Music, news, and entertainment crackled warmly from radio speakers in living rooms across the country—uniting wartime Americans in a common cause and culture.
By Judy P. Sopronyi
World War II was a radio war. Sure, every American city and large town had its daily newspapers. A tide of mail flowed through the nation, many people had access to telephones, and movie showings typically included a newsreel featuring recent wartime footage. But when it came to getting the latest news, there was nothing like radio for immediacy. There was nothing like it for entertainment, either. Every day, all day, Americans could tune in to comedy, drama, and music, along with commercials for local and national services and products. Radio was WWII Americans’ connection to the nation and the world.
The connection could be a weak one at times: reception was iffy. The only commercial broadcasts were on AM; FM frequencies wouldn’t be used commercially until after the war. Jerry Cobb of Austin, Texas, who was just a kid living out in the country near Houston during the war, says reception at his house was worse than iffy—it was lousy. He remembers one day when his dad brought home a new radio: “The reception was so bad he got mad, he opened the back screen door, he just pitched it in the back yard.”
Radio stations were few and far between in the sparsely populated plains states. The situation in cities usually was better. Marjorie Evans, a stenographer for the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, says she and her two roommates in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, DC, got good reception on their radio, though they were so busy they had little time to listen.
Back then, radios had tubes instead of transistors. When you turned one on, you had to wait for the tubes to warm up before you could hear anything. “It took, it seemed like, three minutes, but it was probably more like 15, 20 seconds,” says Cobb. Many had wooden cabinets, and some were luxurious, waist-high consoles proudly placed in the front parlor.
The family would gather around the radio in the evening for companionship and entertainment. During the frequent nighttime air-raid drills—when whole towns blacked out by extinguishing outdoor lights and minimizing indoor lighting so no light leaked through windows—listening to the radio was about the only thing there was to do until bedtime. Cobb reports that his dad enforced blackouts scrupulously. “The tubes were kind of like light bulbs,” he recalls. “They would light up in the back, and my dad would always put newspaper over the back of the radio so we could listen to it during the [blackout].”
As popular as radios were, there were still many people who didn’t own one. Ralph Parker, who applied for a radio station license in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, before he went off to war, estimates that only 45 percent of homes had radios. They were substantial purchases, and the years leading up to the war were Depression years. Some country dwellers didn’t even have electricity yet. When production of radios stopped in 1942 as factories were reconfigured to manufacture war supplies, most families without radios remained without them until after the war.
For people who did have radios, the world was theirs. Provided they were willing to fiddle with the dials for a while, and if the weather was just right, they were sometimes able to pick up broadcasts from Great Britain, Holland, France, or (gasp!) even Germany. Mostly, people tuned into whichever station had the best reception.
People turned anywhere they could to find war news as they tried to keep track of loved ones and friends serving in the military. Romayne Leedy of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who served as a USO (United Service Organization) hostess and sold war bonds during the war, says that when her future husband, John, was overseas, “I would just scramble and try to listen to everything that was going on in the Pacific.” Evans—the Manhattan Project stenographer—says, “We all knew some of the people that were going overseas, so you always wondered if they would come back.” Other listeners were simply trying to stay informed, to follow the course of their country’s enormous undertaking. The demand for news changed radio news programs from five-minute spots two or three times a day to the half-hour programs that migrated to television after the war.
The first news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came to the mainland via radio. That whole day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his staff monitored radio reports as they formulated the US response. The next day, a few minutes past noon, he addressed Congress, and radio stations broadcast his famous address to the nation:
"Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan….
"I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again….
"With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounded determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God…."
Roosevelt’s broadcast words made war a shocking fact. At the same time, they were the first step in rallying Americans around the war effort and reassuring them of his confidence in victory. FDR continued his radio broadcasts as the war unfolded. His series of radio Fireside Chats, which had helped see the country through the Great Depression, were now devoted to the war. The evening after he announced war with Japan, he took to the national airwaves again with the first of these newly focused chats, elaborating on his speech of the previous day:
"We are now in this war. We are all in it—all the way. Every single man, woman and child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history. We must share together the bad news and the good news, the defeats and the victories—the changing fortunes of war….
"To all newspapers and radio stations—all those who reach the eyes and ears of the American people—I say this: You have a most grave responsibility to the nation now and for the duration of this war."
Roosevelt delivered his last Fireside Chat on the war on June 12, 1944, 10 months to the day before his death from a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, in Warm Springs, Georgia.
“We had such faith in Roosevelt,” says Leedy. Like many Americans, Leedy also trusted the radio reports of Edward R. Murrow. A correspondent for CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System), Murrow broadcast from London in a style that riveted his audience. His reports took advantage of one of the best features of radio—the listener’s imagination. With Murrow’s help, imagination could put listeners beside him on a London rooftop as air-raid sirens wailed, German planes buzzed in, and bombs exploded.
