1939, Washington D.C. radio station WJSV’s broadcast day - from sign-on to sign-off - was recorded for the National Archives. This was done largely in part to preserve President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic speech to a special session of Congress regarding making changes to the country’s neutrality laws in light of the war that had begun in Europe a little over three weeks earlier.
In an age before audio tape, the WJSV broadcast day was recorded onto 16-inch transcript discs, each of which could hold about 15 minutes of audio per side. (These discs were referred to as “instantaneous” since they could be played back immediately.) A total of 38 of these double-sided discs were required to record all 19 hours of WJSV’s broadcast day.
Although the WJSV Broadcast Day was the first MP3 disc in my OTR collection, in all the years that I’d owned it, I’d never listened to all 19 hours of the program material it contains. Finally, in September 2019, in honor of the WJSV Broadcast Day’s 80th anniversary, I made it a point to listen to the entire disc. (Out of necessity, this had to be done a few hours a day over the course of a week or so.)
Since several detailed program logs for the WJSV Broadcast Day are already available on-line I won’t attempt to provide another one. Rather, I’d like to share a few comments and observations about the programming that was heard that day.
Following the WJSV sign-on announcement at 5:58 a.m. the broadcast day opens with The Sundial, a locally produced program of “transcribed” (i.e. recorded) music. (The first number heard is Victor Herbert’s Suite of Serenades No. 1 “Spanish.”) During the program’s first 30 minutes there is no host and no commercial announcements.
At 6:30 a.m. Arthur Godfrey joins The Sundial as its host. At this point in his career, Godfrey was just a CBS staff announcer and WJSV employee. His national fame wouldn’t come until 1945 when his popular morning show Arthur Godfrey Time premiered on the CBS radio network.
The Sundial was essentially a program of recorded popular music. Between the records there were commercial announcements (mostly for Washington-area merchants and products), announcements for birthdays, wedding anniversaries, lost and found items, etc. that had been phoned in earlier by listeners, frequent time checks, announcements for upcoming local events such as dances, ice cream socials, etc., and observations made by Godfrey about such things as the autumnal equinox which would soon be taking place. At one point during the program, he comments on the fact that he is being recorded although he doesn’t say why.
The first indication that there is a war going on in Europe comes at about 6:51 a.m. when Godfrey reads a commercial for Zlotnick the Furrier (“At the sign of the big white bear”) telling how the cost of furs imported from Central Europe has jumped up due to increased insurance rates.
During The Sundial’s second hour, a record featuring a particularly clever musical arrangement prompts Godfrey to identify the not-too-well known orchestra that recorded it: “The Champagne Music of Lawrence Welk.”
At about 7:23 a.m., Godfrey is taken unawares by the unexpected appearance of unannounced guests in the studio. (During a brief break, while a record is played, he is apparently filled in as to who the guests are and why they are there.) Returning to the microphone, Godfrey introduces the chairman and some of the participants in the upcoming President’s Cup Regatta, an annual Washington event which will be taking place on the Potomac River during the coming weekend. Godfrey also interviews three sisters who, despite being quite young, will be driving small “putt-putt” motorboats in one of the regatta’s racing events.
At 8:30 a.m. The Sundial ends and is followed by The Certified Magic Carpet, a transcribed, 15-minute, locally produced, quiz show sponsored by Certified Bread and hosted by John Charles Daily. This day’s program was recorded earlier at Washington’s Willard Hotel and features members of the Soroptimist Club, an organization of local professional women.
At 8:45 a.m. WJSV begins airing programs from the CBS network starting with the daytime serial Bachelor’s Children.
As all OTR fans know, the 15-minute serials that were once the mainstay of daytime radio were referred to as “soap operas” because most of them were sponsored by soap products.
Most of WJSV’s morning and early afternoon programming consists of network soap operas. (There were 18 in all plus a locally produced “soap” The Career of Alice Blair.) Included in the day’s lineup are such famous “soaps” as Brenda Curtis, Big Sister, The Romance of Helen Trent, The Goldbergs, and Our Gal Sunday. (John Dunning’s On the Air – The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio has the histories of most of the daytime serials that were heard during the WJSV Broadcast Day and is an excellent reference work to have handy while listening to them.)
At 11:00 a.m., WJSV cuts away from the network to air its own 15-minute, locally produced program hosted by “Jean Abbey” (the pseudonym for Meredith Howard) who advises women on the various products available from Washington’s Kann’s Department Store.
At 1:00 p.m., WJSV again breaks away from the network for its own 15-minute news program Sunshine Reporter. It is during this program that it is announced that the entire broadcast day is being recorded for the National Archives.
