Saturday, February 20, 1971, around 9:30. I was the mid-morning DJ on WGSA-AM, a very small market daylight station in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. It was far from my first morning on the air. In fact, I had settled into a Saturday morning routine. I was Program Director, not bad for a 25-year-old, even for a small market station.
It was two days before Washington’s Birthday (this was before President’s Day combined the Lincoln/Washington holidays), the commercial load was light, probably spots for a few Washington’s Birthday sales, a hardware store, a car dealership, and a few other things. The newsguy had gone for his morning break…his next newscast would be at noon. Because the commercial load was light, I’d pulled some longer records from the library so I could enjoy the music.
At 9:33 every Saturday morning, United Press International (UPI), sent out its test for its part of the Emergency Broadcast System. It was always the same…a succession of ten rings of the bell, the teletype would print that it was a test, I’d log that it was received and when it was received. Like checking the readings on the transmitter meters, it was routine.
The teletype bell could be heard in Master Control, but the room was sufficiently soundproofed and the ringing wouldn’t go out over the air. As I said, I was playing several long songs. Probably “MacArthur Park” with Richard Harris. It was always good for when you had to go to the bathroom. So was “Hey, Jude.”
There was a lot of time left on the record, so I decided to rip the UPI test off the machine and log it. There was something different about the look of it. It was the message that came in with the ten bells, but I realized it didn’t have the row of Xs at the top and bottom of the test. And then I read it…
THIS IS AN EMERGENCY ACTION NOTIFICATION (EAN) DIRECTED BY THE PRESIDENT. NORMAL BROADCASTING WILL CEASE IMMEDIATELY. ALL STATIONS WILL BROADCAST EAN MESSAGE ONE PRECEDED BY THE ATTENTION SIGNAL, PER FCC RULES. ONLY STATIONS HOLDING NDEA MAY STAY ON AIR IN ACCORD WITH THEIR STATE EBS PLAN.
BROADCAST EAN MESSAGE ONE.
MESSAGE AUTHENTICATOR: HATEFULNESS/HATEFULNESS
I logged it and hunted for the file in the newsguy’s desk that had the authenticator words. “Hatefulness/Hatefulness.” That’s what it said on the message and that’s what it said in the envelope in his UPI book in his desk.
Was the country under attack? The message would not be sent unless the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) sent it. I couldn’t believe it: We were at war. The world was about to come to an end. So was the record.
I was the only person in the building. I had to decide whether to read the announcement located in the plastic pocket at the front of the copy bin, whether to sign off and turn off the transmitter (which by FCC law I could not do), or whether this was maybe a mistake. If I was playing “MacArthur Park,” the cake was about to melt in the rain. Whether he’d ever have that recipe again seemed somewhat irrelevant.
ICBMs with multiple atomic warheads were flying toward the US. How many would explode near us? Philadelphia was within an hour’s drive to the southeast, so maybe the wind would blow away the fallout; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital, was also about an hour away, but to the west, from which the wind usually blows. Washington, DC was south.
“MacArthur Park” ends with a chorus singing “Oh, no!” about a dozen times. And that was exactly what I was thinking. “Oh, no. What in the world am I going to do?”
The song ended and I turned on the microphone. That was when I decided to delay announcing the approach of Armageddon. As best as I could, I back-announced the record, gave a quick weather report (a good day for annihilation), started the next record and cued up the one after that. I can’t not tell people that their lives will soon be ending, I thought, but…but…Nixon notwithstanding, we can’t be under attack. I couldn’t remember any acts of provocation lately.
The station was an ABC News affiliate and I monitored it to hear if they were giving instructions or news stories about the launch and retaliation or tips on what to do in the event of nuclear disaster. Network sounded normal. I had to read a commercial and play one or two others. I was a reasonably good voice actor at the time and managed to get through the commercial without stammering or panicking (“So go to Emerson’s Hardware now and get those weekend supplies… before we’re all blown up!”).
By now the time was approaching 10. The newsguy didn’t do local news at 10, which was why he was out of the building, so I decided that if it were the end of the world, ABC could tell us. Our format had us play music up to 10 seconds before the hour, then give a quick station ID and go to network. The music was coming to an end when I heard bells on the teletype again. I had to ignore that. Music out…station ID and time check…ABC News. I ran out of Master Control to the teletype and saw this:
CANCEL MESSAGE SENT AT 09:33EST REPEAT CANCEL MESSAGE SENT AT 09:33EST
29 FEB 09:59EST
It took about 30 minutes to tell us that they made an “Oops.” I felt so relieved I almost cried until I saw the date…29 Feb. This was 20 Feb. Had the Russians taken over the teletype system as part of their insane mission? I didn’t log it because I was running out of time. I rushed back into Master Control, gave the weather, tried to say something pleasant (“…and the probability of nuclear attack today is 50 percent.”)
When the commercial load permitted, we were to come out of the news with the weather and go right into a record, play a jingle, and go into the next record. Toward the end of the second record, the UPI bell started ringing. Whether I had enough time or not, I ran to the newsroom to see what they had to say:
CANCEL MESSAGE SENT AT 09:33EST REPEAT CANCEL MESSAGE SENT AT 09:33EST
20 FEB 10:13EST
Now the date was correct, the top and bottom rows of Xs were there, but the authenticator word had changed. I ran back into the control room, started the next record, and ran back to the newsguy’s desk to check the authenticator. “Impish/Impish” was next in line after “Hatefulness/Hatefulness.” I clipped all three pieces of paper to the news log, entered times, and went back to MCR, where I stayed. It was as good a place as any to incinerate.
Later in the 10 o’clock hour, the newsguy returned. I could hear him shout, “What?” And then I could hear him rushing to the control room. He wanted an explanation. I told him there was none to give, but I decided to stay on the air and, in fact, the Russians weren’t coming. By that time, when he cleared the wire, a couple of stories had run explaining the oops and assuring us that everything was just fine.
Monday morning, this was on my desk:
IF THE UNITED STATES WERE BEING ATTACKED, THE EMERGENCY ACTION NOTIFICATION SYSTEM WOULD TELL YOU ABOUT IT. THROUGH THAT SYSTEM, CIVIL DEFENSE ALERTS RADIO AND TELEVISION STATIONS ACROSS THE COUNTRY IN A MATTER OF SECONDS.
THOSE MESSAGES ARE SENT BY CIVIL DEFENSE OFFICIALS AT THE NORTH AMERICAN AIR DEFENSE COMMAND HEADQUARTERS NEAR COLORADO SPRINGS --- VIA THE TELETYPE CIRCUITS OF U-P-I AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS--- TO THOUSANDS OF RADIO STATIONS.
AND --- LIKE ALL SYSTEMS ---THIS ONE MUST BE CHECKED OCCASIONALLY, SO CIVIL DEFENSE AUTHORITIES SCHEDULE TESTS TWICE A WEEK.
ONE IS SCHEDULED FOR SATURDAY MORNINGS---AND THIS MORNING’S TURNED INTO A TRAGIC MISTAKE THAT LEFT THE COUNTRY BREATHLESS. A CIVIL DEFENSE TELETYPE OPERATOR SENT THE WRONG MESSAGE---A MESSAGE SAYING THERE WAS A NATIONAL EMERGENCY. . . AND THAT---BY ORDER OF THE PRESIDENT---ALL NORMAL BROADCASTING SHOULD CEASE IMMEDIATELY.
IN MOST PLACES, IT DIDN’T.
"In most places, it didn’t”…including Ephrata, Pennsylvania. It continued:
AND---WHILE THAT’S A GOOD THING IN THIS CASE---IT HAS LED TO SOME CAUSE FOR ALARM OVER THE ENTIRE EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION SYSTEM.
THE BROADCASTERS SHOULD HAVE STOPPED THEIR NORMAL PROGRAMMING IMMEDIATELY (GARBLE) HUNDRED OUT OF SEVERAL THOUSAND DID.
IF IT HAD BEEN AN AUTHENTIC EMERGENCY, THAT WOULD HAVE CAUSED TROUBLE.
BUT THERE IS AN EXPLANATION.
TODAY, THERE WAS CHAOS IN VIRTUALLY EVERY NEWSROOM ACROSS AMERICA. NO ONE HAD EVER SEEN AN ACTUAL EMERGENCY AUTHENTICATOR BEFORE. SOME STATIONS WENT OFF THE AIR IMMEDIATELY---OTHERS DIDN’T.
THERE WERE SEVERAL REASONS.
IN THE FIRST PLACE, THE MESSAGE ITSELF WAS INCOMPLETE.
IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ENDED WITH A ROW OF “X”’S AND 10 BELLS. IT WASN’T.
IN THE SECOND PLACE, U-P-I AND THE ASSOCIATED PRESS WERE QUICK TO ADVISE BROADCASTERS WITH BULLETINS THAT THE REPORT WAS ERRONEOUS.
BUT MOST CAUSE FOR CONCERN COMES FROM THE THIRD REASON. THERE WAS A DISCREPANCY OVER WHICH AUTHENTICATOR WORD WAS THE PROPER ONE. AUTHENTICATOR WORDS CHANGE DAILYS AND BROADCASTERS HAVE LISTS GIVING THE WORDS. THE WORD TRANSMITTED WITH TODAY’S MESSAGE WAS “HATEFULNESS.” IT WAS THE WORD ON MOST LISTS. BUT SOME BROADCASTERS COULDN’T FIND THAT WORD ON THEIR LISTS. . .AND HUNDREDS NEVER RECEIVED THE TRANSMISSION.
ALSO COMPLICATING THE PROBLEM WAS THAT THE MESSAGE CAME AT THE USUAL TEST TIME. . .AND MANY BROADCASTERS IGNORED IT, THINKING IT WAS THE TEST.
ALL THIS HAS CAUSED SPECULATION THAT THE ENTIRE NOTIFICATION SYSTEM SHOULD BE OVERHAULED.
AMONG THE COMMENTS BY THE BROADCASTERS WERE THESE:
THIS CONFUSION SHOWS “THE WHOLE DARN (SYSTEM) WON’T WORK. THEY COULD HAVE BEEN DROPPING H-BOMBS ON US.”
AN EL PASO, TEXAS, STATION SERVING 300,000 LISTENERS NEVER RECEIVED ANY MESSAGE---EITHER THE EMERGENCY NOTIFICATION OR THE CANCELLATION. “WHAT IF IT HAD BEEN THE REAL THING?” A NEWSMAN THERE WONDERED.
ANOTHER NEWSMAN SAID: “THIS OUGHT TO BE EXPOSED. THE SIMPLE FACT IS, MOST PERSONNEL SIMPLY DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO IN THESE CASES.”
SAID ANOTHER, “IT’S A GREAT WAY TO SEE WHO’S ON THE BALL.”
BUT---WHATEVER THE RESULT---THE INVESTIGATIONS AFTER INVESTIGATIONS ARE SCHEDULED AND MANY OBSERVERS SAY IT COULD RESULT IN CHANGING THE CURRENT SYSTEM. . .STAGGERING TEST TIMES. . . AND, POSSIBLY, FORCING BROADCASTERS TO COMPLY MORE THAN THEY DID TODAY.
THIS WHOLE STREAM OF CRITICISM COMES FROM THE MISTAKE OF ONE MAN---A MAN NAMED W-S EBERHARDT. IT WAS EBERHARDT WHO PUT THE WRONG TELETYPE TAPE INTO HIS TRANSMITTER AND SENT IT TO THOUSANDS OF THE NATION’S BROADCAST STATIONS.
ONE CIVIL DEFENSE SPOKESMAN CALLED IT “A SIMPLE HUMAN ERROR.”
BUT SIMPLICITY IS HARDLY THE WORD.
WHEREEVER [SIC] WORD OF THE ALERT MESSAGE WAS BROADCAST, PEOPLE PANICKED. POLICE AND RADIO STATIONS RECEIVED THOUSANDS OF CALLS FROM PEOPLE WONDERING WHAT THE NATIONAL EMERGENCY WAS.
AND IT WAS NOT UNTIL ABOUT 45 MINUTES AFTER THE ALERT STARTED THAT TICIL [SIC] DEFENSE OFFICIALS CANCELLED IT.
FOR NEWSMEN---AND THE PEOPLE THEY GIVE THE NEWS TO---IT WAS A FRIGHTENING EXPERIENCE.
IT MADE THIS DAY’S TWO AUTHENTICATOR WORDS “HATEFULNESS” AND “IMPISH” STAND OUT IN THE MINDS OF MANY.
AND---IN THE WORDS OF ONE VIRGINIA BROADCASTER---“(WE’RE CONSIDERING BILLING NORAD FOR THREE SETS OF UNDERWEAR.) THE REAL BAD PART WAS WHEN WE OPENED THE ENVELOPE AND THE WORDS MATCHED.”
ANDREW MCGILL – UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL 2/20
The News Director, who never worked weekends, said I did the right thing as far procedure was concerned, and that I was right that the FCC prohibited me from turning off the transmitter. He also liked that I monitored ABC. He and the Station Manager didn’t completely congratulate me, but the Sales Manager perked up when I told the Station Manager that I didn’t drop any commercials. That seemed to appease them.
This recollection came about when one day I just happened to remember The Morning the World Almost Ended. I researched it a bit and found an article by Jesus Diaz on gizmodo.com. Posted July 5, 2012 and titled This Message from NORAD Announced Global Nuclear War—In 1971. The UPI messages were supplied by Mike Anderson, who was working that morning at KTEM in Temple, TX.
It’s fun to think back on it now. Living through it? Not so much.