The origins and demise of the Emergency Broadcast System

You may think it still exists, but the Emergency Broadcast System has been retired for more than two decades. The second of three government-sanctioned alert systems for radio and television stations, the EBS was in use from 1963 until 1997, when it was replaced by a more modern system still in place today: The Emergency Alert System.

The EBS launched during the administration of Pres. John F. Kennedy — when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were at an all-time high. It was devised to allow the president to reach tens of millions of people with an urgent message. As part of the design, only certain stations were to stay on the air, with other broadcasters shutting off their signals. Weekly tests were enacted to keep stations at the ready.

The “False Alarm of 1971” is likely the best known blunder involving the EBS, and it led directly to changes and improvements in the nation’s broadcast alert program. By the time the system was retired, it had been used more than 20,000 times — though never for an actual national emergency. Instead, most activations were to deliver urgent weather alerts to a localized audience.

Jonathan Shelley

Jonathan Shelley

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