After checking the radio listings in the Boston Sunday Globe for October 30, 1938, I was torn between listening to the usual Charlie McCarthy show and a dramatization of H.G. Wells' The War Of The Worlds. As a 13-year-old who, according to his parents, “had his nose stuck in a book more than what was good for him” I had recently discovered in our local library the massive tome Seven Science Fiction Novels of H. G. Wells. My super favorites were The Time Machine and possibly The Invisible Man -- although I really thought the movie with Claude Rains was far more exciting than the Wells’ narrative. War Of The Worlds hadn’t captured my imagination, but I speculated that it might be more interesting on the radio. The name "Orson Wells" meant absolutely nothing to me.
There was only one problem. The CBS station we could hear best in the foothills of the White Mountains was WEEI in Boston; but WEEI wasn’t carrying the unsponsored network program. I’d have to take my chances with some station from Portland, or Hartford, or maybe New York. Remember, this was back in the days of AM radio when evening reception was marginal unless you lived within a few miles of the transmitter.
By the time I had located what I thought was a CBS station they seemed to be broadcasting "weather reports" and some sappy dance band from a hotel. I gave up in disgust and settled for Bergen and McCarthy. The next morning I discovered that I had missed the radio broadcast of the century!
However, all was not lost. A school teacher gave me a copy of the "War Of The Worlds" radio script which was printed in a newspaper, and I proceeded to round up a cast of my eighth grade classmates, borrow a recording of "The Storm" from the William Tell Overture for sound effects, and re-produced the program for our Civics class. Naturally, I reserved the role of Princeton astronomer Professor Richard Pierson for myself.
Although from that moment on I became an ardent fan of Orson Welles, I never did hear the actual broadcast until it was released on an LP many years later. It became the highlight in in a "Psychology of Communication" course I taught at the college level. I should admit at the outset that the definitive study of the radio broadcast was done by Princeton professor Hadley Cantril in 1940 and is still available in most libraries as The Invasion From Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic. I shall be drawing heavily from Cantril’s research but with a few observations of my own as we review what caused the panic when Mars invaded radio.
For those who haven’t heard the broadcast recently here is a quick summary: A story is told through news bulletins and on-the-spot broadcasts of an invasion from the planet Mars of creatures with terrible instruments of destruction who systematically wreak havoc from a farm in Grovers Mills, New Jersey, to the populated canyons of Manhattan. In 40 minutes of air time one learns how heat rays, machines as tall as skyscrapers, and clouds of deadly gas have subdued all organized resistance to the invasion. What happens in the story after the station identification break at 8:40 PM EST doesn’t concern us here. It is enough to know that the outcome was -- if not happy -- at least peaceful and satisfying. A higher justice prevailed.
I don’t agree with the social scientist who dismissed the whole affair with this cynical comment, "as good an explanation as any for the panic is that all the intelligent people were listening to Charlie McCarthy." The factors were far more complex and involved world conditions at the time, elements of the Howard Koch script, and the conditioning powers of radio broadcasting itself.
By October 1938 the whole world was invasion conscious. Only a few weeks before the Mercury Theater broadcast Americans had been warned that Europe was on the brink of war -- and war meant "invasion." Military actions by the Japanese in Asia, the Italians in North Africa, the Germans in Central Europe, and the rebels in Spain had conditioned Americans through newspaper and magazine accounts as well as through radio broadcasts that all was not safe and inviolate on this planet of ours. One need only recall the famous Life photo of an abandoned Chinese baby crying on a war-ravaged street. Furthermore, we were still in the grips of an economic depression that had left millions of Americans fearing for the future and exploring alternate solutions such as communism, socialism and schenes such as the Townsend Plan. It was a time when people were conditioned to believe that anything could happen -- and perhaps should. Frustrated millions were seeking drastic solutions OUTSIDE themselves and their own social and political spheres for their economic and social woes. Why NOT men from Mars?
Professor Cantril reminds us that this was not the first panic broadcast. In England on January 16, 1926, an overzealous clergyman, Father Ronald Knox, painted a word picture to his radio audience of what happens when an unruly unemployed mob takes over and destroys the houses of Parliament, brings Big Ben crashing to the ground, and hangs the Minister of Traffic to a tramway post. The London broadcast ended with the "destruction of the British Broadcasting Corp’s station." Listeners interpreted this dramatic "what if..." acount as actual fact, and frantic citizens besieged the police and the media with calls.
This was also a time when radio was considered to be the more objective and trustworthy of the media. Newspapers were known to have political and social biases; but radio, in spite of broadcasts by the likes of Father Coughlin and commentators such as Boake Carter, was believed to be totally objective in actual news reporting. By 1938 polls showed conclusively that people trusted radio news bulletins almost without exception over newspaper accounts. If it was a radio news bulletin, you ‘d better believe it! Radio had also become the preferred source of breaking news stories. Instead of "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!" people were more likely to pay attention when they heard "We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin...."
