Radio on the homefront in WWII

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"Franklin D. Roosevelt having a fireside chat in Washington, D.C," 1935. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

As radio made its impact on the World War II battlefields, it became essential for Americans tuning in at home. For the first time, families listening in heard wartime news in real time. On September 3, 1939, radio listeners heard Britain and France declare war on Germany and speeches by the UK Prime Minister and U.S. President Roosevelt as they happened. When the United States officially entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, listeners got an even fuller picture of what life was like on the battlefront. Most notably, award-winning journalist Edward R. Murrow became part of CBS News' efforts to bring the realities of the war back home through on-the-ground radio reporting. Murrow became famous for reporting live from London during the nine-month Nazi bombing campaign called the "Blitz."

Radio addresses from the front were coupled with broadcasts from leaders of the warring nations. Roosevelt’s fireside chats, which began in 1933 and lasted until 1944, became an intimate way for the president to directly communicate with radio listeners across the United States. During the war, the president was able to speak about the declaration of war and its progress, the US economy, and the movement toward peace. The concept and format allowed listeners to feel like the president was in their homes talking to them, letting them know they were going to make it through some of the nation’s toughest times.

The war also influenced radio entertainment broadcasts, becoming a topic in radio serials and soap operas, often with racially charged caricatures of the Axis powers playing the villains. Government-sponsored broadcasts featured Hollywood celebrities sharing the virtues of collecting scrap metal and planting Victory gardens. Children’s programming was no exception. Boys and girls listening to the popular Dick Tracy series were urged to fight the enemy by pledging to save water, gas and electricity, and to "save my playthings" as well as "Mom's furniture."