Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio.

Electromagnetic Spectrum

An invisible audience. A seven second delay. Waves that travel worldwide through the air, unseen. A spectrum that includes audible sound, sunlight and the rainbow. Radio is already pretty mysterious, but on October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre on the Air made radio history with its live broadcast of The War of the Worlds.

According to the recent Radiolab episode focusing on the radio play, “The The best of old time radio starring Orson WellesWar of the Worlds is believed to have fooled over a million people when it originally aired, and it’s continued to fool people since–from Santiago, Chile to Buffalo, New York to a particularly disastrous evening in Quito, Ecuador.”

Equal parts brilliance and mischief, Welles’ and The Mercury Theatre’s adaptation of H.G. Wells‘ classic science fiction novel both entertained and wreaked havoc upon its audience. Some listeners, who believed the The broadcast / Eric Hobbs, Noel Tuazon.invasion to be real, responded with such fright that the event has inspired a study on the psychology of panic.

The performance’s unintended consequences have only made The War of the Worlds more popular, inspiring numerous adaptations and spin-offs. (But we’re not going to talk about the terrible 2005 film adaptation, okay?) Even a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone called The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street seems strikingly similar to the Martian hysteria that followed the broadcast. In it, a power outage on a seemingly idyllic suburban street leads to suspicion and chaos (though Rod Serling, with the added influence of the McCarthy trials,  takes the tale in a much darker direction).

A new addition to the The War of the Worlds canon is Eric Hobbs’ graphic novel The Broadcast, which tells a fictional story from the perspective of people in a Midwestern town who believe that the Martians have really landed.

So if you love The War of the Worlds, there are plenty of derivative titles to entertain you, and if you never heard the radio play, you’re in for a treat. Tune in, carefully.

- Renée

5 Comments

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5 responses to “Don’t believe everything you hear on the radio.

  1. Kona

    A misleading title. In today’s world, that ‘hook’ conjurs up talk radio, i.e. the right wing nuts who pollute the airwaves with inciting conservatives, instead of offering valid insights.

  2. Hi Kona,

    I hope you enjoyed the post anyway. I think, given the historically notable response to the original broadcast, that the title still applies, although the phrase would also be a good name for a post addressing your idea of dealing with critical thinking. Thanks for commenting!

    –Renée

  3. Barbara Strelecki

    Renee:
    I’ve tuned in to a re-broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” and what a joy it was! As I listened, I could easily understand the 1938 American radio audience being carried away by its seeming authenticity! Imagine though, for a moment, one million people having such a thrilling experience — with no Facebook nor Twitter to share it!

    Thanks for reminding us of this once-in-a-lifetime historical experience, and of the genius of Orson Welles, and the imagination of H. G. Wells. — Barbara

  4. Max

    It’s interesting that what amounts to a sort of Welles “fanfiction” continues to find a reliable audience, especially since the radio play. Reinterpretation of an original work is often tricky business. What do you think it is that makes War of the Worlds so amenable to such attention, while reinterpretations of other works regularly draw heavy criticism?

  5. Barbara– I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and your revisitation of the play. It really must have been exciting to witness the first broadcast–whether you knew it was fiction or not!

    Max–That is interesting. I wonder if it’s partly due to the public response to the broadcast of the radio play? Maybe the resulting panic made it seem like all of those people were somehow involved in the story, so retellings of it seem more natural.

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