Posts Tagged ‘Orson Welles’

It’s a famous media broadcast now, it’s also a very gripping thing to listen to as well. The original book is a work by H G Wells that started life as a serialisation by the English author.

The Martians have been plotting an invasion to Earth that’s to their own diminishing resources. In the book the events of the invasion are set in motion in Woking, Surrey but Orson Welles transfers them to America. Wells no doubt picked his location as it was local and he knew how to describe things with familiarity and if you pop over to Woking at any point you can locate a 23 feet high sculpture of a tripod fighting machine, ‘The Martian’ near the local railway station.

I’m not going into the plot, the reviews or such like but it is worthy of note because of films and of course the above-mentioned broadcast. That’s the bit I am going to look at it here for now.

George Orson Welles, 6th May 1915 to 10th October 1985 was involved in the business of entertainment and is famous for the film Citizen Kane, 1941 amongst other things but this is a blog for weird and interesting things, and I’ve picked out the 1938 broadcast of the War of the Worlds which, supposedly, sent thousands of American people into a mass panic about the alien invasions in their home states…

CBS radio invited Orson Welles to create a summer show that would last 13 weeks, the series began 11th July 1938 and the adaptation for H G Wells book aired 30th October 1938. It brought Orson Welles instant fame, the broadcast itself really is worth a listen to and you can sit back and appreciate it yourself if you wish.

There was supposedly a mass panic from people convinced of its validity, that aliens truly landed and it’s this bit I am looking at, were people really panicking so much that they would run from their homes in masses?

1.7 million listened to the broadcast and polls calculated that 1.2 million ‘were excited’ and mostly the reports seem to have been anecdotal. Cantril interviewed 135 people who cited some colourful claims about grabbing guns or packing up in a panic. It would hardly have been unusual for a busy area to have fast moving traffic and other rambunctious behaviours at the time so this was not entirely unexpected. Grovers Mill, New Jersey was not blasted by alien lasers or any such thing but the media took the story of the panic and without looking at data it might even be assumed claims of heart attacks and suicides were another effect but again, there was not noticeable shows in the data to support this. Miller countered Cantril’s claims and just did not seem to match up to the 1 million plus listeners.

American Telephone Company figures suggested a 40% rise in calls, again however, they did not lead to anything specific and it was just a higher record in some parts of New Jersey.

He also mentions that there is a notable other broadcast with the results of frightening some listeners, 31st October 1974 at Rhode Island, and one in Northern Portugal 1988 but they were not reported to on the same level. The same sort of thing appears in a 2010 publication by W Joseph Campbell and Slate.com, they in turn also look at media myths or fake news and include the press reports of the panic-stricken US citizens.

31st October, 1938 Daily News of New York’s front page encapsulates the news with the title “FAKE RADIO ‘WAR’ STIRS TERROR THROUGH U.S’. The New York Times gave us ‘Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.’  The Detroit News went with ‘War Skit on Radio Terrifies Nation’ and The Boston Daily Globes ran with ‘RADIO PLAY TERRIFIES NATION’.

But was all of this remotely correct or fake news? Well in short, no, CE Hopper Company did the 2% response to people listening to it because most people were listening to NBC. The poll was conducted for 5000 people, so 100 people of 5000 were listening? Frank Stanton of CBS also said they were never censored for it because most people hadn’t even heard the show.

6 weeks after the broadcast it was admitted to, the figures were largely skewed and descriptions like disturbed or excited were inflated to ‘panic’. It did get enough hype that Adolf Hitler cited the panic as ‘evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy’.

So why?

Well in short radio was being seen as a threat to newspapers, they could use a few isolated cases as a way to make it sounds like these types of shows were an example of this terrible new media being irresponsible and untrustworthy. The Telegraph (UK paper) says that a woman tried to sue CBS for $50,000 thank to nervous shock but it was dismissed and a man tried to claim for shows as he’d spent that money on a train ticket, Welles was said to have paid for those.

There was indeed action taken that night, the police came to the station and one minute from the end of the show they were trying to shut it down. It played out and as a result Paul White, the head of CBS News, was summoned over. Welles found out later and was convinced it would end his career, but it didn’t.

Some listeners had turned in part way through and this seems to be where the reports started. Again, though it was very much a case of over-exaggeration and it does also seem that the repeated broadcasts about it being fictional could have fallen to few ears, a case of a small audience from the previous show affecting it too.

Let’s also put this into context, at the time a German Invasion was a possibility, rumblings of the inevitable war were a reality and was it so hard to imagine those who were affected and lured in part way through might have thought it was something to do with that?

Hadley Cantril calculated a 6 million strong audience, but it was then 1.7 million later on and yet this calculation seems flawed. He had doubled the usual audience and had tried to work on the idea not ever listener had a phone too. He summarised many reactions into panicked and yet quite a number had thought it was more of a prank than a reality.

No admissions for shock were made at Newark Hospital at that time, and there were no spikes in admission at New York either. Washington Post claimed a man died from a heart attack but the claim was not verified and Snopes also places this as mostly false.

So here is my summary – firstly its put Grovers Mill on the map for tourists like me who enjoy a bit of quirky history, radio hasn’t been stopped by the papers and vice-versa. I am quite sure we can safely say the average U.S citizen would have noticed laser space blasting Martians at the time and I, for one, love the broadcast. Thank you, H G Wells and Orson Welles, you gave me a great piece of history to look back on (and no I don’t rate the latest War of the Worlds film if you were wondering.)

Refs:

Robert E Bartholomew, Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns and Head-Hunting Panics

Snopes

Wikipedia

Telegraph.co.uk

Google Books

Project Gutenburg

Slate.com

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