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1938 __ « War of the Worlds »
Orson Welles (1915-1985)
Comment : On October 30, 1938 Orson Welles and his recently formed Mercury Theater group broadcast their radio adaptation of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds (1898). At 8 p.m. that Sunday evening, with programming interrupted with "news bulletins" (a first), an alarmed audience heard that Martians had begun an invasion of earth in an out-of-the-way place called Grover’s Mill, NJ. The "Panic Broadcast," as it came to be known, changed broadcast history, social psychology, civil defense, and set a standard for provocative entertainment. It is the progenitor of the U.S. Civil Defense program, it was the source of the first academic study (by Princeton) of mass hysteria, and broadcasters have studied it for 60 years as a classic of effective communication. Approximately 12 million people in the U.S. heard the broadcast; perhaps a million people believed a serious Martian invasion was underway. (Compiled from various sources)As Orson Welles said at the end of his classic "War of the Worlds" broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938, "We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the CBS. You'll be relieved, I hope, to learn we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business." What started as an adaptation of the classic science-fiction novel by H.G. Wells ended as perhaps the most famous radio broadcast in history. The story of a Martian invasion at Grover's Mill, N.J., which spurred panic among thousands who believed it was real, dramatized the potential of the relatively new medium -- both as innovative entertainer and powerful persuader. Orson Welles, he made it seem realistic and used the technology as best he could. For example, the actor who played the on-the-scene reporter, Frank Readick, studied the broadcast from the previous year of the Hindenburg airship disaster, to give his own description of the Martian attack urgency and verisimilitude. Welles thought some people might be fooled but didn't expect the widespread panic that ensued. The Mercury Theatre on the Air had been on the air only three months, and its presentations of literary classics such as "Treasure Isand" and "A Tale of Two Cities" were continually drubbed in the ratings by the troupe's competitors on NBC, ventriloquist Edger Bergen and his dapper dummy Charlie McCarthy. That show owned about 35% of the national audience, compared to 4% for the Mercury Theatre, according to the ratings. But on that particular Sunday night, after Bergen and McCarthy finished their preliminary jokes and crooner Nelson Eddy launched into song, an estimated 4 million listeners began channel surfing and landed on the CBS broadcast -- what sounded like a reporter doing a live remote at the scene of a strange meteor crash. These folks had tuned in too late to hear Welles' introduction of "The War of the Worlds," and by the first station break, 40 minutes into the hourlong broadcast, many had fled in terror and missed the reiteration that the show was merely a radio play. Of the program's nationwide audience of 6 million people, about 1.2 million panicked, believing the invasion was true, according to a study published in 1940 by Princeton University professor Hadley Cantril. So listeners, particularly in the New Jersey and New York area, ran into the streets and jammed police switchboards, asking for evacuation advice or insisting they could see the blanket of poison gas being unleashed. Others gathered in churches to pray and await the end of the world. Callers outside the affected area asked local authorities for casualty lists, to find out if their loved ones were among the dead. And thousands more around the country wondered when the invasion force would reach them. "War of the Worlds" aired after a monthlong war scare, in which continual radio reports from Munich kept Americans on edge, wondering whether they'd be drawn into the conflict between Hitler and the European leaders opposing his takeover of Czechoslovakia. Listeners had grown used to hearing their programs interrupted by bulletins, so the news flashes during the Welles broadcast bore the ring of truth. The day after the broadcast, an irate Sen. Clyde L. Herring (D-Iowa) said the program and its aftermath were proof that radio needed "control by the government" and promised to introduce a bill letting the Federal Communications Commission screen and veto any program before it aired, according to a study of radio hoaxes by Justin Levine in the Federal Communications Law Journal. Herring never introduced the bill, however, and most newspaper editorials at the time decried such a heavy-handed approach, instead advocating self-restraint by the broadcasters themselves. The New York Daily News, for example, criticized Herring's opportunism and said, "We hope the next Congress ... will smack flat all radio censorship bills with the avalanche of 'NOs' they deserve in a free-speech, free-press, free-religion, free-assemblage country.". (Steve Carney, Los Angeles Times, 31 October 2003)On the night of Sunday, October 30, 