Murrow gathered a cadre of top reporters to put the war on the airwaves. Many of these journalists—soon referred to as “Murrow’s boys,” even though not all of them were male—would go on to become household names, including Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, William Shirer, and Charles Collingwood. CBS asked Murrow to stay in London to direct its news organization, but he longed to go where the action was. In December 1943, he managed to persuade a British bomber pilot to take him along on a run into Germany. The next day, his radio report was an account of his escapade, called “Orchestrated Hell.” The CBS brass was not happy about the risk he had taken and forbade him from doing it again. Murrow’s coverage of London during the Blitz—Germany’s bombing campaign over England that lasted from September 1941 through May 1942—made the war real for Americans and may have helped reconcile the United States to joining with the Allies.
Murrow was well versed in the goings on of wartime Europe. One day in January 1941, he received an exciting call from Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s personal representative to Great Britain. Hopkins was in London to meet with Prime Minister Winston Churchill to assess the materiel needs of the British war effort. Hopkins invited Murrow to his suite, and Murrow was delighted at the prospect of landing a terrific interview. Instead, Hopkins spent the time quizzing Murrow about Churchill and other leading British politicians and about conditions in England.
Just about everyone respected Murrow. On the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, he and his wife, Janet, were stateside and had been invited to dinner at the White House. Janet called Eleanor Roosevelt and offered to decline the long-standing invitation at such a trying time, but Eleanor insisted on keeping the dinner date, saying, “We still have to eat.” After the meal, the hosts and guests talked late into the evening, too full of the day’s events to think of sleeping.
Radio supplied plenty of the sort of weighty war news that had kept the Murrows and Roosevelts talking well into the night, but it also gave wartime Americans something else they desperately needed: escape. There was plenty to laugh about and enjoy. Cobb remembers sitting around on Saturday afternoons, listening to Gene “the Singing Cowboy” Autry. “Wrigley Spearmint Gum was his sponsor, and he’d always start out singing ‘I’m Back in the Saddle Again…,’” Cobb recalls. “Fibber McGee and Molly—that was always a funny show. It always started out with Fibber McGee’s closet. He’d open the door and everything would fall out—pots and pans and suitcases and stuff. It came on before The Great Gildersleeve. He was the water commissioner of this little town. I remember Walter Winchell. He’d come on and say, ‘Hello, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.’”
Leedy was a fan of Fibber McGee and Molly, too, and chuckled when she recalled the things falling out of his closet. That was, of course, courtesy of the sound effects man, who had at his disposal an amazing assortment of noisemakers to evoke footsteps, closing doors, breaking glass, animals, objects tumbling—whatever it took to create the scene in the audience’s imagination.
Radio shows were rated for popularity by the C.E. Hooper Service. At the top of the so-called Hooperatings during the war years were Jack Benny, Charlie McCarthy and Edgar Bergen, The Bob Hope Show, Fibber McGee and Molly, Walter Winchell Commentary, and Red Skelton, in no particular order. People who lived through the WWII years often mention The Shadow as a favorite, but it didn’t make the Hooperratings top 10 from 1941 to 1945. Nevertheless, the eerie crime solver had a 25-year run from July 31, 1930, to December 26, 1954. Radio was the place to be back then, and even movie stars such as Carole Lombard and Clark Gable performed on the airwaves.
Then as now, radio had music—big bands, singers, ensembles, orchestras, whatever you could want. “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree (with Anyone Else but Me),” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and “I’ll Walk Alone” were some of the many war-inspired hit tunes. Music even reached the GIs overseas by radio—sometimes via Axis operatives such as Tokyo Rose, who served GIs in the Pacific the latest American music with a large helping of Japanese propaganda. The smooth swing of legendary band leader Glenn Miller entertained the folks at home and the troops on duty after Miller enlisted in the army in 1942. His Army Air Force Band performed and broadcast in the United States and in England. Like many in the military, Miller didn’t make it through the war; his plane disappeared over the English Channel in December 1944.
Radio in the war years had many sad stories to tell, but it was also one of the country’s greatest morale boosters. If it wasn’t an outright necessity, it was close. Tuning in kept Americans on the road to victory.
Photo pair: The cast and crew of a radio drama work their magic in the CBS studios in New York City (left). Radio shows wouldn’t have been the same without sound effects (right).
Next to bottom photo: Franklin Roosevelt used radio to rally Americans behind the war. Here, he uses the networks on May 27, 1941, to declare that Axis aggression overseas threatens America.
Bottom photo: Edward R. Murrow set the standard for on-the-spot radio news coverage of the war.
Image credits: National Archives
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