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Oct 29 2007

Where were you in ’42?

. . .

A few names on Pittsburgh radio in 1942 would still be familiar to many Pittsburghers today. “Uncle Ed” Schaughency was hosting KDKA’s “Musical Alarm Clock” from 7 to 8 a.m. He’d still be on the air in 1980.

Ken Hildebrand was a newscaster at WJAS; he went onto work at KQV during its Top 40 days.

And Bill Cullen was a DJ at WWSW; he’d become better known a few years later as host of TV game shows like “The Price is Right” and “The $25,000 Pyramid.”

. . .

But TV was a long way off. RCA and its subsidiary, National Broadcasting Co., had an experimental station in New York City before Pearl Harbor. Now, Si Steinhauser wrote in the Pittsburgh Press, TV equipment was being donated to scrap drives. A week before, he said, “big studios cleaned out their laboratories and gave away a lot of costly material used in experimentation.”

Radio wasn’t faring much better. Sales of replacement batteries for portable sets were banned, and tubes were almost impossible to find, Steinhauser said.

“If your service man has replacements for broken or burned out parts, you are lucky,” he said. “For when his supply’s gone, that’s that.”

. . .

Assuming your radio was working and you lived in Pittsburgh, you had a choice of four networks.

WJAS was a CBS affiliate; WCAE was a member of Mutual Broadcasting; KDKA carried NBC’s “Red” network; and KQV carried NBC’s “Blue” network. (Because of a federal anti-trust lawsuit, RCA was being forced to sell off “Blue” and was rapidly transferring its most popular programs to “Red.”)

WWSW, unaffiliated with any network, was owned by the Post-Gazette. (The Sun-Telegraph, part of the Hearst publishing empire, owned WCAE.)

A handful of suburban stations were on the air. Besides WMBS in Uniontown, Greensburg had WHJB, Butler had WISR, Washington had WJPA, and New Kensington had WKPA.

There also were a few FM stations. KDKA had a license on 47.5 MHz, while WWSW had a signal on 44.7 MHz. Almost no one had a radio that could receive them.

. . .

Indeed, more people had shortwave radios than FM. Most good-quality home radios carried at least one shortwave band, and all of Pittsburgh’s three newspapers carried schedules for English-language overseas broadcasts from London, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro and Vatican City.

And in the absence of TV, most people went to the movies at least once a week. There were plenty of movie theaters open …

… but that’s a topic for another website!


With memories of Ken Burns’ PBS documentary “The War” still fresh in everyone’s mind, MMNF thought it might be interesting to roll back the clock 65 years to the last Monday in October, 1942 … Oct. 26, to be exact.

Your normal listening was interrupted tonight at 10:30 p.m. for a speech by former Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, which was carried on all of Pittsburgh’s five radio stations: KDKA (1020), KQV (1410), WCAE (1250), WJAS (1320) and WWSW (1490).

Willkie had recently returned from a fact-finding mission in Europe. He blasted the Roosevelt administration’s conduct of the war, and also attacked those who said it was unpatriotic to criticize the president during a war.

“Military experts, as well as our leaders, must be constantly exposed to democracy’s greatest driving power — the whiplash of public opinion, developed from honest, free discussion,” Willkie said.

Before Willkie’s speech, you could listen to Hal Peary as “The Great Gildersleeve” on KDKA; “Amos ‘n Andy” and “Blondie” on WJAS; or “The Lone Ranger” and “Lum and Abner” on KQV.

WCAE had news and commentary from Fulton Lewis and Gabriel Heatter, who had recently begun starting each of his broadcasts with the chipper catchphrase, “There’s good news tonight!”

But the news wasn’t really that good. In fact, the fall of 1942 was one of the darkest periods of World War II, from the Allies’ perspective. Overseas, the British were taking a pasting from Hitler’s Luftwaffe, while the Nazis were deep in Soviet territory, engaging the Red Army in a desperate struggle for Stalingrad.

U.S. forces were doing little better. Terrible battles were raging on Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands, while news had just been released of the sinking of the aircraft carrier USS Wasp.

That Monday night, Oct. 26, a surprise air-raid warning was sounded across Allegheny County, plunging the Golden Triangle into darkness. The Post-Gazette reported that more than 500 new recruits marched to their waiting trains at Pennsylvania Station unable to see their wives and mothers waving goodbye.

. . .

All of those men tramp-tramp-tramping off to war left local radio stations scrambling for qualified personnel. Down in Uniontown, Sullivan Sages, program director at CBS affiliate WMBS, reported that he was hiring using “girl operators” to work in its control room, “and has found them more efficient and accurate than men,” according to the Pittsburgh Press … and there’s more after the jump …