There was also a tendency to accept as fact a news story which mentioned familiar geographic landmarks and the spoken words of credible public figures such as the Secretary of the Interior. Ironically, some of the "mistakes" in the brodcast were too sophisticated to be immediately apparent. For example: the newscaster reports explosions on the planet Mars "20 minutes before 8:00 PM, Central Time" when it was only 8:04 PM Eastern Time -- which is impossible! However, the subtleties of time-zone differences were lost in the seeming objectivity of a radio news bulletin.
One factor which was mentioned earlier needs to be explained at this time. Unless one lived very close to the transmitter, listening to AM radio in the evening in 1938 required a certain amount of determination, patience, and auditory closure. Radio signals faded in and out; sometimes listeners heard two programs which seemed to be fighting for the same spot on the dial; there was static from storms and electrical equipment. More often than not one had to FIGHT to hear and understand all that was said on the radio. The poor ratio of signal-to-noise forced the human brain to "make do" (to achieve meaningful "closure") with distorted auditory information. Listening to a CD of "War Of The Worlds" today which has been digitally enchanced bears little resemblance to the way people actually "heard" the broadcast in 1938 on their Zeniths and Philcos in the hinterlands of New Jersey or North Dakota. It stands to reason that an individual is not as logically critical when most of his energies are absorbed in decoding. Consequently, what we have come to admire today as a fiendishly clever use of radio’s broadcasting techniques was, in 1938, a potent recipe for panic!
My admiration for script writer Howard Koch increases every time I replay the broadcast. Except for the funereal pronouncements of Orsen Wells intoning the introductory words of H.G. Welles for the first two minutes of the broadcast, the story has been totally transformed into a masterpiece of dramatic tension. Once the listener is subjected to the tacky dance music of "Ramon Raquello and his orchestra" his sense of the passage of time becomes distorted. By the time we are told that the people of New Jersey and New York have been clogging the escape highways for TWO HOURS, the reality of time frames has been drowned in emotional images of death and destruction.
Early in the program the unfolding events seem to be expertly handled by the broadcasters. We do not sense any loss of control until about nine minutes into the show -- when we hear a piano interlude. This "piano interlude" was always a sign in those early days of network radio that some major or minor catastrophe had occurred -- that the broadcasters had lost control. It signaled "helplessness,""anxiety."
The rapid-fire changes in broadcast locations helps to distort our sense of time passing so that when announcer Carl Phillips and Professor Pierson claim they drove the 11 miles in 10 minutes to Govers Mills we believe them -- even though actually less than five minutes have lapsed since they were on the air in the Princeton observatory.
Problems with microphones at the Grovers Mills remote broadcast and announcer "fluffs" convince us further that all this is extemporaneous -- unplanned -- real events unfolding. After the first encounter with the Martians we bounce back to the broadcast studio for another anxious interlude of piano music -- a sure sign that control is slipping away. This dramatic device is repeated a few seconds later to reinforce the feeling of helpless doom. So if the voice of "General Montgomery Smith" sounds suspiciously like Orson again, who will notice?
Although sound effects are skillfully used there is no hint of transition music or mood music (an inevitable device in radio dramas!) until AFTER the station identification break 40 MINUTES into the one-hour broadcast. Each disaster scene is concluded with a moment of awkard silence. Again, this signals to the listener that this is NOT a radio drama but "real life unfolding." Howard Koch gave credit to Orson Welles for the idea of changing the locale of the science fiction story to the U.S. and for narration through a series of on-the-spot broadcasts. Obviously, it was the "hoax" nature of the dramatization which caused Congress to pass laws forbidding such use of the airwaves in the future.
There are moments of ironic humor in the broadcast. At one point 22 minutes into the broadcast when the fires in Govers Mills are under control and the militia is set to take over, we are told that broadcasters are on hand beceause "Radio has a responsibility to serve the public at all times." The speaking voice of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior is a thinly disguised imitation of FDR. Script writer Koch seemed to take particular delight in wiping out the Columbia Broadcasting System studios 38 minutes into the program. Nor should the script writer receive all the "blame" for Orson’s "Hallowe’en prank!" The acting, the breathtaking timing, the sound effects all contribute to what many consider the ultimate use (perhaps misuse!) of radio as a medium for dramatic expression. Nothing comparable has marked the history of television which has had a much longer period in which to establish creative landmarks.
So was the cynical social scientist correct? Were only the unintelligent listeners tuned to "War Of The Worlds"? Hadley Cantril’s research studies certainly show that it was the enlightened listener who attempted to verify what was going on by checking other stations on the dial, the newspaper program guides, and public safety organizations.
It is my belief that (1) a uniquely anxious time in modern political and economic history, (2) a uniquely talented band of artists, and (3) the unique processing skills conditioned by radio broadcasting itself in the late 1930’s contributed to the "willing suspension of disbelief" which is the basis of all entertainment. It was not the "unwashed masses" who tuned in dramatizations of works of literature on a Sunday evening in 1938. Just the opposite! Remember, on the night before Hallowe’en in 1938, 34 % of Americans were listening to Bergen and McCarthy; only about 4% of the radio audience tuned in "War Of The Worlds." Ah! That lucky, lucky few!