1938, Orson Welles, along with cohorts from the Mercury Theater, performed a loose radio adaptation of “War of the Worlds”, an H.G. Wells novel concerning a Martian invasion. WABC broadcast the program live from 8:00 to 9:00 P.M., as well as the CBS national network, consisting of over 151 stations throughout the country. The broadcast differed from previous typical radio drama styles of the day. After an introductory speech by Orson Welles, explaining the fictional nature of the broadcast, the program then simulated an announcer who purported to bring the listeners live music from an orchestra in the Park Plaza in New York, along with weather reports. The station then played actual orchestral music, only to be interrupted by a separate announcer with a breaking “news bulletin”: « Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At [twenty] minutes before 8 [P.M.], central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Ill., reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars ». A brief return to music simulating a live orchestral performance followed the news announcement. The pattern repeated itself with updated breaking announcements reporting meteors striking the earth and interviews with “astronomers” from Princeton Observatory. The broadcast later moved to a simulated live newscast from the scene of the meteor landing where a reporter described monsters emerging from the debris and attacking. Sounds of crashing microphones and moments of silence added to the realism. Reports of deaths along with interviews of state militia officers and Washington officials were heard before the middle break of the program, which reiterated the fictional nature of the broadcast for the first time since its start. Despite the announcements made before the end of the broadcast ntended to assure audiences of its fictional nature, panic gripped segments of the nation. Listeners did not realize that they were hearing a dramatization. Families rushed out of their homes, traffic jams clogged the streets, church services were disrupted, and chaos ensued from people trying to flee phantom Martians from the sky. The New York Times reported that hospitals treated people for shock and hysteria, while police switchboards were so swamped with calls that they could not conduct regular business. CBS and Welles offered regrets that they had caused such a reaction. Welles denied rumors that the program was a publicity stunt designed to promote Mercury Theater productions. He pointed to four factors that should have tipped listeners off to reality: (1) the opening announcement set the show one year in the future (1939); (2) the broadcast took place during the regular Mercury Theater broadcast slot which was announced and described in all the newspapers; (3) a total of four announcements were made describing the fictional nature of the show, with one such announcement falling in the middle of the broadcast; and (4) the familiarity of the American myth regarding an invasion from Mars. Welles further explained: « Far from expecting the radio audience to take the program as fact rather than as a fictional presentation, we feared that the classic H. G. Wells story, which has served as inspiration for so many moving pictures, radio serials[,] and even comic strips might appear too old fashioned for modern consumption. We can only suppose that the special nature of radio, which is often heard in fragments, or in parts disconnected from the whole, has led to this misunderstanding ». The incident was a clear indication of the power of radio and how it differed from other media. Unlike films, people did not necessarily experience the show from the start but rather listened in at various times to different segments. As a result, many did not hear the strategically placed announcements assuring the listeners that the show was fake. The listing in the newspaper that advertised the show obviously did not have an immediate impact, unlike the broadcast itself. The economic and political zeitgeist of 1938 was the final ingredient which allowed a nation to believe the warnings from their radios that the Martians were coming. While the aforementioned provisions in the Radio Acts of 1912 and 1927 indicated that the FCC contemplated the possibility of using the radio to send a false distress signal, it was clearly caught off guard by “War of the Worlds”. The rise of radio networks now allowed broadcasts to be heard simultaneously throughout the nation. The result was the first case of a single broadcaster triggering a nationwide panic. (Justin Levine, “A History and Analysis of the Federal Communications Commission’s Response to Radio Broadcast Hoaxes”, In FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS LAW JOURNAL, Vol. 52, pp. 273-320)
