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10-30-08 The War of the Worlds

Posted by Sean on October 30, 2008

Today marks the seventieth anniversary of one of the most remarkable shows in entertainment history. But if you haven’t heard about it, don’t worry. It’s not exactly a show that people want to remember.

On Oct. 30, 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre of the Air broadcast a radio dramatization of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, and in so doing performed perceptual judo on a sizable portion of the American population. Using nothing more than some cheap sound effects and a microphone, Welles’ fake radio broadcast threw thousands into a blind panic and convinced millions more that the world was being invaded and that humanity was being systematically destroyed, enslaved or, worst of all, rounded up for harvest.

To understand the broadcast’s impact, it helps to understand the time in which it was broadcast. Germany occupied Austria in March and marched into Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland on Oct. 1 under the terms of the Munich Agreement. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had said that the Munich Agreement would bring “peace in our time”. Winston Churchill didn’t agree, and Oct. 16, condemned it in a radio broadcast heard in the United States. The German invasion of Poland, which dragged France and England into the war, was less than a year away.

It also helps to remember that the United States was also in the middle of the Great Depression. There was a recession in 1937, which wiped out whatever progress the nation had made since 1929. By 1937, unemployment jumped from the previous year’s 14.3% to 19.0% – almost a fifth of all Americans ready and to work. Even if things were improving by the end of October, as Welles says during the introduction to War of the Worlds,the nation’s economic problems must still have been fresh in everyone’s minds.

All this came to people through newspapers, newsreels and, importantly, radio.  According to this on Google Answers:

… The 1940 population of New York City was 7.5 million, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Family sizes were close to 4 people per family (they are about 2.5 people per family today), making for about 1.9 million households.

The New York Times, on Dec. 25, 1938 carried a report from the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) saying that 80% of the 19.7 million families with incomes above $1,070 had radios. This would probably match pretty well to New York at the time, as it was then the metropolitan area with the highest per capita income.

That would put radios in 1.5 million of the estimated 1.9 million households.

Radio was the TV of its time, the perfect medium for Welles to play with.

Brilliant by any metric or measurement you want to use, he was already a radio actor, a touring Shakespearean stage actor and a stage director by the age of 22. He had already directed an all-black production of Macbeth for the Federal Theatre Project and, in 1937, directed a wildly successful modern-dress adaptation of Julius Caesar set in fascist Italy with his newly formed Mercury Theatre. The Mercury Theatre of the Air, the radio version, didn’t fare as well. Part of the problem was that Welles’ company was up against the hugely popular Chase & Sanborn Hour, which featured Charlie McCarthy (yes, I know, a radio ventriloquist show. Just accept it and move on with your life).

Still, radio was the perfect toy for a highly ambitious prodigy like Welles to play with. He’s quoted in this article as saying, after the fact: “Radio in those days, before the tube and the transistor, wasn’t just a noise in somebody’s pocket – it was the voice of authority. Too much so. At least, I thought so. It was time for someone to take the starch out of some of that authority: hence my broadcast.”

Consider the worsening news that people had been hearing through their radios for months through their radios. Hearing a “news broadcast” about the destruction of Southern New Jersey, then the rest of the state, and then New York City (by far the largest and most powerful city in the nation at the time) must have been like throwing a lit match into a room full of dynamite for some people. Some of the stories of the panic are probably apocryphal and, like any good story, have been embellished over time. But the University of San Diego’s article sounds pretty accurate:

The radio described how the Martians in giant machines with metal legs destroyed everything in their path with a heat ray. The state militia, the artillery, the V-8-43 Army bombers were not able to stop them. The Secretary of the Interior was heard urging calm and courage, in a voice that sounded remarkably similar to an FDR Fireside Chat. A panic spread quickly among radio listeners. The CBS switchboard was overloaded, the New York Times took 875 calls, and AP issued a bulletin at 8:48 pm that there was no invasion from Mars. New Jersey highways were clogged with cars fleeing to New York and Philadelphia, and gas masks were donned by some residents around Trenton… CBS had to settle lawsuits out of court for several thousand dollars and the FCC made an investigation but took no action. Hadley Cantril, a psychologist at Princeton, conducted a study of the panic, concluding that 2 million people thought it was real, especially affecting those with lower education living in the South.

