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Hear for yourself the most famous of radio broadcasts
on 31 December 2005
It is, of course, the most famous radio program of all time; I daresay many members of future generations would have no idea that their ancestors actually sat around a radio once upon a time listening to dramatic presentations were it not for the unique acclaim this show continues to enjoy today. The broadcast was a seminal event in broadcasting history - not for its content, which was indeed very good - but for the dramatic reaction by untold listeners who were convinced that Earth was under attack from invaders from Mars. Callers deluged local newspapers and radio stations, men volunteered to step up and fight the terrible enemy, families rushed out of their homes to flee from the invaders. Some folks in the New Jersey area actually claimed they could see the fires of the destruction, one man insisted he heard the President order an evacuation over the air, prominent Princeton scientists actually went out in search of the meteor that reportedly fell nearby, and some individuals supposedly committed suicide. In the aftermath of the panic, there were calls for tougher broadcasting standards and a formal investigation into the broadcast. The FCC called in the big three radio network presidents to redefine the usage of the word "flash" over the radio, and the whole situation led the government to seek closer cooperation among radio networks in the months leading up to America's entry into World War II. It sounds silly today, and I'm sure many of the panic details have grown in stature over decades of exaggeration, but still, you can't help but be amazed at the thoroughly unpredicted reaction of so many to an mere dramatization of a pretty familiar story (indeed, Orson Welles said he feared such an outlandish story for the program might actually bore people). After all, it's not as if the show weren't advertised on radio and print, and there were no less than three announcements about the fictional nature of the story made during the broadcast itself. On the other hand, 1938 was a tense time in a world already witnessing the outbreak of a terrible war in Europe, and the format of the presentation did simulate a news broadcast - complete with program interruptions.
But what of the show itself? The broadcast took place on October 30, 1938, the 14th broadcast of The Mercury Theatre on the Air series led by director and star Orson Welles. It consisted of Welles' own adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic science fiction novel The War of the Worlds. The decision was made to present the story in the form of breaking news items on the air, and so it was that listeners were whisked away from live music at some New York ballroom for quick news flashes on strange eruptions on the Martian surface, the crash of a large meteorite some eleven miles outside of Princeton, mobile reports from the site, and the scientific speculations of a learned Princeton professor. The mobile reporter did a fantastic job of realistically dramatizing the extraordinary happenings taking place at the Grover's Mill farm site after the "meteorite" opened up and began firing its death ray at the milling crowds around it - until he was cut off, for rather obvious reasons, as the crisis quickly accelerated. At that point, military bulletins formed the presentation's material until such time that the learned professor, in the final twenty minutes or so, described the aftermath of the terrible invasion.
It's a real treat to be able to go back and listen to this most impressive and infamous of radio broadcasts and to witness the extraordinary power of Orson Welles' presentation. As impressive and entertaining as the show itself is, it's even more of a learning experience. The modern-day listener gains insight on the early days of mass communications, finds inspiration in the power of dramatic presentation, gets a good feel for the popular culture of that era, finds a ready-made source of information on mass psychology, and - perhaps most importantly - enjoys a unique look at the history and societal framework of that jumpy era, a time when so many Americans were still struggling to survive economically while trepidation grew daily over the dark events taking place across the Atlantic Ocean.