D-Day and Radio News-A Different Perspective

In 2024 we expect and receive nearly instantaneous information about current events and happenings from a multiplicity of sources. Many people find it hard to believe that not too far in the past one relied upon a handful of radio and television stations, newspapers and magazines for news. This was certainly true in 1944 at a time when the major radio networks, CBS and NBC, weren’t yet twenty years old, and the broadcasting of an international war on a worldwide scale had no precedent. 

Above, network radio reporters and technicians prepare for an FDR address, circa 1939. The war would bring innovations in radio coverage and technology. Photo, Harris and Ewing, Library of Congress.

In recognition of this groundbreaking event in radio history, in March 1945 CBS gave FDR a copy of an internal volume commissioned by the network to document its preparations for and coverage of D-Day. This unique document offers an hour-by-hour account of the radio network’s behind-the-scenes operations during its forty-eight hour, non-stop coverage of the invasion. The volume is fascinating for a host of reasons–from the technology involved to the methods utilized to the stark contrasts between news coverage then versus now.

Above, CBS sends a volume “of mild historical value” to the President about its coverage of D-Day. FDR Library collection.

Radio news came of age during World War II, proving that both its reporters and the quality of its coverage could rival traditional print media. The news was more immediate and direct. The Allies certainly imposed censorship over media coverage of the war, but the radio reports approved and forwarded to the general public provided timely, often first-hand accounts of the battles of the day, including military experts providing commentary.

Above, the cover of CBS’ internal, paperbound account of its D-Day coverage. FDR Library collection.

Though the date of D-Day was a closely held secret, the war’s progress, and Soviet strength on the Eastern front, made it self-evident that most likely the Allies would open a second front in 1944. That anticipation grew by the week, and the radio networks made preparations for their coverage of what would be a momentous event, the success of which could not be guaranteed and the price of which in terms of lives lost would be steep.

Above slideshow, selected pages from the CBS volume which reveal concern for ratings as well as evidence of an early return to regular programming before soon shifting back to full coverage. FDR Library collection

A few representative pages are provided here. The writing has that insider’s touch of one in the know. It is pithy, direct, sometimes humorous, always purposeful, and often reads staccato like a reporter at a typewriter or live on the air, breathless with information from around the world. The actual CBS radio coverage is available from multiple sources online. Reading this volume in concert with the recordings provides one with deep appreciation for the planning involved.

Coverage of FDR’s D-Day Prayer is revealing, too. The President’s remarks were read over the air in the early afternoon of June 6th, so that listeners could write them down and collectively pray with him that evening. Striking is the general absence of commentary prior to FDR’s radio address, and the subdued response afterwards. The moment required few words as an anxious nation took strength from the prayer and looked to the future with the faith that victory over the forces of fascism would ultimately be achieved.