Thursday, June 17, 2004

It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)
Last week I wrote about the possibility that the end of the world may be occurring this weekend. Nevertheless, I think it's probably just a coincidence that I spent some time this morning at Conelrad.com, a fascinating website that examines how our fears of a coming end of the world during the Cold War affected all aspects of popular culture: movies, TV shows, popular music, and more. It's an incredible time-waster.

Popular culture of the 1950s and 1960s reflected the nuclear fears of the era in ways both obvious and subtle. It's easy to see it in certain episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits--but the site's authors maintain that innocuous TV shows like I Dream of Jeannie, The Munsters, and Mister Ed also reflected a world shadowed by the atomic bomb. So did popular music. The site includes an exhaustive list of atomic-themed records (some with audio clips available), and tells the story of the most astounding one of all--"Fallout Shelter" by Billy Chambers, an obscure B-side recorded at the height of the death-record craze of the early 1960s, in which a boy's father says there's no room for the boy's girlfriend in the family shelter, so the boy chooses flaming atomic death with her instead of saving himself.

Besides being a riot, Conelrad.com is an important online museum of popular culture. But what about that name? "Conelrad" was one of the ancestors of today's Emergency Alert System, perhaps better known as the Emergency Broadcast System, a method designed to broadcast official news and information in the event of a nuclear attack. Several years ago, as EAS officially replaced EBS, I wrote a piece about Conelrad and its successors and submitted it to NPR's All Things Considered as a commentary. They didn't run it, but you can read it here.

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