Heard at 1:15 p.m. is a relatively new network daytime serial The Life and Love of Dr. Susan sponsored by Lux Toilet Soap. (Despite having been promoted extensively on the popular Lux Radio Theater program, Dr. Susan failed to catch on and only ran from February to December 1939.)
Of all the daytime serials heard during the WJSV Broadcast Day, the one I found the most interesting was The Road of Life. Although this “soap” was set in the world of doctors and nurses, the episode heard on September 21, 1939 takes place in a courtroom where the hero’s 11-year old adopted son Butch is on trial for murder. (Butch was apparently cleared of the charge because, in this serial’s later years, he went on to study medicine and become a pediatrician.)
At 1:45 p.m. CBS switches to its reporter Albert Warner, who is standing by in the Capitol Building in anticipation of President Roosevelt’s speech which is to begin shortly after 2:00 p.m. To fill up the time, Warner interviews several senators.
At about 2:05 p.m., the President enters the House of Representatives and, after the usual formalities, begins speaking at about 2:06 p.m.
To put the President’s speech into its proper historical context, some background information is needed: On September 1st, Germany invaded Poland on the pretext that Germans living in the Polish controlled city of Danzig were being persecuted. Both Britain and France had treaties with Poland stating that they would come to her aid if she was attacked. Accordingly, two days later, they both declared war on Germany. A few days later, Germany’s then-ally Russia invaded Poland from the East. Significantly, England and France did NOT declare war on Russia. Germany’s other ally Italy chose to remain neutral for the time being.
While most Americans sided with Britain and France, almost no one here wanted the U.S. to become involved in another European war.
Under the country’s current Neutrality Act, the U.S. could not sell ready-made arms, munitions, aircraft, tanks and other implements of war to nations at war. (It could sell the unassembled parts and raw materials needed to make these implements.) In his speech, President Roosevelt expressed the view that the only way to keep America neutral and out of the war was for Congress to amend the Neutrality Act to allow the sale of ready-made war goods to any warring nation that wanted them providing that (a) they paid cash and (b) they transported these goods back to Europe in their own ships and at their own risk. This position became known as “cash and carry” and clearly favored Britain and France since the British Navy had by then stopped all ocean-going shipments bound for Germany. The President also added that manufacturing arms, munitions and other implements of war in this country would provide jobs for thousands of American workers and would thereby benefit the U.S. economy.
Roosevelt concluded his speech by expressing his opinion that the U.S. would most likely not become involved in the war. The President might actually have believed this since, at that time, the combined armies and air forces of Britain and France were as large or larger than Germany’s and, aided by American-made war goods, should have been formidable enough to defeat Germany without the U.S. having to become involved.
Following Roosevelt’s speech, a speech by French Premier Edouard Daladier, delivered in French to the French people, is heard via short wave. This is followed by an English translation of what had been said.
At 3:00 p.m. Albert Warner does some follow-up interviews with members of the House. These interviews aired as a local WJSV program rather than for the CBS network.
This is followed by more local programing including the daytime serial The Career of Alice Blair, The Arrow News Reporter (a 5-minute news program sponsored by Arrow Beer), and Rhythm and Romance, a 15-minute program of “transcribed” music.
The hour concludes with the 15-minute CBS network serial Scattergood Baines which, for some reason, had been transcribed the day before.
At 4:00 p.m. a baseball game between the Washington Senators and the Cleveland Indians is joined in progress during the last half of the 4th inning. WJSV sports announcer Harry McTigue is joined by Walter Johnson, who does the play-by-play. (This local WJSV broadcast preempted several CBS network programs.)
After the baseball game concludes at about 5:17 p.m., the rest of the hour is filled out with more locally produced programming including the Goodrich Sports Reporter hosted by WJSV sports announcer Harry McTigue. (One of the Goodrich commercials mentions the Goodrich Tire Exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair which was then in progress.) McTigue also does a tribute to Lou Gehrig who would not be playing in the 1939 World Series. (On May 2, 1939, the 36-year-old Gehrig had voluntarily taken himself out of the Yankee lineup after his performance was hampered by the incurable neuromuscular illness amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now commonly referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.)
At 6:00 p.m., WJSV returns to CBS network programming with one of the most famous of the early radio shows: Amos & Andy. In 1939, this show was still in its original 15-minute format with Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll playing most if not all of the characters. (In 1943, it would become a 30-minute program with a full cast of actors playing the various roles.) A complete history of the Amos & Andy show is included in On the Air – The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio.
