Wednesday, March 22, 2017

World War Wednesdays: WWII Over the Wireless

An American family listening to the radio in 1942
     When thinking back on some of the recent posts for inspiration, I was shocked that I wrote about television and wartime before I wrote about radio! I'm currently taking a course on the history of American television and radio with Dr. Shawn Graham, and it's been a fascinating opportunity to explore my interests in radio history while learning new things about TV. I'm sure we've touched on a few of these topics over the years, but it's always good to bring it all together and add some new content.

     It's important to begin by considering just how important radio was to everyday life at the start of the Second World War. In America, eighty percent of households owned a radio by 1940, and in 1939 a survey of housewives revealed that the radio was a more indispensable household appliance than the refrigerator. Throughout the 1930s, stations had been getting involved in news broadcasts and were providing live coverage of key events, and the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany was covered by the American Press. CBS sent Edward R. Murrow to London to head their European Operations, and he became an important voice in relaying details of major events to Americans back home. In the interest of keeping things brief for you all, I will limit the general overview section but provide you with a great link for further reading if you're interested: There, you can find details on radio's role in the war effort plus listen to original recordings from major moments throughout the war.
Princesses Margaret (L) and Elizabeth in front of the radio microphones on Oct. 10, 1940
     One of the first aspects of Second World War radio that comes to mind is the technology's use by the British royal family. The day that war was declared, 3 September, 1939, King George VI delivered his infamous 6pm BBC broadcast to Great Britain and the Empire speaking of the difficult times ahead and urging his people to stand firm. Then, on 10 October 1940, during the height of the Battle of Britain, his fourteen year-old daughter Elizabeth delivered her first broadcast during a popular BBC program called Children's Hour. The popular program was intended to raise the morale of young listeners who had been evacuated from the UK under the threat of enemy bombardment, and the young Princess used her guest appearance to pay tribute to those who had “travelled thousands of miles to find a wartime home and a kindly welcome in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States of America.” Radio presenter Derek "Uncle Mac" McCullough later reflected that the Princess “never made a mistake or wrong inflection” but “gave a perfect broadcast”. 

     I would be remiss not to mention the legendary speeches delivered by Winston Churchill over the radio, which also captivated audiences and did wonders for their spirits during the war's darkest days from the very beginning of his time as Prime Minister. It turns out that he actually did not enjoy broadcasting, and struggled to speak in front of a microphone rather than an adoring crowd. If you're interested in a great essay about the conspiracy that Churchill used a radio stand-in, here's a link:

     Overall, one of the most important aspects of Second World War radio was its impact on the home front. Having the ability to stay updated on events around the world and to receive regular morale boosts over the airwaves was a great comfort to a great many people during that time, and allowed for audiences to connect with the voices delivering them in new and unique ways. Information courtesy of Dr. Shawn Graham, Imperial War Museums, and The Telegraph.
     Thanks for reading,
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

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