Apparently, I’m not the only one who was scared of these as a kid.
For those of you not familiar with US television, that is an example of the weekly Emergency Broadcast System test that every radio and TV station in the United States had to do sometime during the week between 8:30 AM and local sunset. Station managers hated it; they were forced to give up a minute of precious commercial time to do this silly test that no one took seriously except the poor kids who had this come up during the afternoon cartoons. The purpose of the test was to ensure that the EBS equipment (basically a tone generator) was ready and able to warn the viewing or listening audience that the Emergency Broadcast System had been activated.
Orders to activate the EBS on a national level would come from the President of the United States, and the message itself would come from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (better known as NORAD). NORAD was also responsible for testing the Teletypes that each broadcaster was required to have to receive the message. Every Saturday morning, someone would run the paper tape through a Teletype in Colorado Springs and send the message to all of the stations, who were required to log it and make the log available to the FCC if asked. The procedure was the same in the event of an activation, the only difference being the tape used to send the message. The two tapes were kept side-by-side so they would be readily available to the Teletype operator.
You can see what’s coming, right?
On February 20, 1971, 43 years ago today, the guy at NORAD, a nice man named W. S. Eberhardt (long since retired), grabbed the wrong tape and, instead of sending the test message to every Teletype in the country, sent a message, complete with verification words, that an Emergency Action Notification had been sent on the orders of the President of the United States and that the station was to either leave the air immediately or prepare for further instructions.
And, with one notable exception (WSNS-TV in Chicago), nearly every TV and radio station in the United States ignored the message. They figured that the activation message came at the same time that the weekly message came, and it had to be a screwup at NORAD. Which, of course, it was.
There’s a page on the Internet that discusses the EBS and the goings-on of February 20, 1971, that has examples of authenticator cards, copies of FCC regulations, and links to other sites that talk about the Emergency Alert System, which replaced the EBS in 1997. They’re kind of fun to read.
We now return you to our regular programming.