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This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.

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Pearl Harbor and the CBS News Program: THE WORLD TODAY
by Jim Widner © 2014
(From Radio Recall, August, 2014)

I have been collecting radio news broadcasts for over forty years and occasionally run into questions for myself on particular events that almost seem impossible to resolve. The questions involve the damaging of news transcriptions through unnecessary and bad editing by other collectors. Often there is a single existing recording of an historic event that is altered and in doing so destroys timing cues that help in authenticating broadcasts.

This happened to one such recording from when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. At the time, radio journalism was in its infancy. Prior to 1938 most networks did not have employees reporting news events. The philosophy of radio news at the time was to utilize wire reporters and print journalists, who gathered the facts, and ask them, along with various other experts, to speak on the events over radio.

People such as Edward R. Murrow and Cesar Searchinger were European Directors providing these experts but rarely offering their own opinions and facts. Hitler's march into Austria in March 1938 changed that. NBC already had people like Max Jordan who sometimes made his own reports but like Searchinger (also with NBC) usually provided experts other than himself. The events in Europe convinced the networks that they needed to beef up their miniscule news organizations.(1)

Even with the beginnings of these organizations, the networks were simply not prepared to handle breaking news. This was partly due to the economic structure of radio programming: the sponsors owned and usually developed the programs (except for network sustained programming) and purchased air time from the networks. In order for the network news organizations to handle news events, they needed the permission of sponsors if they wanted to break into a program. For the most part this rarely occurred.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the role of radio news broadcasting was turned upside down. This was a significant event for American broadcast journalism because the news information was breaking so fast that Americans' preferred method for getting the news, via the print papers, no longer was effective; print media was not able to react quickly to these changing events. Americans realized these events were life changing for them and many turned to radio for more immediate information.

The attack at Pearl Harbor was different because it meant a seismic shift in how the United States would move forward in the daily lives of Americans; and it meant a change in how radio would handle news reporting.

As the news broke, the three major networks, CBS, NBC and Mutual treated the news in a different way from previous major events about the war in Europe. This was an attack on American soil unlike the European events; and though many in the news business felt war was coming, no one knew just when or what would be the catalyst.

The attack occurred on a Sunday morning in Hawaii just before 8:00 a.m. or a little before 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time. The flash bulletin from the United Press hit the teletypes at about 2:25 p.m. with little detail from the White House. It merely reported an attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor. The first bulletin went out from the Mutual Broadcasting System when they interrupted a football game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants at 2:26 p.m. and then returned to the game.

For NBC, according to their Master Logs, that network's bulletin hit the air waves about 2:29:50 p.m. interrupting the closing theme of Sammy Kaye's band. At 2:30 p.m. they returned to regular programming with the University of Chicago Round Table though like Mutual, they continued to interrupt periodically, as information began flowing in.

Meanwhile, CBS was the only network whose regular programming on Sunday afternoon was a news program - The World Today - which aired at 2:30 p.m. The news program placed the network in a perfect conjunction of breaking news, and at least thirty available minutes to cover the breaking events unimpeded by sponsor rules. Unfortunately, for collectors, CBS was not a network that allowed the history of their broadcast to speak for itself.

Preserving the broadcasts

That news broadcasts of the attack survive is due for the most part to the diligence of the networks in making transcriptions of news events. The Columbia Broadcasting System recordings of their news at this time came mostly from the West Coast feed only and not by the network's initiative. While NBC in New York made low-quality reference recordings on Memovox via dictating machines, CBS did not make any of its own recordings.(2)

Unlike NBC or Mutual, it did not have any internal recording department. When they wanted transcriptions, they hired outside recording studios. In Hollywood, Radio Recorders did most of CBS' west coast recording for them and in New York WOR Recording Service and Harry Smith Inc. handled much of the east coast recordings. However, CBS contracted out transcription creation on an as-desired basis and all of this was handled in advance. This meant that the network was never really prepared for breaking news as far as transcriptions were concerned.

We have so many West Coast news recordings from CBS because of the time shift which required stations such as KIRO in Seattle to record the program while the East Coast version was broadcasting. KIRO found it possible to gain a usable quality of sound through instantaneous disc recording. (3)

This allowed them to repeat the program on a delayed schedule due to the time difference and usually to avoid interrupting sponsored programs. The recording was done with the network's permission, and with pending war, KIRO felt a need to preserve these broadcasts. If an East Coast based network news program fell within a typical news time slot on the West Coast, it would be carried live. Some instead fell during West Coast airings of sponsored programs and so were either pre-recorded or not broadcast. CBS' 2:30 p.m. news program, The World Today, however was different.

The World Today confusion

The World Today was an exception to the "time of day" rule used for many of the network's standard news broadcasts and was a simultaneous airing east and west. It was carried on the west coast at 11:30 a.m. or 2:30 p.m. Eastern. There was one other difference between the two; the West Coast version had a sponsor in Golden Eagle Gasoline while the East Coast version was sustained.

Consequently, there were two different openings that were heard since the West Coast version had to allow sponsor time. It does not appear that an East Coast version of the program was transcribed on this day; the only recording appears to be from the West Coast.

Over the years, the extant recording of this program for this day was edited with pieces cut out into separate recordings and removal of silence gaps that came mostly from switching between major cities where events were unfolding. This "editing" of the west coast version and the lack of program logs, results in not knowing exactly what is correct or how the program probably sounded on this historic day.

The East Coast version opened with this on December 6, 1941 and most likely a similar but abbreviated intro was used on December 7th:

"The World Today: The Columbia Broadcasting System now presents a summary of all the important news in the world today. Reports from CBS correspondents by trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific shortwave radio and the latest developments as received by Columbia's newsroom, here in New York."

