Although radio broadcasting arrived more than two decades after the birth of cinema – and movies were the dominant form of entertainment in North America for the first half of the century – radio was in some ways a far more important and influential medium. Looking back from the perspective of our wired (and wireless) world, it’s difficult to comprehend just what a powerful change the new medium brought about as it took hold in the 1920s. People then still lived within their own communities, their lives circumscribed by the limits of geography, news from afar arriving days or even weeks after the event in the form of print reports.
While movies were an escape from daily life, radio was rooted in it. It shrank distances and created connections where none had previously existed. Certainly it was a major source of entertainment, of music, drama and comedy, and it brought these things directly into people’s homes, absorbed into the rhythms of life instead of being something sought outside. But more importantly, it introduced an immediacy to reports of what was happening in the world. No longer could people comfortably exist in isolation; the world suddenly shrank and everyone became aware of larger forces in the face of which they found themselves relatively powerless. When the world seemingly collapsed in 1929 and the Great Depression took hold, radio reported every blow. But at the same time, it also provided a sense of shared struggle – the entire nation was in the same boat and, after 1932, the soothing voice of FDR offered hope and consolation in his weekly fireside chats over the radio.
For millions of people, radio had become a powerful connection with the world, a source of information and knowledge which they implicitly trusted. Naturally, it would take a brash young genius to see how that trust could be exploited for maximum dramatic impact and on October 30, 1938, 23-year-old theatre wunderkind Orson Welles led his Mercury Theater on the Air in a one-hour adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel The War of the Worlds.
The famous pre-Halloween broadcast marked what may have been the first full-scale earthquake to hit the mass media of the 20th Century. The story has been examined in countless articles and books, and even a made-for-TV movie (The Night That Panicked America, 1975), and now on the eve of the 75th anniversary, American Experience offers a one-hour documentary (debuting both on PBS and DVD/Blu-ray on October 29) which delves into not only what happened but why and how. From our supposedly media-savvy perspective we tend to feel a certain superiority to all the gullible people who heard the broadcast, believed it was really happening, and panicked – there were even reports of heart attacks and attempted suicides. (Although given how easily swayed many people are by hyper-ventilating cable news coverage of events today, we don’t seem to have come very far after all.)
Using interviews with historians Susan Douglas and T.J. Jackson Lears, media historian Paul Heyer, writers Eric Rabkin and Robert Crossley, journalist David Ropeik, filmmaker and Welles protege Peter Bogdanovich, and Welles’ daughter Chris Welles Feder, the documentary quickly fills in the context of the broadcast. Coming a decade after the onset of the Depression, a year-and-a-half after perhaps the most powerful media event to date – the Hindenberg disaster of May 6, 1937 – and just one month after Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler in Munich, the Mercury broadcast went out to an audience already highly stressed and fearful of a new war. But none of this might have mattered if Welles hadn’t made a radical creative decision just days before the broadcast.
Having commissioned a script from writer Howard Koch, Welles didn’t actually see it until the middle of the week before the scheduled live Sunday air date and he found it extremely dull. Casting around for a solution, he came up with the idea of reshaping it as a live broadcast of events as they happened, framing the invasion as an interruption of regularly scheduled programming. Once he had this idea, everything fell into place and the script became a breathless account of catastrophic on-going events. (Frank Readick, who played the show’s reporter character, Carl Phillips, reportedly listened to a recording of the Hindenberg explosion over and over again to get the tone just right, and when the play’s report of the first Martian attack is presented beside that Hindenberg broadcast it sounds virtually identical.)
Although the play was advertised as part of the network schedule and announced at the beginning as a Mercury production, many people scanning their radio dials came across it in progress and had no way of telling that it was merely a drama. And so anxiety was easily triggered; and pre-existing fears caused people to hear not necessarily what was actually being broadcast but rather what they were expecting to hear – that this was a German invasion and the new war was beginning. Naturally, many didn’t stick around to hear more … they called friends and relatives with warnings, they called the police, they jumped in their cars and headed for what they hoped was safety …