For all of its unparalleled qualities, radio is much maligned in the eyes of the modern man. Today, we live in an age where we all crave immediacy, an age where the Internet supplements our need for the latest up-to-date information on life, the universe and everything. Naturally in such an age, anything other than the Internet is perceived as backward.
The radio has existed since Gugliemo Marconi used radio waves to transmit Morse code through a small box called ‘the wireless telegraph’ from his parents’ attic in 1895. Later, this device was developed enough to be cast into most homes around the world. We hear the radio on a daily basis, whether in our cars, workplaces or homes. Its ability to wield an audience within its grasp was never more evident than the night before Halloween 77 years ago, in 1938.
“If you had read the newspapers the next day, you would have thought I was Judas Iscariot and that my life was over” – Orson Welles
On October 30th, Orson Welles directed and narrated a radio adaptation of the 1898 science fiction thriller ‘The War of the Worlds’ by HG Wells. The dramatization was recorded as part of the ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’ programme, an hour-long broadcast that aired on Sunday evenings in the USA.
CBS, the radio station operator, wanted to mitigate the potential damage the show would create by issuing warnings that the programme was indeed a work of fiction at the start of the broadcast and again 40 and 55 minutes in.
The show itself began with a modest description of humans going about their daily business, walking and working whilst always aware of the presences watching from outside of Earth. The programme ramped up the tension as details of unusual activity from Mars are aired:
“We interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At twenty minutes before eight, Central Time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving towards the Earth with enormous velocity…”
This account is later followed by reports of extreme weather patterns over the east coast of America. Long musical interludes follow, interrupted continuously by on-the-scene news bulletin updates. The reports compelled audiences to believe that deadly Martians had landed near New Jersey and were continuing their swift and deadly advance towards New York City. Past the half way mark listeners were reminded once more that they were listening to a CBS presentation by Orson Welles of ‘The War of the Worlds’ by HG Wells and not a real life tale of death and destruction.
The final third of the show was dedicated to Welles performing long, dramatic monologues as Professor Pierson, who described the attacks and their aftermath on the people and places of America. Uncomfortably taking in the intense and slow oration:
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed…Someone’s crawling out of the hollow top…The whole field’s caught fire…It’s coming this way. About twenty yards to my right“
Followed by silence. The creepy event begins its climax. The transmission concluded with the alien invaders falling victim to Earths pathogenic germs, to which they had no immunity to. Thrilling and spine chilling, the nature of the broadcast had the intention to captivate audiences and allure them into a sense of fear.
Immediately after the programme, Welles announced to the audience that the broadcast was a creation specifically designed for the Halloween period. CBS executives also wanted to announce a disclaimer as they became acutely aware of the panic the show was creating for the nation’s listeners.
The gripping drama owes a large degree of its success to the use of news and weather reports interrupting live music throughout, generating a realistic tone. The inspiration for this insipid feature came as a result of the American public continuously receiving sporadic news messages during radio broadcasts around the time to inform them of the goings-on in the beginnings of wartime in Europe.
A minority of listeners had succumb to the radio drama’s power and mistook the news bulletin interruptions for reality. Police officers, newspaper offices and radio stations all received concerned phone calls from anxious listeners. The sheer volume of calls assured journalists that the hysteria must have replicated across the country, and therefore warranted extensive news coverage.
The New York Times newspaper headline the following day was “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact”, the San Francisco Chronicle ran with “US Terrorized By Radio’s ‘Men From Mars’”, whilst the Chicago Herald and Examiner went to press with “Radio Fake Scares Nation”. However, the transmission’s impact has been largely disputed as the radio program actually had relatively few live listeners. The hysteria was lapped up by the newspaper outlets of America as they seized upon the opportunity to scorn radio. The medium introduced a growing threat to newspaper’s advertising revenue and its immediacy threatened news values. Newspapers printed disproportionate reports of panic-stricken Americans, without really providing sufficient evidence to back their claims. The reportage subsequently led to an outcry. The American public were so enraged that they were duped by the broadcast called upon the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the airwaves.
The effects on the listening populous that night were vast. The streets of New York City were reputedly empty, whilst reports of a man dying from a heart attack and rumours of people taken to hospital to be treated for shock were all false. Some members of the public even called the police to find out where they could donate blood. Whilst the Mercury Theatre itself received calls from listeners, congratulating them on producing such a superb Halloween programme.
As the broadcast picked up nationwide coverage, Orson Welles was credited as a dramatist genius for directing such a theatrical masterpiece over the radio airwaves. The program was nothing short of a success. At a press conference the morning after the show, Welles denied that he had ever intended to deceive his audience, although this is continually disputed. The dramatization sparked his Hollywood career, directing and acting in Citizen Kane, which received plaudits from the masses and critical success. The year following the CBS broadcast, Welles revelled in his new-found fame, himself describing that “houses were emptying, churches were filling up; from Nashville to Minneapolis there was wailing in the streets and the rending of garments.”
Incidentally ‘The War of the Worlds’ transmission was not the world’s first radio hoax. In January 1926, the BBC broadcast a talk on 18th Century literature, which was interrupted by fictitious news reports about a riot in London. The reports depicted scenes where the Savoy Hotel was burnt to the ground, Big Ben was blown up and even a politician lynched onto a post.
There have also been attempts to recreate Welles’ work into different cultures. In 1949, two Ecuadorian radio producers re-wrote the drama into Spanish and played it on Radio Quito. The broadcast alarmed the nation, with tragic circumstances. Police and fire fighters rushed out to fend off the supposed alien attack. When the broadcast was revealed to be a work of fiction, angry mobs spread violence across the country. The riots led to seven deaths whilst the offices of Radio Quito and the local newspaper El Comercio, who propagated the reality of the broadcast, were burnt to the ground.
It is hard to imagine such a lurid piece of drama being broadcast so well to an unknowing audience today. The entrancing nature of ‘The War of the Worlds’ show and its intense narration recited so dramatically made it an overwhelming success. Never has radio more expressly been capable of captivating unknowing audiences into a sense of fear and distress online project work. Orson Welles propelled radio into a position in which it could finally assert its power in the broadcast world.
Radio may not be used so cynically these days and for that, we should all be so grateful.
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