1970-1979: ERA OF CRISES

Radio 'ALERT' panicked local DJ

Untimely alert
News-Sentinel photo by C. Somodevilla

Untimely alert
WOWO, 1190-AM, radio broadcaster Bob Sievers recalls the 1972 nuclear war scare. It was the "longest five minutes in radio," said the 40-year WOWO veteran.
By BOB CAYLOR, of The News-Sentinel

Perhaps the most frightening few moments of the Cold War came on a Saturday in 1972. For a few minutes, radio listeners across the country feared the worst: Nuclear war had begun.

Bob Sievers was working at WOWO, 1190-AM, that morning and remembers it well. He calls it his "longest five minutes in radio."

That morning, the wire machines at WOWO rang like he'd never heard them before, more than they had for any big story in his life.

"The machines were printing ALERT ALERT ALERT ALERT ALERT ALERT. I thought something big must be happening. I was told, if we ever did have the missiles leaving Russia, they would send a secret code word. Behind me, scotch-taped to the wall, was a black envelope. I was to tear open and verify it. So after they kept printing ALERT ALERT ALERT, they printed the word 'cauliflower,' " Sievers said. "Code word: cauliflower."

"So I ripped this (envelope) off the wall and opened it up, and the code word was cauliflower. So this meant one thing to me: The atomic bombs, the missiles, have left Russia, and they're on their way here. Then the doggone machines were silent. They didn't print a thing," he said.

"So I thought the only thing I can do is be honest. So I walked back 10 feet into the studio and said, 'Folks, we have some sort of an emergency. I don't know what it is. On all three of our machines, I've had the alert. I have received the secret code word. I have verified the secret code word. But now our machines are silent. So the only thing I can ask you to do is to stay tuned, and I'll let you know the moment I know,' " he remembered.

"The record I had on the air was easygoing on your nerves at that time. It was Henry Mancini and the orchestra and the love theme from 'Romeo and Juliet.' So it took 2 1/2 minutes for that record to play through. I looked at the machines. They were still silent. So I merely picked the needle up, put it on the beginning of the record and played through it twice. Then the machines came alive. They said, 'MISTAKE MISTAKE MISTAKE FORGET FORGET. We sent you the wrong tape from Colorado.' " Sievers, now 81, said.

"Then I told the folks, 'Folks, it ended in good news. The news services said they sent us the wrong tape. So there is no emergency. I hope you are as relieved as I am.' "

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