War of the Worlds and the Power of Mass Media
November 30, 2009 5:00 PM   Subscribe

WNYC's Radiolab took a look into Orson Welles' 1938 radio production of H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds, which caused mass panic in the United States when listeners mistook a radio drama for actual reporting. They then explored the question of whether such hysteria could be recreated in a similar way, recounting stories from Quito, Ecuador in 1949 and Buffalo, New York in 1968. (There was one other attempt in Santiago, Chile in 1944 which is not mentioned in the Radiolab synopsis.)
posted by ichthuz (22 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
I got two words for you.

Balloon. Boy.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:06 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oh god. Radiolab is so addictive. It's like a boot made of fascinating stuff stamping on a human face - forever.

A bit like Mefi in that regard, actually.
posted by Zero Gravitas at 5:08 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


That's one of my favorite Radiolab episodes ever.
posted by Nattie at 5:40 PM on November 30, 2009


Joe Beese totally beat me too it, but really not only can this sort of hysteria be created today, it seems to be the job of the news media to manufacture a new hysteria every week or so. ACORN. Tiger Woods' cat accident. That annoying couple that snuck into the White House. Sarah Palin. Heck, hysteria is the blood that pumps through the veins of our media.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:41 PM on November 30, 2009


When I used to work in a factory to make some extra cash for college around 1989 I worked with an amazing lady, Leona. (Her real name.)

When she was a little girl her dad was killed while putting a Navy boat through its shakedown, another boat T-boned his boat and sank his ship, killing all on board. Leaving her mother to raise her and her siblings alone in the 30's.

She once told me this story: She was at a dance and a man came up to her and asked her what her phone number was. She was annoyed with this guy, I guess he had been bothering her all night, and so she gave him a number. The number to the local police station.
I said, "Oh my god. Did you see him again."
She smiled. "He came to back to the dance next week."
"What did you do?"
"I married him."

And lastly, she heard the War of the Worlds broadcast on Halloween 1938. She said that a lot of people would tune to the Bergen/McCarthy show and when the opening routine was over, people would turn the dials of their radios. Many stopped on the fake musical portion of War of the Worlds, and thus never heard the information that it was a Mercury Theatre On the Air Production, and this led to the panic.

She had listened to War of the Worlds from the beginning, so she couldn't see what all the hub-bub was about.

She was awesome.
posted by CarlRossi at 5:43 PM on November 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


What happened with Tiger Woods cat, Joey Michaels?

(sorry)

Thanks for this post. So glad to discover (actually be reminded of) Radiolab.

For 21 days prior to the transmission date, announcements were broadcast hourly. Press releases went to police and other emergency services, plus schools, newspapers and television stations. Anyone in the eight counties surrounding Buffalo likely to receive calls from the public were alerted, yet all these preventive measures did nothing to stop over 4000 reported calls to police and telephone company switchboards that Halloween evening.

This, to me, is hilarious, which I guess is why I've always been so fascinated with the whole War of the Worlds "panic" and any related scenarios.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 5:47 PM on November 30, 2009


The mass media can obviously create mass hysteria, but Balloon Boy is not really a good example of that. WotW was presented honestly. Clumsily, one could argue, but with an honest frame explaining what was really going on. BB was not presented that way.

Which is to say that with WotW people fooled themselves but with BB people were fooled by liars aided by a profit-driven corporate media.
posted by DU at 5:52 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think Balloon Boy does show that mass hysteria is still an occasional condition, and Twitter offers a new vector. Consider how people on Twitter freaked out when the news first broke about swine flu.

The person spreading the misinformation doesn't matter. Whether it's a confused person, a culture jammer, or someone out to make a buck, people can still freak out over nothing given the right conditions.

Also, WOTW was presented with a disclaimer before and afterwards, but it used a new technique of presenting a story in the style of news, and it would easily fool people tuning in mid-program. If it was meant to be presented so that nobody would be fooled, Orson Wells didn't really think it through. And I don't like to insult Orson Wells, so I think he did intend it to be a prank. It just ended up being much bigger than he expected.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:08 PM on November 30, 2009


The person spreading the misinformation doesn't matter. Whether it's a confused person, a culture jammer, or someone out to make a buck, people can still freak out over nothing given the right conditions.

But that's my point. WotW wasn't "misinformation" anymore than Alice in Wonderland is. It's fiction and was presented as fiction.
posted by DU at 6:11 PM on November 30, 2009


Orson Wells was hypnotized to cover up the invasion of the red lectoids from Planet 10! Wake up, sheeple! GOOGLE YOYODYNE PROPULSION SYSTEMS
posted by Dr-Baa at 6:20 PM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


she heard the War of the Worlds broadcast on Halloween 1938. She said that a lot of people would tune to the Bergen/McCarthy show and when the opening routine was over, people would turn the dials of their radios. Many stopped on the fake musical portion of War of the Worlds, and thus never heard the information that it was a Mercury Theatre On the Air Production, and this led to the panic

The show goes into that. A lot of people were dial spinning at that hour and came in at the fake musical broadcast being fakely interrupted, and thought it was real.

