Sunday, November 22, 2020


The CBS radio network, just before 9pm on Sunday 30thOctober 1938:

“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night... so we did the best next thing...”

Apparently, an executive at the network did not want Welles to add a disclaimer at the end of his theatre company’s radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel “The War of the Worlds,” just in case they could be held liable for anything, like causing mass panic. As the hour-long play ended, anyone still in the broadcaster’s studios were commandeered to answer phone calls from members of the public for reassurance the broadcast wasn’t serious, in what must be the first instance of a call centre. At 10.30pm, 11.30pm and midnight, CBS broadcast messages confirming that all they did was broadcast a modernised play of a fictional Victorian novel, swapping English place names for American ones. The following morning, a haggard Orson Welles appeared in front of reporters and newsreel cameras, saying none of his company thought it was going to cause mobs in the streets, block telephone lines and cause traffic jams. The people that chose instead to listen to the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen on NBC were none the wiser.

The recounting of this incident portrays Americans as having overreacted to a radio drama. Less remarked upon is how live radio news reports, of the type parodied by “The War of the Worlds,” really only began being heard regularly on US radio in 1938. Like the first cinema audience ducking from the Lumière brothers’ oncoming train in 1895, people were only just getting used to the concept, just as the gravity of world events increased their need, and demand, for breaking news.

“...We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C.B.S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn't mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business...”

Radio in the United States was originally seen by newspapers as a way of promoting themselves through a new medium, but once it became more established, newspapers saw how they could threaten their existence – the CBS and NBC radio networks established their own news divisions once wire services, like the Associated Press, stopped their work from being used for broadcasting. The Biltmore Agreement, named after the New York hotel where it was signed in 1933, restricted networks to two five-minute news bulletins a day, after 9.30am and after 9pm, to protect morning and evening newspapers – these bulletins could only use information supplied by newspapers, and no story could last more than thirty words. Because the agreement did not cover independent stations, or programmes featuring news commentators, this weird state of affairs died within two years, by which point newspapers started opening their own radio stations.

What proved the power of “live” radio news was Herbert Morrison exclaiming “oh the humanity” as he saw the Hindenburg zeppelin disaster unfold in May 1937. Chicago station WLS had no ability to complete outside broadcasts, but Morrison’s commentary, recorded onto disc at the scene of the disaster and played out later the same night, demonstrated the urgency of radio reporting, if not the immediacy. The first episode of “CBS World News Roundup,” broadcast on 13th March 1938, was a one-off live broadcast reporting of the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany the previous day. The broadcast experiment was repeated the next day, and once again later in the year before the deepening pre-war conflict in Europe created turned “Roundup” into a daily show.

In this light, it is curious that NBC were meanwhile broadcasting a weekly radio newsreel dramatisation of events into short sketches. “The March of Time,” started by and named after the news magazine, once featured Orson Welles on its staff of actors, portraying himself in 1936 when a production of “Macbeth” he directed opened in Harlem. The show began in 1931 as one of the first regular news programmes, but by the time it ended in 1945, regular news bulletins outmoded it entirely.

Orson Welles is reported as having said the approach of his company’s dramatization came from a British radio production. “Broadcasting the Barricades” was a 1926 talk by the Reverend Father Ronald Knox, was broadcast to all BBC stations from Edinburgh on Saturday 16th January 1926 at 7.40pm - the listing in the “Radio Times” has no description for the programme itself, but Knox was well-known as a detective novelist. The surviving script for the programme started with a BBC announcer interrupting an academic lecture from Oxford to announce that Communists had invaded London, followed by news that the Savoy hotel, next door to the BBC’s then headquarters, had been set on fire; Big Ben had been blown up; and the transport minister had been hung from a lamppost.

After twenty minutes, the show was over, and it was time for variety, probably from the Savoy Hotel. The BBC received 249 written complaints, and 2,307 written appreciations of the programme. This hoax did cause a minor panic, reported by newspapers in the United States, but if radio was still too new a technology to play with in 1938, it certainly was if regular broadcasts in Britain had only been running for three years.

With the expectation that live reporting was one hundred percent reliable was what made the approach used by Welles in “The War of the Worlds” work too well, especially if a listener tuned in after the drama began – to an audience only expecting to hear this type of radio in only one context, it could be argued that attempting to change or play with that context while the form was still, well, forming, has to be approached very carefully. It should therefore be taken that Welles, his theatre company, and CBS had assumed the intelligence of their audience when it decided to start playing.

“...So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian... It's Hallowe'en.”

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