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The FBI’s radio files: a quick guide

Letter from J. Edgar Hoover to Paul HarveyIf you are a radio history buff like me, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s records vault website is a treasure trove of fun stuff. Over the years, the FBI has kept track of various radio celebrities (often for dubious reasons), and also monitored radio broadcasts on a regular basis.

Obviously everything in these files should be read with a boulder sized grain of salt. But here are just some of the radio stars and interesting radio related subjects that pop up as you peruse the site.

“Tokyo Rose” was the nom de plume for about a dozen women who broadcast radio propaganda for the Japanese empire during World War II. The most famous of these was Iva Toguri D’Aquino. After the war, D’Aquino was convicted for treason in the United States based on exaggerated accounts, and subsequently pardoned.

The FBI files include transcriptions of the “Zero Hour” program associated with Tokyo Rose broadcasts. In retrospect, the show sounds like it was kind of fun, at least some of the time. “This is Monday, wash day for some,” began one broadcast, “rifle cleaning for some, and for the others just another day for play. Let’s all get together and forget those wash day blues. Here’s Kay Kyser, Sonny Mason, and the playmates, so come join the parade . . . ”

Daniel Schorr broadcast for National Public Radio. He died in 2010. Prior to NPR Schorr worked for CBS, much of the time as a correspondent in the Soviet Union. The FBI started keeping track of Schorr when he took work with a news service in the Netherlands. Then Richard Nixon asked for data on him.

“The special inquiry investigation ended as soon as the Bureau realized that it had been requested for political reasons,” the FBI claims.

Paul Harvey was a long time radio broadcaster for ABC. He also [ahem] “corresponded with the Bureau on a range of issues” for 30 years, the agency notes. Essentially Harvey functioned as an informer, sometimes complaining about individuals whose politics he didn’t like.

“This is just a note to tell you how much I appreciate the talk which you made at 10:00 P.M. last night over the ABC Radio Network,” then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote to Harvey in 1952. “You remarks point out out most clearly the evil of Communism and the necessity for every patriotic American to view the problem seriously . . . ”

But this did not prevent Harvey from becoming the subject of probes himself: “a 1951 Atomic Energy Act investigation sparked when he entered a restricted area at a U.S. facility in pursuit of a story and a 1983 background investigation.”

Louis “Studs” Terkel often extended his books and newspaper essays via radio commentaries. Terkel also “was associated with a number of communist and communist connected groups,” the FBI observes. Thus did the agency keep track of him from 1945-1961, and very briefly again in 1990.

Groucho Marx often appeared on the radio during his career. The FBI’s files on him concede that Groucho never joined the Communist Party, but he did appear at events for Republican Spain, triggering the agency’s suspicions.

There’s lots more interesting stuff where these files came from. One of my favorite is the FBI’s Louie Louie file. Like millions of Americans, the Bureau suspected that the sluringly sung song concealed a host of dirty words. But a “limited investigation” from February to May of 1964, which included interviews with various radio hosts, uncovered “no evidence of obscenity.”

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