CONELRAD #atozchallenge


Last year, my theme was portmanteau words, words that are formed by mashing together parts of two other words to make a new word, such as “dramedy,” a combination of “drama” and “comedy.” Words like CONELRAD are also portmanteaus, and they are also acronyms. CONELRAD expands into CONtrol of ELectromagnetic RADiation. It was a way of alerting the public in the event the Russkies were flying over here to drop an atomic bomb on us, AND it was a way to confuse said bomber if it tried to use radio transmissions to find the place to bomb.

The CONELRAD logo. Source: Wikipedia

After World War II, when the United States used the first two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviet Union figured out how to create an atomic bomb, and the Cold War between the US and the USSR began. Obviously, the biggest concern was that the Russians would use their atomic bomb to carry out an attack on the Americans, and the race was on to come up with a way to let people know that the Russians were coming to blow us all to Kingdom Come, and to misdirect them if they tried to use radio signals to locate appropriate targets, as the Nazis had done.

The great minds of the government sat down and came up with a plan, which they initially called the “key station” system. The FCC chose certain AM radio stations in each geographic area as “key” stations, either “basic key stations” that were connected directly to the Air Defense Command Center or “relay key stations” that would be contacted by phone by the basic key stations. Every other AM, FM, and TV station would monitor one of those stations in case the ADCC sent out an attack warning.

Key stations would alert the rest of the stations by shutting off their transmitter for five seconds, turning it back on for five seconds, turning it off again for five seconds, then broadcasting a 1000 Hz tone for fifteen seconds. When stations received this message, they were instructed to inform their viewers or listeners that they were leaving the air and to tell them that they needed to turn on an AM radio and listen to either 640 kHz or 1240 kHz for “official news, information, and instructions.”

All AM radios sold between 1952 and 1963 had to have the CONELRAD frequencies (640 kHz and 1240 kHz) clearly marked, whether with a triangle, a triangle in a circle, the Civil Defense symbol, or some other symbol, so that people could find them easily. (Source: Wikipedia)

The stations that stayed on the air (usually the key stations) would then set their transmitters to either 640 or 1240 and start taking turns turning on their transmitter, broadcasting for several minutes, and shutting down. The idea was to keep shifting where the the broadcast was coming from, thus confusing Sergei and Ivan, who were flying an atomic bomb over from the USSR with the intention of dropping it on some city. Meanwhile, people sitting in their basements or bomb shelters could listen to an uninterrupted stream of news and information on their radios.

CONELRAD was signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1951, and it turned out to have a number of problems with it.

  • The shutting on and off of the transmitter put a lot of stress on it, and sometimes a station would shut off its transmitter and not be able to bring it back up. This was known as the EBS Stress Test.
  • The advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which didn’t require a pilot or navigator or use radio waves to locate its target, made the whole system obsolete.
  • When radio and TV stations saw it, they began asking if they could use CONELRAD to broadcast weather warnings and civil emergency warnings, and they were told that no, it was just for nuclear attack. This caused them to pout and demand that something similar be designed for those situations.

CONELRAD lasted until 1963, when it was replaced by the Emergency Broadcast System. On the surface, the EBS looked just like CONELRAD, complete with the EBS Stress Test (at least until 1973, when the off-on-off-tone was replaced by a two-tone attention signal), but it could be used for other types of emergencies.

I’m interested in emergency broadcasting, mostly because I was scared half to death by the weekly Emergency Broadcast System tests as a kid (and I wasn’t alone, as it so happens). Ben Minnotte, who runs the Oddity Archive channel on YouTube, has a great video on emergency broadcasting, which I’ll include here.

And here is a public service annoncement about CONELRAD.

And thus ends our history lesson for today. There’ll be a quiz next week.

See you tomorrow!

37 thoughts on “CONELRAD #atozchallenge

  1. I had no idea about this word but I did immediately think about the EBS which I grew up with. I was never scared by it and was actually perturbed when it would interrupt my bugs bunny cartoon


    1. You live in Canada, if I’m not mistaken. Did you live in the US for a time, or did you live somewhere that got US stations? I don’t know what they did in Canada that was analogous to the EBS, though I’m sure there was a way of letting people know about severe weather. Maybe you can enlighten me…?


    1. I was a little behind you, I think, and by then the air raid drills and briefings about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack were no longer part of our education. I know the parish had a fallout shelter, and from what I’ve been told it was a pretty spectacular place. (People who have seen it say it was a few feet below the church and extended under the school and auditorium, an area of about two square city blocks.) But apart from knowing where it was, no one actually saw it. Guess the nuns figured we could figure it out for ourselves.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t remember this commercial but I do remember having to go under our desks in school during air raid drills. We heard the ones for the weather quite a lot this winter with all the rain we had. Flood warnings are a lot less scary than nuclear bomb warnings.


    1. We had a pretty quiet summer this past year, but we can have severe weather blow in almost any time, chiefly tornadoes and severe thunderstorms that bring strong winds, lightning, and hail. We have a weather radio (in fact, it wore out and we just bought a new one) that warns us about the bad weather, and there are some days it’s going off constantly. I’m more concerned about severe weather than nuclear attack, though the flood warnings are not real high on my list, because we don’t live near a creek or river…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, that word sounds like it’s made for sci-fi movies. I had an assumption that many military jargon were acronyms. Though I never heard of CONELRAD before. Interesting read and I learned something new today!

    Andy P.
    #AtoZChallenge theme: Chinese Adventure


  4. Fascinating! I find this kind of information so intriguing. And I wonder why I never listened in history class (not that they would ever have covered this, probably). Have you ever read the book “The Girls of Atomic City” about those who were working on the bomb in the US and didn’t know it? Blew me away!

    Impromptu Promptlings
    A to Z Challenge Letter C


    1. Was that the story about how they all became ill with radiation poisoning? Or am I thinking about another book?

      I never learned about CONELRAD in school. I was one of those kids who read everything, and one day I was reading the owner’s manual from my great-aunt’s 1961 Ford Falcon. There was a whole section that talked about it (probably to explain the triangles at 640 and 1240 on the radio). Scared me half to death.


  5. Reminds me of two things:

    I actually got to conduct the EBS tests at my college radio station. It wasn’t as exciting as one might imagine, I had to hold one switch down and one switch up for 60 seconds. Then I read the “this is just a test” script.

    After years of hearing “this is just a test” on tv & radio, I heard an actual emergency after that signal once … and it was for severe thunder storms.


    1. On YouTube, there’s a video that the North Carolina Emergency Management Agency created to explain how to handle the tests and actual emergency broadcasts. It doesn’t seem all that exciting.

      Have you heard about the morning the ADCC sent the wrong message out by accident and activated the EBS for real? Half the stations in the country figured, “ah, they always do the test now, the guy probably screwed up” and ignored it. There were some serious changes made to it then.

      The EAS (the new EBS) seems more geared toward local emergencies (severe weather, AMBER alerts, etc.) than the EBS was. I think stations were afraid to activate the EBS because it still had that frisson of nuclear attack, and handled weather warnings differently.


  6. Reblogged this on Impromptu Promptlings and commented:

    I found John Holton’s blog today on CONELRAD (for C in the A to Z Challenge) absolutely engrossing. Maybe that’s because I actually have some memory of it all. Please take the time to stop by his blog and have a read. For those who have never heard about it, you’ll find it interesting. For the rest of you, it may bring back some kind of scary memories of school drills! πŸ˜€


  7. I’m not old enough to remember CONELRAD (I was born in 1971), but I’ve seen that symbol on old radios and never knew what it was for. I do know about the old “Duck and Cover” cartoons they would use to educate the public about what to do in an emergency (i.e., “The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!”). The only school drills we ever had were for tornados. The EBS tests now interrupt your TV viewing, no matter what channel you’re watching, with the most godawful loud beeping and then totally useless information (“This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test. In a real emergency…” yeah yeah, blow it out your tailpipe :P). I live directly across the street from the EMS station, where one of the two “air raid sirens” (that’s what I call them because that’s what they sound like, they’re actually for tornado warnings and other severe weather alerts) so if something is headed our way, I’m already going to know about it, along with about half the town. For the other half, there’s another one of those damn things on top of the courthouse so that they can alert the southern half of the town what’s going on.

    LINK to my entry for today.


    1. At least the EBS tests were scheduled during commercial breaks. The EAS tests just pop up whenever. The good news is, they do most of the testing at night, when no one’s watching. It’s a rude awakening if you fell asleep with the TV on, though…


  8. It’s a two-for-one bargain day because in addition to Conelrad, I learned portmanteau. I’ve seen portmanteau occasionally, but never really knew what it meant before right now. Dramady explains it perfectly. Thanks for the education, I’m gonna go show off to my wife now!


    1. Angry as they might be at us, Canada and Mexico aren’t much of a threat to launch a nuclear attack on the US. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live knowing that the neighbors in the next country might send a few nukes over.


    1. I had a radio from roughly that time period, and there was a notice on the back explaining those were Civil Defense stations, so I have a feeling there were more than a few people that had no idea what they were. There weren’t that many stations that would break into programming to do an EBS test. They would almost always wait for a commercial break to do it. Now, the current EAS tests can interrupt programming at any time, and usually does, particularly when the state emergency management agency runs a required monthly test. There was an incident a few years ago when an EAS monthly test interrupted the broadcast of the last few seconds of a close NBA game in some markets…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I remember it, but never knew exactly how it worked. My husband, who is several months older than I am, doesn’t remember it at all. Now, he’s giving me a hard time because I do remember it. I showed him the video and he still didn’t remember it. How strange, especially as he detests the Emergency Broadcasting System when it interrupts his shows with their tests.


  10. John, Although I knew the EBS was meant as an exercise test to prepare the general public in case an actual emergency did happen but I always got terribly annoyed because these interrupted my favorite TV show. I never thought about the enemy landing on American soil or bombs raining down on us, just that I couldn’t watch my TV program for a few seconds. Oh silly me, right? I enjoyed reading the Conelrad history and why it was started. I probably won’t remember what Conelrad means tomorrow much less next month. Hopefully, there won’t be a test with this on it. πŸ™‚ Very interesting post and thanks for dropping by yesterday for A2Z Art Sketching Through the Alphabet Letter β€œD” for β€œdogs”. Happy a2zing, my friend!


    1. From what I’ve read, the FCC couldn’t care less whether the public knew what the EBS was about or what to do in the event of the real thing. Like nearly every government bureaucracy, they were more concerned that stations were doing what the regs told them to do. And stations weren’t: the regs said do the test at random times and days, but stations would do it at the same time, usually when practically no one was watching or listening (Sunday mornings before anyone was up, Saturday afternoon, during the soaps or afternoon cartoons, etc.). The Feds ordered stations not to set the test script to music when they found out there were stations doing that, ordered stations not to record it in funny voices (Howard Cosell, Pee-Wee Herman, and Rodney Dangerfield were my favorites) or improvise when reading the script, etc. All the stations were trying to do was entertain their audiences and have a little fun with sixty seconds they couldn’t run ads and during which the people watching were busy changing channels. The current method, the EAS, is better for a number of reasons, mostly because it’s less intrusive (TV stations can continue running the video portion while the test is taking place, the weekly test is over in about fifteen seconds, it doesn’t require an engineer or an announcer, the test can be conducted any time during the day or night, etc.) and more useful (weather alerts, AMBER alerts, etc. can be broadcast in a timely manner). Doesn’t help much when it comes at a crucial point in a show, though..


  11. This was so interesting! I do remember the little triangles on the radio dial, but guess I didn’t know why they were there. Way back when, I remember seeing the symbol for a fall-out shelter on buildings, and my uncle in Idaho built one of the first ones there. It even got written up in an article in their newspapers. I like anything to do with radios ever since my dad built his own shortwave. I still listen to my own shortwave radios, and the ham radio stations break in sometimes.


        1. Right, better propagation. I haven’t sat down with it much, but I can already tell an external antenna will be a definite improvement. Last time I tried listening was about twenty years ago, and it’s amazing how much everything has gone up in price…


  12. Those broadcasts used to fascinate me. By the way, my 95 year old friend Jack here in the town where I now live is thinking of selling the house he’s lived in since the fifties. It has a vintage bomb shelter that he himself constructed. I’ve gone down in it–it is an interesting affair.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out


    1. You’re more likely to hear the Emergency Alert System tones now, because they can run their weekly test at virtually anytime (the monthly coordinated test is scheduled by your state’s Emergency Management Agency) and it’s used for nearly every type of emergency, from severe weather to AMBER alerts. So when you hear them, it’s a good idea to look into why. The old EBS (from which the iconic “This is a test” comes to us) tests had to be done during the day, and they rarely used it other than the weekly test. I think people still associated it with nuclear disaster…

      Glad you liked it!


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