WotW wasn't "misinformation" anymore than Alice in Wonderland is. It's fiction and was presented as fiction
\

But as this show describes, if you missed the introductory frame, you missed any and all disclaimers that this was a work of fiction.
posted by Miko at 8:17 PM on November 30, 2009


The following amazing historical events occurred during the 30 days prior to the WotW broadcast. These events were being reported live "as they happen" from Europe by Murrow's Boys (notably William L. Shirer). This was new - only in March of that year did CBS allow its reporters to talk on the radio. People were absolutely riveted, as if listening to a play, but it's real, happening right now, 24x7.

* September 30 – Neville Chamberlain returns to Britain from meeting with Adolf Hitler and declares "Peace In Our Time".

* October – The Japanese Imperial Army largely overruns Canton.

* October 1 – German troops march into the Sudetenland.

* October 5 – Edvard Beneš, president of Czechoslovakia, resigns.

* October 16 – Winston Churchill, in a broadcast address to the United States, condemns the Munich Agreement as a defeat and calls upon America and western Europe to prepare for armed resistance against Hitler.

* October 30 – Orson Welles's radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds is broadcast, causing panic in various parts of the United States.

It should be noted, Welles was imitating the tone and style of the radio broadcasts from Europe over the past month or two. People were already scared and hell, given all the insanity happening, why not believe it.
posted by stbalbach at 8:27 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


When Jad concludes that Welles' War of the Worlds hasn't been as influential in the arts as it has been in news reporting ... I got chills, and I knew they were going there already. They're my favorite thing on radio.
posted by wobh at 8:55 PM on November 30, 2009


What happened with Tiger Woods cat, Joey Michaels?

Caught sniffing round another owner's catnip.
posted by Joey Michaels at 9:04 PM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


She said that a lot of people would tune to the Bergen/McCarthy show and when the opening routine was over, people would turn the dials of their radios.

In the aftermath of the panic, noted critic and Algonquin Round Table member Alexander Woollcott sent the following telegram to Welles, who had it posted in his office for many years afterward:

"This only goes to prove, my beamish boy, that the intelligent people were all listening to a dummy, and all the dummies were listening to you."
posted by Atom Eyes at 10:11 PM on November 30, 2009


this has been done in TV as well. before they made thirtysomething, zwick and herskovitz made a TV movie that looked like a breaking news event. it was called special bulletin. in the story, anti-nuke terrorists threaten to blow up charleston SC with an atom bomb (the irony!). and they happen to kidnap a TV crew so the whole thing is broadcast live.

this was a couple years after the hostage crisis that begat "nightline" on ABC. the movie shows the transition from the sloppy "we interrupt this broadcast" first moments, all the way through the well-produced media "event". it predicted a ton of stuff we take for granted in cable news today. it also starred david clennon, the actor who later played miles drentell.

one big caveat: DO NOT READ THE DVD BOX COVER. the plot summary just lists all the events of the movie, up to and including the (surprising to me) ending and denoument. it's like someone gave an intern the plot points and they just pasted them into the cover art without any summarization.
posted by bruceo at 11:01 PM on November 30, 2009


Very similar was the Halloween 1992 BBC drama Ghostwatch. Again it was made clear at the beginning that it was fiction, but the show itself was played utterly straight, employing well known genuine TV presenters (e.g. Michael Parkinson) to apparently present a show about the paranormal, reporting live from a haunted house. The ghost being watched then gradually takes over the whole show, killing one of the presenters and possessing another.
posted by Electric Dragon at 1:02 AM on December 1, 2009


Of course it can work again. Looking at what FOX News and its talk radio brethren are doing/accomplishing, one can argue that it's already happening.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:17 AM on December 1, 2009


The earliest radio example was a 1926 BBC programme called Broadcasting the Barricades. Details here.
posted by Paul Slade at 6:00 AM on December 1, 2009


But as this show describes, if you missed the introductory frame, you missed any and all disclaimers that this was a work of fiction.

There were actually two more disclaimers read during the broadcast: one in between acts and one big one at the end where Orson breaks character and says it was all the Mercury Theatre on the Air's version of "dressing up in a sheet and saying 'Boo'" since they didn't have time to soap everyone's windows for Halloween.

The disclaimers didn't do a very good job, granted, and while Orson always wavered back and forth between "we had no idea we were scaring so many" and "we planned to scare 'em all along" depending on who was asking and how he felt at the time, the almost perfunctory nature of the disclaimers seems to point to the middle: I believe that Welles and Howard Koch, who wrote the script, knew they were going to spook people with the program but underestimated the actual response.
posted by Spatch at 6:09 AM on December 1, 2009


There were actually two more disclaimers read during the broadcast:

Sorry; I didn't catch that.
posted by Miko at 7:23 AM on December 1, 2009


I once asked my grandmother if she'd heard the original Welles broadcast and recalled the panic, and she said that she'd listened to a little bit of it that night before deciding it was stupid and changing stations. She said it was just more proof that people are idiots.

Not that my grandmother needed much convincing on that front.
posted by Naberius at 8:58 AM on December 1, 2009


« Older Hillbilly Truffle   |   Homeowners! You Have Nothing... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments