I was raised on television, the way God intended, but I have never been able to escape radio’s gravitational pull upon my imagination. “Theatre of the mind,” they used to call radio, because that’s what it is; a beautiful proscenium built from sound waves between your ears.
There is plenty of interest in vintage television, as evidenced by the number of cable channels bent on repurposing every TV show with which you grew up. Hardcore hobbyists find it relatively easy to find kinescopes (filmed live television shows) of the black-and-white classics of the 1950s.
Radio was a different kind of commodity when it broke out in the 1920s. There had never been a mass and instantaneous communications medium like it before in human history. It arrived in people’s living rooms out of the air, piped through eloquent furniture with names like Atwater-Kent and Crosley. The news and entertainment it carried had to be enjoyed in the moment, since the tape recorder wouldn’t be available until after World War II. It is easy to consider early radio programs to have been like Tibetan sand paintings, conceptualized and constructed for a brief moment’s enjoyment, then vanished into the airwaves at their completion. Aside from printed program logs, it is hard to imagine what an average day of radio programming back then sounded like.
Except for one day.
On September 21, 1939, as WJSV in Washington, D.C., signed on, an engineer started cutting the first of 38 half-hour long transcription discs to record everything the station would broadcast that day.
Two representatives of the National Archives, R.D. Connor and John Bradley, had been conferring for more than a year with radio station executives Harry Butcher and Ann Gillis about the value of creating such an archive. As it became technologically feasible, the date of Sept. 21 was chosen for the unprecedented project because of its possible historic portent; with World War II underway in Europe, President Franklin Roosevelt was to make an important speech to Congress. That speech, though, turned out to be among the less interesting things recorded.
The day started with the lugubrious tones of local announcer Arthur Godfrey, who would go on to become one of the superstars of early television. With his deliberate cadence and ultra-conversational delivery, he was an unlikely choice to work the wake-up shift (The Sun Dial show), but there he was on this Thursday morning, spinning records — “electrical transcriptions,” the musicians’ union made him call them — and making happy talk with station visitors plugging, among other events, an upcoming boat regatta on the Potomac River.
After Sun Dial, there was a quiz show, sponsored by Certified Double Flavor Bread and emceed by future What’s My Line? TV host John Daly, after which WJSV’s target demographic became women. The morning and early afternoon were filled with 15-minute serial dramas to pique the interest of the housewife, with titles such as Bachelor’s Children, Stepmother and The Romance of Helen Trent. With sponsors including Lux, Chipso Detergent, Rinso, Palmolive and Super Suds, it’s no wonder such programs had earned the nickname “soap operas.”
At 1:45 p.m. came the main event, FDR’s speech to Congress. Though delivered with passion to a rare special session, its plea for a relaxation of arms embargoes and repeal of the Neutrality Act was ultimately a non-starter with Capitol isolationists. To fill time after the oratory (broadcast news didn’t offer instant political analysis in 1939), CBS did something unimaginable in the present day, which was to air a live short-wave broadcast of a speech from French Premier Edouard Daladier — in French. Only after the speech did the network offer a translation of what he had said, but it may be that Daladier was easier to translate than the Speaker of the House, Alabama’s Representative William Bankhead, who was interviewed for comment shortly after that speech concluded.
One of the gems in the WJSV broadcast day was probably taken for granted by its listeners: a partial broadcast of a Washington Senators baseball game (joined in progress because of the afternoon’s speeches). Because no recordings of complete games seem to exist before 1948, these five and one-half innings of the last game of the season, against the Cleveland Indians, constitute a significant audio artifact, if only because the play-by-play announcer is Hall of Fame pitching legend Walter Johnson, who coincidentally managed both teams after his days on the mound ended.
Prime time on WJSV brought the family into the parlor at 6 p.m. for the venerable Amos ‘n’ Andy and Joe E. Brown’s comedy half-hour, then moved to quiz show The Ask-It Basket and Ripley’s Believe It or Not knockoff, Strange As It Seems. The big draw of the evening was the 1939 version of America’s Got Talent, called Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour, that evening featuring, among others, chicken impressionist Redbill “Red” Lane.
After a live drama program and more news, including a rebroadcast of the FDR speech, the mood on WJSV turned to music. Though the day had started with Godfrey spinning chestnuts like “School Days” and “Comin’ Through the Rye,” it ended with almost two hours of live performances from top dance bands all over the country, including Teddy Powell’s, Bob Chester’s and Louis Prima’s. Then at 1 a.m., announcer George Putnam read a weather forecast, played the National Anthem and signed the station off. WJSV’s broadcast day, the only one ever recorded, became truly the stuff of history.
Just as the volcanic remnants of Pompeii or James Joyce’s book-length exposition of a day in Dublin give resonance to the ordinary, WJSV’s epic 19-hour recording gives a listener the chance to time travel by ear into this American life, 75 years ago this week. For anyone interested in the continuum of our culture, it is a trip worth taking.
The Complete Broadcast Day of WSJV can be accessed from The Internet Archive at archive.org.