What Is An “EBS Special”?

I’ve made references to “EBS Specials” a number of times on this blog, and every time I do, someone asks me what it is. Rather than explain it every time I bring it up, I decided to give it its own page.

EBS, of course, refers to the Emergency Broadcast System, which existed between 1963 and 1997 as a way for the President of the United States to take over every radio and TV station in the country to speak to us in case the Russians were coming to blow us all to Kingdom Come. The FCC, the agency responsible for developing the EBS as well as the agency responsible for regulating radio and TV stations in the US, required the “voluntary cooperation” of radio and TV stations to test their preparations for this eventuality once a week, on a random day and time (between 8 AM and local sunset), or face a huge fine.

Naturally, broacasters hated it, because it deprived them of a little over a minute’s advertising revenue. They did everything they could to get the FCC to allow them to conduct the test before 8 AM or late at night, when they were broadcasting their ration of public service announcements and no one was watching. Naturally, the FCC, being a government agency and therefore unaccustomed to listening to, much less accepting, the requests of those it is intended to regulate, refused. So the broadcasters would generally run the test at a time when they wouldn’t lose too much revenue, i.e. during the game shows and soap operas in the middle of the afternoon, or during the cartoons in the late afternoon. Kids watching the cartoons would have something like this pop up between the bumper for the commercial break in the middle of “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” and the commercials for “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” action figures.

Kids, in the days before remote controls, would then get up off the couch and run like heck to the TV and change the channel, if they weren’t frozen in fear. Many kids, myself included, were frightened by the test.

As I mentioned, radio stations were also required to “voluntarily cooperate” and follow the same regulation. In Chicago, we had two Top 40 stations, WLS and WCFL. Once a week, each station would conduct its EBS test, and everyone listening would tune in the other station (another reason station managers hated them). If the song playing on the other station was, say, “Seasons In The Sun” by Terry Jacks or an equally awful tune (it is, I’m sorry, get over it), many people would tune back and listen to the rest of the test.

An EBS Special, therefore, is a song so awful that you’d rather listen to an obnoxious attention signal and an ominous message written by the FCC.

A side note…

Several attempts were made over the years to set the EBS test script to music and make it entertaining, such as this one, from WHEN, Syracuse, New York.

Or this one, by the Conception Corporation comedy team.

Naturally, the FCC was none too pleased, and threatened to fine any stations that used them. No fun, I tell ya…

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13 thoughts on “What Is An “EBS Special”?”

    1. I watch them now on YouTube (they’re a whole genre out there) and I laugh at how silly it was that I was so scared by them, and evidently I’m not alone. The current system (EAS) isn’t that scary (although I’m older), but it’s kind of unnerving when they run the test at night and it wakes you up.

      Do you remember CONELRAD?

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    1. You find a lot of EBS tests on YouTube, as well as EAS tests (the current emergency warning system) and even a few CONELRAD (the older and even more ominous system). It was a part of the culture.

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