We Interrupt This Program…

By Steve Hayes

If you think that the recent ballistic missile false alarm in Hawaii was scary, it actually transpired to our entire nation and here locally on February 20th, 1971. The only difference then was it happened on a Saturday morning and most TV and radio stations had their weekend staff in place and few took the steps to confirm the “official” warning of emanate doom.

The weekends have long been a place in the TV and radio industry to put on their part-time help to not only learn their craft, but to also as a relief to the full- time employees.

Saturday mornings at 9:30 am was a standard time that all media outlets received a test from the Emergency Broadcast System. This was the mandatory announcement that we might all remember that started off “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System.” The “test” came across at its usual time only on this particular morning; it was the real thing!

WIOI Radio and WSAZ-TV Channel 3 were two of the few outlets in the country to take the warning seriously. Frank Lewis was the voice of local radio while Jule Huffman, aka. Mr. Cartoon was the delivery source for the TV side of things for the TV station. After confirming that the actual warning code was not the usual emergency address, both came on the air to inform their audiences that normal programming would cease on the order from the President of the United States and further information was forth-coming. While there was a skeleton script that was to be read, both sources were informed that the Associated Press would soon deliver and updated description of the National emergency unfolding. To say the least there were some awkward on-air moments as Frank tried to adlib what could possibly be going on and Jule Huffman was actually on camera delivering the news in tears.

In about ten minutes, the next memorandum came across the wire. It said that the authenticated warning was sent by the Air Force from Cheyenne, Wyoming; and that it was a mistake. As like with the Hawaii scenario, someone had pushed the wrong button.

The ten minute hole that was created from fiction to reality was over soon as the phrase “social networking” was still a good 35 years away and it was a lazy winter Saturday morning. Imagine if that had happened on that scale today?

The end result was a total failure of the Emergency Broadcast System as we knew it as only a handful of all radio and TV stations across America actually did what they were instructed to do. This was a big reason that the total system was finally re-designed and totally rebuilt by taking all responsibility away from the human element at local TV and radio stations. The new revamped approach is to override local programming on a state-wide basis as they do with weather and amber alerts. If indeed a national warning of that nature would ever again be needed, that would be its course of delivery.

While the date of February 20th, 1971 eventually slid into obscurity and massive failure lead to total correction, it will always be remembered to me as the day that ‘Mr. Cartoon” cried.

By Steve Hayes