The Complaints You've Made About Sandy-Hyping on Twitter and TV, E.B. White Made About Radio in 1954

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The hyperventilation of the emergency news cycle was not born with CNN or Twitter.

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Two men rowing along Union Avenue in Framingham, Massachusetts, following Hurricane Edna in September, 1954 (AP)

In September of 1954, a hurricane approached the coast of Maine, where writer E.B. White made his home. He did not have a TV, but he was in possession of "three small, old-fashioned radios, two of them battery sets, one a tiny plug-in bedside model," he wrote in the September 25th issue of the New Yorker.

These radios, White observed, produced a particular and vicarious experience of the storm, long before it made landfall. He reflected:

Hurricanes are the latest discovery of radio stations and they are being taken up in a big way. To me, Nature is continuously absorbing -- that is, she is a twenty-four-hour proposition, fifty-two weeks of the year -- but to radio people, Nature is an oddity tinged with malevolence and worth of note only in her more violent moments. The radio either lets Nature alone or gives her the full treatment, as it did at the approach of the hurricane called Edna. The idea, of course, is that the radio shall perform a public service by warning people of a storm that might prove fatal; and this the radio certainly does. But another effect of the radio is to work people up to an incredible state of alarm many hours in advance of the blow, while they are still fanned by the mildest zephyrs. One of the victims of Hurricane Edna was a civil-defense worker whose heart failed him long before the wind threatened him in the least.

White continued:

After breakfast, the whole household, with the exception of our dachshund, settled down to the radio, not in a solid family group but each to his own set and his own system of tuning. No matter where one wandered, upstairs or down, back or front, a radio voice was to be heard, bringing ominous news. As near as I could make out, the storm was still about a thousand miles away and moving north-northeast at about the speed of a medium-priced automobile. Deaths had been reported in New Jersey. A state of emergency had been declared in Now London, Connecticut, and in Portland, Maine. Something had happened to the second shift at the Commercial Filters Corporation plant in Melrose, Massachusetts, but I never learned what. A man named Irving R. Levine wished me "good news." The temperature in Providence, Rhode Island, was sixty-eight degrees.

It became evident to me after a few fast rounds with the radio that the broadcasters had opened up on Edna awfully far in advance, before she had come out of her corner, and were spending themselves at a reckless rate. During the morning hours, they were having a tough time keeping Edna going at the velocity demanded of emergency broadcasting. I heard one fellow from, I think, Riverhead, Long Island, interviewing his out-of-doors man, who had been sent abroad in a car to look over conditions on the eastern end of the island.

"How would you say the roads were?" asked the tense voice.

"They were wet," replied the reporter, who seemed to be in a sulk.

"Would you say the spray from the puddles was dashing up around the mudguards?" inquired the desperate radioman.

It was one of those confused moments, emotionally, when the listener could not quite be sure what position radio was taking -- for hurricanes or against them.

An obsession with cataclysmic weather, mundane interviews, and endless filler? Wikipedia says the 24-hour news cycle "arrived with the advent of cable television channels dedicated to news," but E.B. White's telling goes to show, radio had TV beat.

To read the lovely essay in its entirety, head to the New Yorker's website (password protected for subscribers only).


Thanks to @yayitsrob for the pointer.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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