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NAB Show Cancellation Not Unprecedented

(Image credit: RCA)

While the March 12 cancellation of this year’s NAB Show was not unexpected in light of the global Coronavirus pandemic status, broadcasting and content production communities have become so accustomed to making their annual April trek to Las Vegas the interruption seems almost unimaginable.

However, cancellation of this major trade show is not without precedent. The show, which convened for the first time in 1923 (slightly less than three years after the radio  broadcasting era began), managed to continue unscathed during the 1930s “Great Depression” years, and even continued well after the United States entered World War II. 

(In examining the history of the NAB Show at that point in its existence, there was little regularity in its meeting dates [as early as February and as late as November], and its locale meandered quite a bit also, convening in such locales as Cincinnati, San Francisco, St. Louis, Cleveland and Chicago.)

By 1944, wartime contingencies were taking their toll on most industries, including broadcasting, as the manufacturing focus was on items needed for the war effort. Other markets were definitely “second fiddle.” Engineers who formerly designed transmitters and studio gear found themselves working on radar and military communications—if they hadn’t already been drafted into military service. Electronic components such as vacuum tubes and transformers became increasingly difficult to obtain as manufacturers redirected their outputs for defense purposes. Even broadcast stations found themselves seriously understaffed in engineering and other departments due to the universal draft, which basically exempted individuals too old or deemed physically unfit for military service.

So, by the end of the third full year of U.S. involvement in the war, it’s easy to speculate that NAB Show attendance was declining, with more and more of those involved in broadcasting being drawn into the war effort in one way or another, and also the dearth of new technologies or products to exhibit.

NO MEETINGS OF MORE THAN 50 PERSONS!

The death blow to the show, however, came from the U.S. government in the form of a nationwide ban on meetings or other events that involved more than 50 persons from outside the community where the meeting or event was held. 

This ban was intended to free up hotel rooms, along with seats on trains and buses that were badly needed for military and defense industry personnel. It was issued by the head of the Office of War Mobilization, James F. Byrnes, and as reported by Broadcasting (now Broadcasting & Cable) magazine in its Feb. 5, 1945, lead story, had become effective four days earlier. According to the story, the ban was not really unexpected, and had come during an NAB regional conference in Salt Lake City involving some 68 people. The NAB’s then president, J. Harold Ryan, responded immediately with this statement: 

"In compliance with the expressed wishes of the Government to limit the amount of travel, and to avoid any conventions or meetings which would bring together from outside the city in which the meeting is scheduled more than 50 persons, the National Association of Broadcasters has cancelled its annual convention, which would normally be held in the late spring. The NAB convention usually has an attendance of more than 1,000."

As explained in the article, the 1945 ban applied to all “trade shows, exhibits, conferences, assemblies and conventions, including those of industrial, commercial, labor, fraternal, social, professional, religious, civic, [and] governmental organizations.”

The final word on the ban came from Colonel J. Monroe Johnson, director of the government’s Office of Defense Transportation, and also chairman of the War Committee on Conventions.

"The yardstick used to measure the essentiality of any meeting is how the winning of the two wars we are now fighting will be impeded if the meeting in question were held to an attendance of 50 or canceled outright."

The NAB’s annual show did resume in full vigor in October of 1946 with an attendance of 2,000, and this time—in addition to AM radio broadcasting, which had been the staple of the show for many years—attendees began to hear a lot about their post-war futures in FM and television.