Journalists of the past and future in radio SciFi
By Bob Stepno
(Latest edit, June 9, 2021)
Radio, with its audio-only special effects, was well ahead of television in presenting science fiction dramas, from individual episodes of anthology series like “Mercury Theater” to pulp-inspired science fiction series like “X-Minus-One.” Both included episodes with journalists — and early examples, coincidentally, involved the planet Mars.
War of the Worlds, 1938
Plenty has been written and broadcast about Orson Welles’ 1938 production of War of the Worlds for his Mercury Theater on CBS radio, especially its impact on listeners. Enough people believed the threat was real to phone police switchboards and prompt sensational headlines in the next day’s newspapers. The event also prompted some 75 years of follow-up stories and academic research — some hinting that those original “Panic…” headlines were partly an attempt by a jealous newspaper industry to tar radio as irresponsible and unreliable. (See Michael Socolow (2008), W. Joseph Campbell’s book Getting It Wrong (2010), and Jefferson Pooley & Socolow (2013) in Slate magazine.)
Whatever role they played in building the legend of listener hysteria, newspaper headlines, shouting newsboys and questioning reporters play minor roles in H.G. Wells’ U.K.-based original War of the Worlds novel, but newspapers are absent from the Mercury Theater version. However, radio reporters and announcers play a major part in the 1938 dramatization, framing and narrating the events supposedly taking place in New Jersey and New York.
In honor of the 70th anniversary of the broadcast, public radio’s RadioLab dissected the War of the Worlds broadcast, especially its casting the opening of the story as a series of “news bulletins” interrupting a routing evening of music. Bulletins had only recently become common — in response to tensions in Europe. The number of people who believed the broadcast may be in question, but at least some listeners told researchers they believed the radio program was about a German, not Martian, invasion.
Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, hosts of Radiolab, included an annotated guide to the Welles broadcast on their program’s website, as well as samples of news coverage. (The RadioLab link to a copy of the broadcast script no longer functioned when I tried it in 2012. However, another fan has posted the script at “sacredtexts.com”; it is also available in book form.)
As they noted, the Mercury Theater’s journalist-announcers were first anonymous voices interrupting with bulletins about astronomical observations on Mars, then one reporter is given the name Carl Phillips. Actor Frank Readick had listened repeatedly to the previous year’s live recording of a real-life reporter’s reaction to the explosion of the dirigible Hindenburg, and realistically described the approach of the Martians’ heat-ray, until Phillips’ narration is interrupted by sudden silence and an announcement of difficulty with the “field transmission” from a farmer’s yard in New Jersey.
Phillips: What’s that? There’s a jet of flame springing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame!
(SCREAMS AND UNEARTHLY SHRIEKS)
Phillips: Now the whole field’s caught fire. (EXPLOSION) The woods . . . the barns . . . the gas tanks of automobiles . . . It’s spreading everywhere. It’s coming this way now. About twenty yards to my right . . .
Welles’ later program, Campbell Theater, in 1940 carried a brief conversation between Orson Welles and H.G. Wells about the impact of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast. Wells noted that Americans hadn’t yet faced the reality of the war in Europe. He also invited Welles to tell a bit about his new project, the movie “Citizen Kane” — which also used news reporters as a way to frame the story.
Inside Story, 1957
“Inside Story” by Richard Wilson, was an episode of the science fiction series “X-Minus-One.” It featured a reporter for “Galactic News Service” (GNS) investigating a mysterious epidemic on a colonized planet. (Curiously “X-Minus-One” was for part of its run embedded in NBC’s “Nightline” series, a radio magazine that also included news and feature interviews. Walter O’Keefe’s Nightline introduction is included on this recording.)
The sounds of old-fashioned teletype machines persisted into this program’s future, along with editors’ belief in a “silly season” between legislative sessions, when slack news prompts reporters to run dull Zoological Society stories on the longevity of Martian sand lizards, or risk stretching things despite something called the “Publications Responsibility Act of 1997.” It apparently carries a 20-year prison sentence for some cases of “fan the flames” irresponsible journalism! (Note that 1997 was exactly 40 years in the future at the time of the broadcast.)
Like many newspaper dramas since the days of Nellie Bly, the 1957 broadcast “Inside Story” has a reporter going undercover to get a scoop. In this high-tech future his “cover” is literal — an invisible suit designed to protect him from whatever mutated virus has caused an epidemic on the planet called Null-E (or “nullie”) fever. Symptoms of the disease include madness and violence, and it’s pretty brave of the reporter to go out with only a plastic film protecting himself from people who are irrational, belligerent, and infectious.
On the plus side, the drama shows that even space-age reporters would be willing to risk life and limb for a story.
“I may be a little reckless following a story but believe me there isn’t a bonus big enough to make a hero out of me. I had no intention to contracting Null-E fever just to provide a byline story for old GNS…”
His heatproof, air-tight invisible suit also may be a case of journalists being too ready to dive into new technology. Its “miniature dental mic hanging on a front tooth” does sound impressive, though. And so does the reporter’s dedication to getting the story, interviewing a paranoid “nullie” victim who is an admitted murderer, and an armed guard threatening to kill him for crossing into a mysterious gang’s private territory. Under intimidation from the rival gang, he even joins a screaming mob crossing that border.
A Message from Space, 1978
After most of radio had given up original dramatic productions, CBS Radio Mystery Theater brushed off the old squeaking-door and from 1974 to 1982 presented almost 1,400 well-acted mystery, macabre and fantasy plots, which frequently included newspaper reporters in science fiction plots.
Collections are available at the Internet Archive, but the series also has been documented at the fan site http://www.cbsrmt.com/
In the 1978 “A Message from Space” episode, an editor sends his star reporter to England to debunk a series of recent UFO reports.
Up to a point, he’s an excellent representative of the journalist’s professional skepticism. He’s also skilled at detailed descriptions, including his report on a girl with “violet eyes and skin like mother of pearl.” As he puts it, with no sense of irony, “She was out of this world.”
He isn’t the first journalist to get emotionally involved with the subject of a story, so students may find the fantasy instructive.
We don’t get to hear the story he writes. His editor’s reaction is unromantic — but predictable in journalism dramas:
“Were you drunk or something?” The editor says “… I didn’t ask you to write a comic strip. That ‘girl’ business — ‘violet eyes’ — Hooey!”