Hawaii 'ballistic missile threat' false alarm, sent in error
Q: The silly panic over the recent accidental false “emergency alert” in Hawaii makes me laugh. In 1972, I was attending graduate school in St. Louis. As I lay in bed on one Saturday morning, a local rock station issued a warning of an attack on America and that I should seek shelter immediately. Just a dopey college student at the time, I thought about it a moment and realized I could do nothing to save myself in a nuclear emergency, so I just lay in bed waiting for the flash of light. Of course, nothing happened. I have never met anyone else who heard the alert, so nobody believes me when I tell them about it. I hope you will look into this.
David J. Busse, of Maryville
A: You obviously don’t remember, but St. Louis radio listeners have endured not one, but two warnings of imminent peril about to befall the city.
Your memory is nearly spot-on about that first alert. For more than a decade, it had been teletype operator W. S. Eberhard’s job to transmit the standard Emergency Broadcast System tape each Saturday, which told radio and TV stations to play their usual “this is what you should do if this were a real emergency” ads. But at 8:33 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 20, 1971, Eberhard transmitted the wrong tape, leading to a cascade of snafus.
“I was absolutely terrified,” a Mrs. Peter Ori, of Chicago, said at the time. “I just knew we were at war and the president (Richard Nixon) would come on and say what had happened.”
The tape, which carried the authentic codeword “Hatefulness,” ordered designated stations to cease regular programming so that they could warn their audiences of a national emergency.
“I can’t imagine how the hell I did it,” Eberhard later told the New York Times.
It took 26 minutes for a cancellation message to be issued, but it used an incorrect codeword and was ignored. Finally at 10:13 a.m., after six incorrect cancellation messages, a valid message was sent and the country stood down. As you might imagine, numerous probes were launched, resulting in several changes — including moving the “hot” tape well away from the normal weekly test tape.
And so peace and tranquility returned to St. Louis for 20 years until a well-intentioned prank perhaps momentarily left a local broadcasting legend wondering if he would be spending the rest of his days at an elevator-music station in Podunksville, USA.
Today, John Ulett is arguably the dean of St. Louis on-air radio personalities, having spent nearly 42 years behind the mike at Real Rock Radio KSHE-95 — and still going strong. He also has become an institution to fans at Busch Stadium as the St. Louis Cardinals’ public-address announcer. But on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 1991, his attempt to make a point left him the target of incoming missiles from the feds instead.
At the time, the United States had begun fighting Operation Desert Storm, also known as the First Persian Gulf War. But just two weeks into the conflict, Ulett was stunned to hear some of his KSHE fans calling for the U.S. to nuke Iraq into oblivion.
How could he convince them otherwise? He figured it had to be something powerful and shocking, something as a typical morning-zoo-show host he had had lots of experience in. Just after the Iran hostage crisis, for example, he called the airport KFC in Tehran and repeated President Ronald Reagan’s infamous “We begin bombing in five minutes” air-check to restaurant workers.
“Everybody thought it was funny,” Ulett told KMOX’s Ryan Wrecker last fall during an edition of the station’s “Profiles” show. “As you know you’re doing morning radio, most of the time operating without a net, and management wants you to push the envelope. Attention is good. ‘We’ll handle it.’ Of course, they don’t tell you that as much now as you did back then.”
So, at 7:40 a.m. Jan. 29, Ulett broadcast a fake report that the United States was under nuclear attack. He said it came complete with the sounds of bombs exploding and pots and pans hitting the floor.
“And the worst thing I did — and I should not have done it and I’ve apologized many times over — is I put in the (EBS) warning with Don Pardo’s voice,” Ulett said.
Ulett said immediately afterward that he merely wanted to make listeners think about the horrors of nuclear war.
“It was not a joke,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I didn’t try to get a laugh out of it or anything like that. I just think people need to realize that what’s going on here is very serious and they have to be lucky that they don’t have to send their kids to school with a lunch pail and a gas mask.”
He needn’t have worried. Nobody laughed. The station quickly apologized, calling Ulett’s decision “irresponsible.” The Federal Communications Commission opened an investigation. Punishment was quick and harsh — at least temporarily. Ulett was suspended from the station and, in February, was fired as Cardinal announcer for the 1991 season after eight years. But this May, he’ll celebrate his 42nd anniversary with the station while enjoying his 35th year with the Birds.
“I don’t think there needs to be a legacy,” he told Wrecker as he reflected on his career. “I just feel if people think I just did my job halfway decently that’s it. That’s all I want to do.”
What was the name of the national alert system that preceded the Emergency Broadcasting System?
Answer to Monday’s trivia: When National Geographic Editor Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor ran the first pictures of animals photographed at night in 1906, two society board members resigned in disgust, complaining that the magazine was becoming nothing more than a “picture book.” Yes, it’s hard to imagine now, but after the National Geographic Society started in 1888, its magazine consisted largely of scholarly (and pictureless) papers presented at the group’s biweekly meetings. So who began to turn the publication into the one that today boasts some of the world’s most renowned photography? According to the magazine website, it was telephone pioneer Alexander Graham Bell, who, as the society’s second president from 1898 to 1903, recognized the power of pictures in telling a story and imparting information.