It may sound hard to believe, but a lot of people really thought the world was being invaded. And it wasn’t just suspension of disbelief. They thought – at least briefly, long enough to make a phone call – that the world was ending.

It didn’t help that a lot of people tuned in after Welles’ introduction, and that the broadcast’s “authenticity” was boosted by Howard Koch’s brilliant script and the show’s seemingly chaotic production – including at least two long stretches of dead silence. After all, “everyone knows” that radio shows don’t just have long stretches of silence. It costs money, after all. The radio station’s technicians are probably trying to keep up with a fluid, rapidly changing news story, instead… ergo, it must be real!

Both Koch and Welles knew how to play on people’s expectations. If they were really malicious, instead of merely ambitious, they might have done some real damage.

Modern audiences will scoff at the naiveté of 1938 radio listeners. But we’re in no position to make fun of them.

Demographics, psychology and advertising were in their infancy in 1938. Broadcasters, advertisers, politicians and, yes, even news agencies have learned a lot in that time. TV and the Internet now have reach and authority that radio broadcasters couldn’t even dream of back then, and the audience has been demographically sliced and dissecting until “messages” can be “targeted” like a Tomahawk missile homing in on a laser designator.

Take Barack Obama. All the rumors about him – ties to Islamic terrorists, his “Jewish problem”, his foreign residency – have been refuted, some of them numerous times and long ago. And people still believe them. Why? Because “the Internet told me so” or “I read it on this blog” or “it was on FOXNews”… and because the message has been tailored to the expectations of the audience, many of whom are white and are threatened, at least subconsciously, by a black president.

Or the election. The results are almost guaranteed to be contested, and seriously contested, no matter who wins. The Republicans will blame ACORN and the Democrats will blame Diebold, without really understanding what these are or even how extensive their influence on the election really is. These are both memes tailor-made for their audiences – memes of a vast, shadowy, Illuminati-like conspiracy employing armies of illegal voters (ACORN) or manipulating voting machines (Diebold et al.) to “steal the election” from “us”. And people incorporate these memes into their thinking until it’s of one piece with their thought processes. Why? Again, because “the Internet told me so” or “I read it on this blog” or “it was on the news”.

It’s a shame that Orson Welles chose Hallowe’en – the holiday closest to Election Day – for his broadcast. Hallowe’en, after all, is the traditional day for giving people a fright, and he did it beautifully. But if it was a little earlier in the year, then we could have held this seventieth anniversary when Silly Season was young. We could have reflected on Welles’ accidental experiment into human perception when it could have done us some good, and we could have armored ourselves better against the election memes that are flying faster and thicker every day.

War of the Worlds radio broadcast at Archive.org
http://www.archive.org/download/WAROFTHEWORLDS2/19381030WarOfTheWorlds.mp3

War of the Worlds radio script
http://jeff560.tripod.com/script.html

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3 Responses to “10-30-08 The War of the Worlds”

  1. […] 10-30-08 The War of the Worlds Posted by gavortnik on October 30, 2008 Today marks the seventieth anniversary of one of the most remarkable shows in entertainment history. But if you haven’t heard about it, don’t worry. It’s not exactly a show that people want to remember. On Oct. 30, 1938, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre of the Air broadcast a radio dramatization of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, and in so doing performed perceptual judo on a sizable portion of the American population. Using nothing more than some ch […]

  2. […] 10-30-08 The War of the Worlds to “steal the election” from “us”. And people incorporate these memes into their thinking until it’s of one piece with their thought processes. Why? Again, because “the Internet told me so” or “I read it on this blog” or “it was on the … […]

  3. […] 10-30-08 The War of the Worlds […]

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