As I sit to write this article, the television shows an advancing column of tanks speeding
through the Iraqi desert toward Baghdad. It is March 2003 and we are just days into the second
Gulf War, but like no other conflict, this has become a war of information as much as it is
of bullets and bombs. The picture is live, delivered to the comfort of my home via satellite,
and if I wish, I can switch to a dozen other channels or connect to the Internet in search of
fresh perspectives. In this hi-tech world of twenty-four hour rolling news coverage, we take
for granted the speed and immediacy of this information, while at the same time maintaining a
well-honed sense of scepticism. We have learnt to distrust the purveyors of news, influenced
as they are by spin, propaganda and their own private agendas. We have seen it all, heard it
all and the revolution has been televised so many times that we no longer think of it as a new
or frightening experience. This is the world we now live in, but it was not always so.
Less than seventy years ago, television was barely at an experimental stage and in the
United States, radio was the undisputed king of the airwaves. Three out of four families
already owned a set (eight million alone were sold in 1936), but as many were to rudely discover,
they were not yet fully attuned to the power of this exciting new medium. The wake up call came
on the Halloween night of October 1938 when a brilliant young auteur by the name of Orson Welles
tapped into the subconscious fears of a nation and convinced thousands of people (perhaps many
more) that Martians were invading the United States.
Incredibly, the cause of this mayhem was a dramatic presentation of The War of the Worlds,
a seminal novel written 40 years previously by H. G. Wells. So how and why did this all
happen? There are a number of reasons, but it is first worth emphasizing just how new and
exciting radio still was in 1938. The big radio networks such as NBC and CBS were only a
decade old and engaged in a frenzy of experimentation, filling the airwaves with vast amounts
of original material such as comedies, dramas, soaps and a fresh brand of journalism that
opened the US public to a new awareness of world conflict and politics.
Americans were now able to connect with events and hear their law and opinion makers as
never before. A notable trailblazer in this regard was President Franklin D. Roosevelt,
whose "fireside chats" (beginning in 1933) brought the voice of government and authority
into the home as never before. Major news events also gripped the nation. Bulletins on the
hunt for the kidnapped baby son of aviator Charles Lindbergh kept listeners in an agony of
suspense over several months in 1932 and in 1936 the war correspondent Hans Von Kaltenborn
became the first American reporter to broadcast live from a war zone, when he brought the
actual sounds of a Spanish civil war battle into ordinary homes. Equally dramatic was the
fatal crash of the airship Hindenburg, recorded on May 6th 1937 by Herbert Morrison of
Chicago station WLS, an event that reduced the helpless reporter to tears of frustration
and horror. Undoubtedly however, it was the troubling broadcasts from Nazi Germany that
did most to unsettle America in this period. During the Munich Crisis of September 12-30th
1938, more radios were sold to anxious Americans than in any previous three-week period,
as Hitler rallied his forces and the world slid inexorably toward war.
In this atmosphere of tension, Orson Welles and his staff were preparing their latest
Mercury Theater presentation, a show that has previously dramatised such novels as "The
Count of Monte Cristo" and "Dracula". On the face of it, The War of the Worlds should
have had no greater effect on the listening public than the previous broadcasts, which
is to say, none at all, but Welles and his writer Howard Koch were planning something
special this particular night, and though it is a matter of considerable debate if they
actually intended to create the subsequent uproar and near panic, it was undoubtedly their very novel
dramatic device that did much of the damage.
Rather than set the story in Victorian England as written by H.G. Wells, the action
was transplanted (not unsurprisingly) to contemporary America, but much more significantly,
Koch told the story as a series of newsflashes that intruded without warning
into what sounded like a perfectly routine program. This radical departure from established
dramatic formats was to prove devastatingly effective, and combined with the use of
numerous real place names, added significantly to the depth of the alarm. In yet another
contributing factor, it is thought that many people (upwards of 50%) tuned in late to the
broadcast. This was largely because a great many listeners switched at an inopportune moment
from a rival network, which was broadcasting the wildly popular Charlie McCarthy Show. About
10 minutes into this show, a singer would be introduced, and this was the point a lot of
listeners would twiddle their dials while waiting for the star of the show to return.
Tuning into the Mercury Theatre a few minutes late (and thus having missed Welles distinctively
sonorous introduction) they found themselves listening to the innocent sounds of "Ramon
Raquello and his orchestra", only for the music to be interrupted by the first of a
series of increasingly alarming news stories.
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