Original excerpt : « The War of the Worlds.COLUMBIA BROADCASTING SYSTEM, ORSON WELLES AND MERCURY THEATRE ON THE AIR, SUNDAY, OCTOBER 30, 1938, 8:00 TO 9:00 P.M.ANNOUNCER: The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. -- (MUSIC: MERCURY THEATRE MUSICAL THEME) -- ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen: the director of the Mercury Theatre and star of these broadcasts, Orson Welles ... -- ORSON WELLES: We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own. We know now that as human beings busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacence people went to and fro over the earth about their little affairs, serene in the assurance of their dominion over this small spinning fragment of solar driftwood which by chance or design man has inherited out of the dark mystery of Time and Space. Yet across an immense ethereal gulf, minds that to our minds as ours are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. In the thirty-ninth year of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment. It was near the end of October. Business was better. The war scare was over. More men were back at work. Sales were picking up. On this particular evening, October 30, the Crosley service estimated that thirty-two million people were listening in on radios. -- ANNOUNCER: ... for the next twenty-four hours not much change in temperature. A slight atmospheric disturbance of undetermined origin is reported over Nova Scotia, causing a low pressure area to move down rather rapidly over the northeastern states, bringing a forecast of rain, accompanied by winds of light gale force. Maximum temperature 66; minimum 48. This weather report comes to you from the Government Weather Bureau. . . . We now take you to the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you will be entertained by the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra. -- (MUSIC: SPANISH THEME SONG [A TANGO] ... FADES) -- ANNOUNCER THREE: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. From the Meridian Room in the Park Plaza in New York City, we bring you the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra. With a touch of the Spanish. Ramón Raquello leads off with "La Cumparsita." -- (PIECE STARTS PLAYING) -- ANNOUNCER TWO: Ladies and gentlemen, 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. Professor Pierson of the Observatory at Princeton confirms Farrell's observation, and describes the phenomenon as (quote) like a jet of blue flame shot from a gun (unquote). We now return you to the music of Ramón Raquello, playing for you in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, situated in downtown New York. -- (MUSIC PLAYS FOR A FEW MOMENTS UNTIL PIECE ENDS ... SOUND OF APPLAUSE) -- ANNOUNCER THREE: Now a tune that never loses favor, the ever-popular "Star Dust." Ramón Raquello and his orchestra ... -- (MUSIC) -- ANNOUNCER TWO: Ladies and gentlemen, following on the news given in our bulletin a moment ago, the Government Meteorological Bureau has requested the large observatories of the country to keep an astronomical watch on any further disturbances occurring on the planet Mars. Due to the unusual nature of this occurrence, we have arranged an interview with noted astronomer. Professor Pierson, who will give us his views on the event. in a few moments we will take you to the Princeton Observatory at Princeton, New Jersey. We return you until then to the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra. -- (MUSIC ...) -- ANNOUNCER TWO: We are now ready to take you to the Princeton Observatory at Princeton where Carl Phillips, or commentator, will interview Professor Richard Pierson, famous astronomer. We take you now to Princeton, New Jersey. -- (ECHO CHAMBER) -- PHILLIPS: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. This is Carl Phillips, speaking to you from the observatory at Princeton. I am standing in a large semi-circular room, pitch black except for an oblong split in the ceiling. Through this opening I can see a sprinkling of stars that cast a kind of frosty glow over the intricate mechanism of the huge telescope. The ticking sound you hear is the vibration of the clockwork. Professor Pierson stands directly above me on a small platform, peering through a giant lens. I ask you to be patient, ladies and gentlemen, during any delay that may arise during our interview. Besides his ceaseless watch of the heavens, Professor Pierson may be interrupted by telephone or other communications. During this period he is in constant touch with the astronomical centers of the world . . . Professor, may I begin our questions? [...].[End of the program].(MUSIC SWELLS UP AND OUT) -- Orson Welles: This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian... it's Hallowe'en. -- (MERCURY THEATRE THEME UP FULL, THEN DOWN) -- Announcer: Tonight the Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations coast-to-coast have brought you The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells, the seventeenth in its weekly series of dramatic broadcasts featuring Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air. Next week we present a dramatization of three famous short stories. This is the Columbia Broadcasting System. »
Urls : http://www.war-of-the-worlds.org/Radio (last visited ) http://www.stevecarney.com/mywork.html (last visited ) http://www.law.indiana.edu/fclj/pubs/v52/no2/levine.pdf (last visited ) http://www.sacred-texts.com/ufo/mars/wow.htm (last visited )

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