‘Radio is the theater of the mind’
October 18, 2006
Did he mean to do it, or didn’t he? To radiophiles, it was the most telling broadcast in American history. To some, it’s the most glorious mass-media spoof of the radio era – perhaps of all time. Whenever Halloween rolls around, I pay homage to the notorious “War of the Worlds” broadcast, made in 1938 by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre company.Back when I was a broadcaster, I was privileged to get to know a famed TV and radio guy from the old days, whom I had idolized as a child. “Radio is the theatre of the mind,” he used to tell me. “That’s its appeal; it’s the theater of the mind and of the imagination.”If any radio broadcast exemplified that, it was this one. It wasn’t that the special effects were all that great – even for the times, they were rather minimalist. But it was all about the acting, the script writing, and what was left unsaid. The moment when the one lone ham radio operator is left alive, calling out into radioland, “Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone?” followed by five seconds of “dead air” is still arguably the creepiest moment in radio broadcast history.Orson Welles launched his “Mercury Theatre of the Air” in the late 1930s, bringing a dramatization of a literary classic to the airwaves each week. With impish genius, Welles decided that the Halloween broadcast for Oct. 30, 1938, would be a modern dramatization of H. G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds.” In fact, an announcement of this upcoming broadcast was made in newspaper listings across America – as chagrined newspapers such as the New York Times were later quick to point out.
But, as is often the case, it was not the fact that it was done; it was the WAY that it was done. The broadcast began that evening with an introduction by Welles that, taken out of context, seemed fairly incomprehensible. Then, it appeared that the network segued to a concert of “tea-dancing” music – a common breakaway device in those days. Suddenly, “news announcers” (Welles and his talented cast) broke into the music with the announcement of spaceship sightings in Grovers Mill, New Jersey (which Welles chose by closing his eyes and sticking his pencil in a map). After that, all hell broke loose.Madness and mayhem ensued, as the cast gleefully demolished large parts of the nation with Martian death ray guns. Welles, with his remarkably familiar voice (although not quite as familiar at the time) played several of the roles himself. So, you ask, how could anyone in their right mind believe this? And were they intended to?
Over on NBC, the top-rated “Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show” was featuring a singer no one had ever heard of, and people started channel surfing. They happened to join the Welles broadcast just when it was getting good. And back then, just as now, they didn’t bother to read the newspaper scheduled listings. (They also didn’t bother to read classic literature – many afterwards admitted that they had never heard of H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” at all).By the middle of the broadcast, Welles said, the broadcast booth was full of New York’s finest, as police were called in to calm the crowds outside and find out what was going on. Associated Press bureaus nationwide (not to mention CBS studios) were jammed with hundreds of callers. Roads were filled with carloads of families escaping – they knew not where.The next day, photos of a disheveled Welles with his hands up in the air in a gesture of “I didn’t mean it!” showed up on the front page of every newspaper across the country. The whole thing made Welles an overnight sensation, and led to commercial sponsors for his radio show, as well as sell-out audiences for the new movie he had just written, produced, directed and starred in – “Citizen Kane.”
Yes, he knew damn well what he was doing (as he admitted on the talk show circuit decades later), but, as he also admitted, it went far beyond just a little publicity for struggling actors.Considering the climate of the times – the broadcast came a month after the Munich talks between Hitler and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and the scent of world war was in the air – the nation was tense and edgy, wondering what was coming just around the corner. Welles undoubtedly took advantage of this understandable paranoia to test the power of the press – an experiment that succeeded beyond his most Machiavellian dreams.I have mentioned before on this page how every Halloween I replayed that broadcast of “War of the Worlds” on my radio show – sans introduction, in the spirit of Orson Welles. Some of my listeners didn’t notice the old record static, or the mention of “the new 1939 cars” on the street” – they didn’t even recognize Orson Welles’ voice. They heard “Martian,” they heard “spaceship,” and they thought of Roswell and Area 51. And we got calls. Serious ones. There were people out there who were genuinely frightened by this broadcast, primitive by today’s standards and recorded more than 60 years ago.When it comes to the media, just how gullible are we today?You can read the complete script of Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast (written by Howard Koch, later famous for writing the movie “Casablanca,”) by Googling the words “War of the World script.” Or better yet, you can get the original radio broadcast now on CD. Listen for yourself. Would you have been taken in?