Radio Time Capsule
America -- September 21, 1939
Nov 20, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 10 • By DAVID GELERNTER
One fine autumn day sixty-one years ago, a CBS radio station in Washington, D.C., recorded its complete broadcast cycle, from "Sundial with Arthur Godfrey" at 6:29 and a half ("Good morning! This is station WJSV, owned and operated by the Columbia Broadcasting System") through Bob Chester's Orchestra at half-past twelve the next morning ("the music of America's newest band sensation, coming to you from that old jive hive, the Famous Door in New York City").
The idea was to leave a calling card for future generations, as Westinghouse had done earlier in the year when it buried the famous "time capsule" at the 1939 New York World's Fair. The CBS recordings have now been transferred to tape, and they are available on cassette tapes: eighteen hours worth. They make you feel as if you are listening through a keyhole to a different world on the far side of a shut door -- a world with the paradoxical dream quality of being familiar and strange at the same time.
The day was September 21, 1939, three weeks after Germany invaded Poland and kicked off the Second World War. "Warsaw still holds out against Germany," a news broadcast announced on the evening of the twenty-first. "Every night we report that, it comes a little nearer looking like a miracle." (But the miracle was almost over; Warsaw surrendered on September 28.) Earlier in the day, we hear WJSV cut to the capitol for a crucial presidential speech: Franklin Roosevelt had called Congress into special session so he could urge it to repeal the embargo provisions of the Neutrality Law, which forbade American weapon sales to the allies. When Roosevelt is done, we join another presidential speech midway through: Prime Minister Daladier of France begging his countrymen to stand firm at their battle stations and not be swayed by relentless Nazi propaganda. According to the evening news, FDR "failed to move isolationist senators" -- but in early November, repeal would pass both houses by large margins, and the United States would be a step closer to joining the war that bent history out of shape forever.
In short, it was an eventful day in one of history's crucial months. But on the whole these recordings are an average armful of leaves from a long-ago fall, tattered brown ones and beautiful scarlet ones and many run-of-the-mill ones. America's interests in 1939 were basically the same as they are in 2000. The day's radio shows are a mixture of silly soap operas (Life Can Be Beautiful) and an American League baseball game (Cleveland versus Washington), pop music, game shows, comedy, news broadcasts, news analysis, and the odd documentary, all washed down by one round of commercials after another; Palmolive, Bulova watches, Wrigley's chewing gum; Post Toasties, Plymouth automobiles, Zlotnick the Furrier. The schedule is strikingly like what you find on network television today.
Many attitudes are the same too. Americans of 1939 were as helplessly enthralled as we by the astounding idea that women can have jobs, just like men. The 1939 soaps are all about working women, from chorus girls Myrt and Marge to social worker Bess Johnson to physician Susan Chandler to The Career of Alice Blair, who is busy "fighting for fame" on the "ladder to success." Even newly crowned Mrs. America works: She is an elevator operator like her husband. She wants to be a model. So what else is new? (The main difference between 1939 and ourselves on "women's issues" is that 1939 lacks our ugly contempt for housewives.)
The language on these tapes can be eerily familiar. In his afternoon speech, Roosevelt (a self-described "worker in the field of international peace") praises the "rich diversity of resources and peoples" in the western hemisphere, "functioning together in mutual respect." As usual, "diversity" is what you praise when praise is called for and nothing comes to mind. A virtue of last resort.