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PBS Revisits the Panic Broadcast

‘American Experience’ celebrates the75th anniversary of a radio classic

“We know now that in the early years of the 20th century, this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than our man’s, yet as mortal as his own.”

Those words opened the greatest fictional radio broadcast of all time, which aired 75 years ago this month and has been a source of fascination ever since, particularly among those who cherish our medium.

“War of the Worlds,” the 1938 broadcast on CBS Radio by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air, is the subject of a video documentary that premieres Tuesday Oct. 29 on the outstanding PBS history program “American Experience.” I recommend it highly.

Note that I said greatest fictional radio broadcast. The greatest of all time, most would agree, was Herbert Morrison’s coverage of the Hindenburg disaster. But the same sense of compelling live drama, of news being made, propelled “War of the Worlds” into lore.

I grew up listening to “War of the Worlds” on an LP of old-time radio shows. I know its rhythms, its hisses and scrapes, its musical interludes and cast of characters. I flat-out loved it.

The TV documentary, which I saw in a review copy, tells the familiar story. Mercury Theatre had created a series of programs based on literary works like “Dracula” and “Oliver Twist”; for Halloween, Orson Welles sold his producing partner John Houseman on doing an adaptation of the H.G. Wells Martian tale from 40 years earlier, reset in the United States.

Formatted as a series of news bulletins interrupting regular programming, the Sunday evening show used vivid sound effects and voice characterizations to create mental pictures of creatures crawling out of ships and killing people with heat rays in and beyond Grover’s Mill, N.J.

Famously, many listeners missed the show opening because they were enjoying ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy cutting up with Edgar Bergen on NBC’s “The Chase and Sanborn Hour,” then tuned over to CBS and the Martians once Nelson Eddy began singing. The documentary notes the conventional wisdom that “up to a million people” were thus convinced, “even briefly,” that the United States was being assaulted by monster invaders.


Just how wide was this panic? I’ve always wondered.

According to accounts, callers “flooded” newspapers and police with calls, rushed out of their homes, begged power companies to turn off the lights, gathered in prayer.

I spoke with Susan Douglas, who appears in the program. She is an author and professor of communications studies at the University of Michigan. She said hard numbers are difficult to come by, but one study estimated that 6 million people heard the play, of which about 1.2 million were frightened.

“What we don’t know is how many actually poured into the streets. And for the newspapers, this was a double dip for them; because some newspapers — those not associated with radio stations or that didn’t own them — saw radio as competition, especially cutting into the evening papers. … Some were like, ‘See? You’d better watch what you listen to on radio!’”

This may help explain why newspapers ran 12,500 stories about the Martian broadcast over three weeks, certainly feeding the panic story and probably exaggerating it.

Welles explains and apologies for that little Martian misunderstanding. Author Susan Douglas describes his ‘charismatic smirk … He had that charisma that comes from an absolute confidence in your talent. He was thrilled.’
credit: Corbis
However, many people evidently were taken in. Mercury Theater member Richard Wilson saved letters received after the broadcast; in 2007 his estate donated them to the University of Michigan, where student A. Brad Schwartz rediscovered them and used them for his thesis.

The documentary brings these letters to life using actors. I didn’t care for the stylized reenactments; but I found the words compelling. Regardless, people really were scared (while quite a few congratulated themselves on not having been fooled). And how could we not smile hearing a letter-writer say of Welles, “He is a carbuncle on the rump of degenerate theatrical performance”?


The video also explores the reach and role of radio in people’s lives. It emphasizes the economic anxieties of a nation during a time when even a president acknowledged “fear itself.”

It reports that “Americans were highly attuned to the sound of crisis” and to eyewitness accounts of unsettling world events at a time when radio news divisions were finding their footing. It makes particular note of the Munich crisis weeks prior. “People were used to having their programs interrupted by news bulletins,” Douglas told me. “People could hear Hitler’s voice as he became increasingly incendiary about annexing the Sudetenland. … You have a population on edge.”

It also accounts how abashed some people felt after they learned they’d been fooled; and it explores the charisma and mischievous personality of the 23-year-old Welles.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the “American Experience” documentary.

I learned about the interactions between Welles, Houseman and writer Howard Koch. I was reminded of the story of Koch picking out Grover’s Mill on a map with his eyes closed.

I appreciated the descriptions of fervid show preparation in the week prior to broadcast; the delivery of a wax disk recording of Thursday’s rehearsal to Welles at his hotel in the early morning of Friday and his declaration that it was “abysmally dull,” which led to massive rewriting; and the influence of a radio show Welles had heard hours earlier by Archibald MacLeish called “Air Raid” that used news bulletins in dramatic fashion.

The filmmakers provide an account of actor Frank Readick preparing to portray reporter Carl Phillips by going down to the CBS record library to listen to the eyewitness account of the Hindenburg accident. And there’s a wonderful story told by Peter Bogdanovich about Welles’ use of mic technique, standing at a podium in Studio 1 on the 20th floor of CBS in New York, holding 10 actors and a 27-piece orchestra silent at one particularly compelling moment.

The TV show is loaded with delightful archival photos and film clips. Radio history buffs will have a field day trying to identify classic radios on display. And the documentary reminds us of the power of sound when wielded by people who know what they’re doing — as Douglas puts it, “working in a medium that denies sight.”

The producers describe the 75th anniversary of “War of the Worlds” as a timely reminder of the power of mass media. “During times of enormous cultural fragility and uncertainty,” Douglas said, “people turn to trusted media sources and can be powerfully influenced by them. Still.”

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