Halloween journalists on old-time radio

The obvious choice for a Halloween-week radio show incorporating journalist characters in a dramatic production has to be Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater broadcast of “War of the Worlds.”

Welles’ dramatic technique of imitating radio news alerts, simulating interruption of a routine broadcast, and having a “live” announcer cut short by a Martian death-ray, were all enough to convince many listeners that a real attack was in progress — especially if they switched to the program after the beginning announcement. Those scenes still have impact, but it’s worth remembering that the original listening audience had yet to experience the 1940s use of radio to cover the horrors of war.

While newspaper journalists don’t play a part in the drama, newspaper headlines and reporters played their part in the original 1898 H.G. Wells book, which is also available online in various digital editions, including an audio book and an HTML Web page.

More recently, I recommend WNYC’s Radiolab‘s hour-long special about the Welles “War of the Worlds” broadcast, including a lively presentation of its historical context, and later attempts to recreate it.

Several copies of the original Mercury Theater hour-long program are available at the Internet Archive, including this one with its own page of discussion: Page with streaming and download options for 27Mb M3u copy of War of the Worlds.

This full page of Welles’ Mercury Theater programs has a somewhat scratchy 17Mb version of “War of the Worlds,” but it provides more history about the radio series itself, which — speaking of Halloween — started with a dramatization of “Dracula.”

The final contribution of “War of the Worlds” to the portrayal of journalists in popular culture was an indirect one — the controversy over audience reaction to the program helped boost Orson Welles’ reputation to the point that Hollywood offered him the opportunity to make his first film, the legendary “Citizen Kane.”

For more about the “War of the Worlds” broadcast and other rocket flights of fancy, see my page-in-progress about radio science fiction portrayals of journalists.

Serious researchers might also enjoy Michael Sokolow’s 2008 article on “The Hyped Panic…” or Joseph Campbells’ article about how some media exaggerate the extent of “panic” over the broadcast. However, the individual local newspaper reports in this Cobalt Club compilation suggest that the broadcast did shake up quite a few listeners — at least enough to call the newspaper for the facts. (Thanks to blog commenter “Bob” for that link!)

A 65th anniversary Prologue magazine essay at the U.S. National Archives reported that 1,770 people wrote letters to the main CBS station in New York, and 1,450  to the Mercury Theatre, while more than 600 contacted the new Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Of course, those may have been as much in response to newspaper headlines and editorials as to the program itself.

As Sokolow wrote in 2008, “So what accounts for the legend? First — and perhaps most important — the news media loved the story, and Welles loved the news media.”  He and a colleague have a full book on

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1930s, Orson Welles, radio, science fiction, science reporting, sensationalism. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Halloween journalists on old-time radio

  1. Bob says:

    Some vintage newspaper coverage of the original WOTW broadcast is here:

    http://testbox.cob.rit.edu/index.php?name=Forums&file=viewtopic&t=499&start=585

    Each local paper has its own spin on the story. For example, the one in Howard Koch’s hometown mentions the author in the headline, not Welles.

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