After an extra second, the announcer would then normally explain which reporters around the world would be called upon by anchor John Daly. This would begin at about 18 seconds from the opening of the program and usually began with "Tonight John Daly will call in…"

Meanwhile, the West Coast version began with a different announcer and opening on December 7th:

"The World Today. By shortwave radio, Columbia now brings you reports from its foreign correspondents overseas, with summaries of the latest world news, presented over these stations by Golden Eagle Gasoline. Go ahead New York."

This was roughly 13 seconds in length. Most likely both the New York and the West Coast openings were abbreviated from what listeners normally heard due to the immediacy of the event and the need to broadcast the bulletin.

When the United Press bulletin hit the teletypes at 2:25 p.m. and was picked up in CBS New York, there was quick discussion on how it should be handled since the newscast was to begin in five minutes. There was little time to coordinate things with the West. The late Bob Trout explained in a 1999 feature on NPR's All Things Considered just how chaotic things were. (4)

At that time he was in London and prepared to report on London's reaction to the news. Normally, he would be connected just before air time to then news director Paul White as the circuit was opened so that it could be cut in at the appropriate time. Instead, he explained in 1999, he was connected into the studio itself. Less than two minutes before air time, he explained what he heard:

"I suddenly heard a burst of commotion through my headphones; doors opened; teletypes clattered in the news room and I picked up fragments of agitated conversation: 'War?' I heard someone say. 'Why it's automatically war.'…seconds before program time, Paul White came on the line…he said he had cancelled reports from Cairo and Geneva. The network would go to Washington for a special report, then I would give London's reaction."

Because this was an unprepared event and the network had no time to react and set up things properly, the news team felt it necessary to go quickly into the bulletin from the United Press. Whether there was the normal opening before the bulletin cannot be confirmed since the East Coast broadcast does not exist. Because the other networks had already flashed the news, John Daly broadcast the bulletin in this way:

"The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, by air, President Roosevelt has just announced. The attack also was made on all naval and military activities on the principal island of Oahu."

This is the bulletin from CBS that exists in circulation. However, according to Edward Bliss, former writer-producer for Edward R. Murrow and news editor for Walter Cronkite at CBS, in his book, "Now the News", (5) there was an additional sentence on the bulletin. This is also confirmed by a book published by CBS at the end of the war( 6) "The news came in just after the two Japanese envoys in Washington made the appointment to call at the State Department, and follows reports from the Far East that Japan was ready to launch an attack on Thailand."

That sentence does not appear to exist in audio form. If it was broadcast, collectors apparently cut it off. Why it was cut by collectors seems odd since the importance of the bulletin to history would prompt one to include it with the rest of the existing bulletin.

As per Bob Trout, immediately after this bulletin, New York would switch down to Washington D.C. where Albert Warner would add detail. This is where part of the confusion lay; what did the West Coast actually hear: The opening, followed by the bulletin, silence, then Albert Warner; or no bulletin due to being caught in the middle of a fast change? In one copy that exists, we hear just that: after the opening announcer, there is a silence from 8 to 15 seconds, depending upon your copy followed by the voice of Albert Warner apparently continuing the news from the bulletin when he begins "The details are not available…" Because no East Coast copy exists of the opening, what NPR used with Bob Trout's explanation, was the West Coast opening.

But there is a second bit of confusion: In his NPR explanation, Trout offers the timing schedule when certain events occurred in the broadcast as does Edward Bliss in his book. Both indicate Albert Warner came on at 2:37 p.m. EST. As previously mentioned the opening plus bulletin takes only seconds. According to the book published by CBS, after Daly read the bulletin (the longer version as mentioned above) at 2:31:00 p.m., Daly then repeated the bulletin and "amplified it" and then prepared listeners for the switch by saying "We take you now to Washington." Daly might have read bulletins about other areas affected by the Japanese ship movements including Thailand before switching to Washington. He also could have mentioned what they hoped to do in the broadcast including trying to get Ford Wilkins in Manila on the line and the upcoming switch to Bob Trout in London.

There simply does not seem to be any circulating copies to verify these details forcing me to go only by the reported sources in my research. Whatever was heard meant that after the bulletin at 2:31, there were six more minutes before the switch to Albert Warner in Washington.

So why does any of this matter? For a collector and interested radio news historian, I would like to know just what actually occurred during the broadcast. It is, after all, a part of our history and it is the point where broadcast journalism first really began to cut its teeth in its infancy of covering news.

I am reminded of the late Frank Reynolds in 1981 when he anchored the ABC News, and news of an assassination attempt on Reagan had occurred. When it was reported that Reagan Press Secretary James Brady had died and then found he was only seriously wounded, Reynolds became visibly upset on camera yelling "Let's get it nailed down...somebody...let's find out! Let's get it straight so we can report this thing accurately!" Certainly, the accuracy of news reporting does matter.

(1) A year or so earlier, newspapers attempted to shut out radio from using the wire services. This also convinced the networks to create their own news services.
(2 )The source of these broadcasts for collectors was J. David Goldin, though discs in the Library of Congress per letter from Kenneth H. Berkeley, NBC General Manager, dated April 29, 1942.
(3 ) History in Sound, Milo Ryan, University of Washington Press, 1963, page x.
(4) Pearl Harbor Anniversary; http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1067553
(5) Bliss Jr., Edward, Now the News: The Story of Broadcast Journalism. Columbia University Press, New York. 1991.
(6 ) "From Pearl Harbor Into Tokyo" Columbia Broadcasting System, 1945.