- HSSB 6020
Signals Astray: Radio, Radioactivity, and Cold War Culture
The Federal Communications Act, as amended by Congress in 1951, grants the President of the United States the authority, during times of “public peril or disaster or other national emergency,” to “suspend or amend . . . the rules and regulations applicable to any or all stations or devices capable of emitting electromagnetic radiations.” In December 1951, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order that ceded this authority to the Federal Communications Commission. Charged with developing a plan that would, first, prevent enemy aircraft from homing in on U.S. radio broadcast signals (as the Japanese had done during the attack on Pearl Harbor) and, second, ensure that the nation’s airwaves would be available for the circulation of civil-defense warnings and instructions, the FCC created a public emergency broadcasting system called CONELRAD (“CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation”).
My talk will explore the cultural discourses surrounding the emergence and institutionalization of CONELRAD in the 1950s. Those discourses recycled, within the context of Cold War militarism and nationalism, longstanding hopes and fears concerning the disseminative powers of broadcast media. On the one hand, the radio signal’s reckless promiscuity threatened the safety of the citizenry and security of the nation by turning every high-powered transmission tower into a readymade bull’s-eye for enemy missiles. On the other hand, that same signal’s ethereal instantaneity promised civil survival and national salvation by alerting a culturally diverse, geographically dispersed population to the existence of an impending catastrophe, and by soothing the nerves and directing the behaviors of the populace in the event of catastrophe’s realization.