American radio was only just starting to reach a mass audience when a 23-year-old producer caused widescale panic. The big broadcasters at the time were NBC and CBS. They battled to attract the attention of listeners on their home devices. The victor was whoever had the highest ratings and secured the most recognizable names for their shows.
On the night of October 30, 1938, CBS was not feeling particularly hopeful. An ambitious young producer had been invited to try out some of his radio plays. The ratings were weak, he hardly ever had more than 2% of listeners tuning in and the sponsors (at that time common for radio programs) were simply not interested. It was only a matter of time until he was dropped. This young producer was Orson Welles. Together with his colleague Howard Koch, he produced radio plays, mostly adaptations of famous novels, and recorded them live. That particular week, he was hoping to get his listeners in the mood for Halloween with something spooky and, with a bit of luck, attract a wider audience. His chosen play was “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells.
The power of sound.
I think we can all agree that it’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it. Everyone knows that the Martian invasion in “The War of the Worlds” is pure fiction. When the book was published in 1898, readers knew the book was not based on a true story. So to increase the fear factor for his listeners, Orson Welles decided on a more original telling of the science fiction story. Instead of London, he set the scene in New Jersey, and retold the story from the point of view of a reporter who interrupts the regular broadcast with some breaking news. The invasion was described as the action unfolded and culminated in the Martians reducing not only Jersey, but all of America, to ashes and rubble.
During the broadcast, Orson Welles used sounds to manipulate the listeners in every possible way. Noises, music, speech, sirens—his acoustics concept was a constant assault on the senses and was designed to shake the listener to their very core.
But there was one thing Orson Welles couldn’t have foreseen as he created these authentic sound effects: During his play there was a short break in broadcasting on the rival station; many of the listeners got bored and switched stations. The invasion took them completely by surprise. They believed every word they heard. There are numerous reports of people running hysterically into the street to see if the Martians were descending over the rooftops of their city or of people taking refuge in the woods. According to some articles, the radio station and emergency help lines were at times overwhelmed with the number of calls.
Legend meets reality.
Orson Welles’ radio play series shot to fame. His ratings finally improved and attracted the attention of a reputable sponsor in Campbell Soup. Two years later he produced Citizen Kane, a film that is considered one of the incontrovertible classics in film history. His colleague Howard Koch also capitalized on War of the Worlds. His script for Casablanca is considered by many to be the best film script of all time.
However, as the panic subsided, it would appear that the alleged reports of a mass panic were perhaps not as accurate as we were led to believe. Daily newspapers had always had a negative attitude toward the new medium of radio, which it was believed would eventually supersede the written word. (In fact, radio would react in exactly the same way toward television a few years later). So it may be that, in the days following the show, the press somewhat exaggerated when it referred to Orson Welles as the enfant terrible of radio—and to radio as the medium of evil. Nevertheless, everyone agreed on one thing. Sound can trigger the most unexpected, intense and sometimes even frightening responses. That is why the golden rule of radio, television, theater and film still applies today: Don’t underestimate the power of sound.
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