Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The War of the Worlds radio show

Whenever I ever hear anyone mention the 1939 radio show of HG Wells’ War of the World and the panic that ensued, I think of how naive and unsophisticated people must have been back then. But then I find myself stopping and reconsidering … I think of all the conspiracy theories around 911 and how so many people have so many wild ideas about the world. Perhaps we haven’t changed that much. Fear is still king. Today is it terrorism, but in 1939, the stories coming out of Germany were terrifying. Does fear make us naïve or do we just believe anything that comes out of an appliance in our living room?

On Halloween night 1939, Orson Welles and the production staff of CBS’s Mercury Theatre of the Air broadcasted a radio show of HG’ Wells’ sci-fi novel changing the setting from 19th century England to current day New Jersey. The show that night had a musical guest who was periodically interrupted with "news" reports of the Mars invasion. The mock news reports sounded realistic enough for the era. The actors playing the reporters studied Edward R. Morrow’s war reporting and tape of the Hindenburg tragedy to get a realistic feel. The Theatre of the Air was least popular show at that time slot, so Welles timed the news updates, "we interrupt this program," during lolls in the other shows so that they would catch channel surfers’ ears. Because of this, many of the listeners didn’t hear the disclaimer at the beginning of the show. They reported that an army of 7,000 were reduced to 120 by one Martian robot. Panic was widespread. The Trenton, NJ police received over a 2,000 calls that evening and the NY Times switchboard reported 875 calls to confirm the story. Many eyewitnesses reported seeing smoke over New York City and choking due to panic attacks. The town of Concrete, Washington had a power outage in the middle of the show making things a lot worse for them. They didn’t get the disclaimer at the end of the show so some sat in horror, in the dark, for hours.

In February 1949, the show was reproduced in Quito, Ecuador with even worse results. The local militia was mobilized to fight the Martians. When it was revealed as a hoax, a mob attacked the radio studio and 6 people were killed.

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