At 6:15 p.m. there is a 15-minute situation comedy The Parker Family starring Leon Janney as teenager Richard Parker. This show had first gone on the air over the CBS network on July 7, 1939. On October 8, 1939 it switched over to the NBC Blue network, where it would be heard through 1944. In this particular episode, Mother Parker creates a minor family crisis when she tries to hide the fact that she had met with an old beau from her past.
At 6:30 p.m. it was The Joe E. Brown Show, a program of music and comedy starring wide-mouthed comedian Joe E. Brown. This show had first gone on the air on October 8, 1938. Ironically, the following week’s episode would be its last broadcast. Joe E. Brown is probably best remembered today as the eccentric millionaire Osgood Fielding III from the Marilyn Monroe film Some Like It Hot.
At 7:00 p.m. it was Ask-It-Basket, a quiz show hosted by Jim McWilliams, radio’s original question-and-answer man who had hosted one of radio’s earliest quiz shows Uncle Jim’s Question Bee in 1936. The Ask-It format had four contestants selected for the audience answering questions sent in by listeners. (Trying to come up with the correct answers to these questions makes this show as much fun for modern-day listeners as it was for listeners back in 1939.) Ask-It-Basket remained on the air until 1941.
At 7:30 p.m. it was Strange as it Seems, a series of short dramatizations of strange but true events from the past. One segment, dealing with the life and career of African American agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver, ends with Carver being introduced and speaking a few words over the air. Because this particular program was recorded as part of the WJSV Broadcast Day, Carver’s voice is now preserved for posterity in the National Archives.
At 7:55 p.m. it was Elmer Davis’ 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. The major news story for September 21, 1939 is the assassination of Romanian prime minister Armand Calinescu by members of Romania’s pro-Nazi Iron Guard.
At 8:00 p.m. it was Major Bowe’s Original Amateur Hour, one of radio’s most listened to programs in the 1930s. On the Air – The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio has a lengthy writeup describing this program and the impact it had on Depression-era America: up to 10,000 people per week would come to New York hoping to audition for it. Of these only about 500 to 700 were given auditions and only 20 or so of these were actually selected to appear on that week’s broadcast.) The amateurs included on this evening’s program include a group of jazz musicians from Harlem, several different singers (both operatic and popular), an animal imitator, a group of country-western yodelers, a whistler, a talented little girl who plays both the accordion and the piano, and a female “red hot mama jazz singer.” Major Bowe’s Original Amateur Hour continued to be heard until 1945 when the Major retired due to ill health. It was later revived by Ted Mack in 1948.
At 9:00 p.m. it was the Columbia Workshop, the program that helped to elevate radio drama to a serious art form through its use of intelligent scripts and what were then new and innovative radio production techniques. It was not, however, a show with a large listening audience, which probably explains why it never had a commercial sponsor. This evening’s program offers an original drama about a middle-aged male schoolteacher whose rather routine existence is influenced for the better when he has a chance encounter with a young woman in a park.
At 9:30 p.m. it was Americans at Work, one of CBS’ educational programs. For this particular broadcast, announcer John Reed King interviews auctioneers in five different fields: livestock, furs, art & literary properties, real estate, and eggs. Listeners learn how auctions are conducted, how bids are submitted, and even how much auctioneers earn. (The fur auctioneer, for example, earned from $5,000 to $10,000 per year at a time when the average American worker earned about $2,080 per year.)
At 10:00 p.m. Edwin C. Hill presents a 15-minute recap of the day’s news including the special session of congress. This is followed by Streamline Interlude, a program of transcribed music.
At 10:30 p.m. Albert Warner provides 15 minutes of commentary, followed by a replay the President’s message to Congress.
Beginning at 11:20 p.m. and continuing through to 12:59 a.m., the CBS network presents live remote broadcasts featuring four popular dance bands: Jerry Livingston (joined in progress), Teddy Powell, Louis Prima and Bob Chester. Most of these live broadcasts originate from New York City nightspots. Sustained by the networks, band remotes were a regular radio feature during the years 1935 to 1950. With no interruptions for commercials and inspired by the presence of a live audience, the musicians often produced exciting, spontaneous performances of a type that could never duplicated in a studio session. The end of World War II marked the end of the big band era and, eventually, the end of the network band remotes themselves.
The WJSV Broadcast Day concludes at 1:00 p.m. with the playing of the national anthem and a sign-off announcement.
Listening to the entire WJSV Broadcast Day is something that every OTR fan should do at least once. Not only will it give you a better idea of what AM radio was really like during its “golden era,” but it will also expose you to programs that you might not otherwise choose to listen to, such as the daytime “soap operas” and the band remotes. Be sure to have a copy of John Dunning’s On the Air – The Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio handy as you listen. Being able to look up the histories of the programs and the people who appeared on them will make your listening experience all the more interesting.
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.