This month saw an uptick in solar flares—huge Coronal Mass Ejections from our Sun that can spark gorgeous Aurora Borealis effects around the world, but also disrupt radio communications. By “radio” the experts often mean high frequency communications systems, but could broadcast radio stations be affected as well?
Well, according to the solarstorms.org site, one was disrupted on September 18, 1941, with disastrous results. In fact, the incident is known as the “Playoffs Storm,” because it took place during a home bout between Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates:
During the day, baseball fans expected to hear the entire 4:00 PM broadcast on station WUR by Red Barber. With the game tied at 0-0, the station became inaudible for 15 minutes. When it resumed, the Pirates had piled up not just one, but FOUR runs. Within minutes, thousands of Brooklyn fans had pounded the radio station, demanding an explanation for the ‘technical difficulties’, only to receive the unsatisfactory answer that the sun was to blame. The effects of the ‘sunspots’ also appeared in the by-now usual problems with transatlantic short-wave communication to Europe, which was out for most of the day.
The situation got even weirder when, the next day, station WAAT tried to broadcast some recorded Bing Crosby tunes. Suddenly what were presumably telephone conversations began interrupting the stream. The first of these chats came and went and were accepted by the station’s engineers as an unavoidable annoyance:
But a few minutes after the men’s voices ceased, a new pair of voices emerged from Crosby’s singing. This time the conversation was far from mild. The topic of their conversation, overheard by millions of listeners, was a blind date, and the discussion was rather ‘spicy’, by all accounts. Although the cross-talk lasted only a few minutes, it was enough to cause listeners to again pound the stations switchboard demanding to know why such dialog had been permitted during a family listening time.
Calling all contemporary radio station engineers: could this kind of disruption happen again? Or have broadcasters sufficiently “hardened” their networks to prevent a repeat performance? All comments welcome.