The Night That (really didn’t) Panic America
By now I am sure you’ve heard about the night that panicked America. Seventy-nine years ago this week — October 30 2038 — was the night that Orson Welles scared the nation into believing that the earth was being taken over by martians through his presentation of a radio adaption of H. G. Wells’ book, War of the Worlds, on his CBS program Mercury Theater on the Air.
I’ve heard about it for years. In 1975, ABC Television aired a television drama depicting the event, and even National Public Radio, as I recall, got into the act by producing a contemporary version of the play back around 1988.
People listening to the program didn’t realize they were listening to a play, instead thinking that the live news broadcasts from Grovers Mills, New Jersey were real. Around the country people panicked, running into the street, filling highways trying to escape, and begging law enforcement for gas masks to save them from the effects of toxic gasses.
There’s only one problem: it never happened.
Oh, certainly the broadcast happened. I’ve heard recordings of the original broadcast; I am sure you have too. But one thing always seemed a bit out of place. I know we are cynical people these days, but even though I always heard the panic stories, I kept thinking to myself: “were people truly that naive to be misled into a panic by what I consider such an unbelievable storyline?”
I remember asking my parents. “It may have happened on the East Coast,” my Mom told me, “but no one on the West Coast panicked.” Still I kept the story in my mind as an example of the power of radio … for better of worse.
Until last week when I was watching cable network TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything. In an episode centering on Halloween, host Adam Conover spoke of Welles and War, telling how the entire story surrounding the radio play was indeed an urban myth.
For one, the audience for War was small. Most of the nation was tuned to the popular NBC program, Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, a comedy and variety show. In fact, the Hooper Ratings service had telephoned households the night of the broadcast for its national ratings survey and determined that only two percent of the potential audience was listening to Welle’s show. 98 percent of America was not.
Sources quoted by Conover including Slate.Com stated it this way: “The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary in the PBS and NPR programs, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.”
So how did this myth gain traction? Newspapers. By 1938, radio had cut into advertising dollars that formerly went to newspapers. Newspaper editors wanted to show the public — and potential advertisers — how radio was not responsible and could not be trusted to provide real news coverage. So they used anecdotal stories to sensationalize the panic caused by the broadcasts.
As Slate.Com wrote, “was the small audience that listened to War of the Worlds excited by what they heard? Certainly. But that doesn’t mean they ran into the streets fearing for the fate of humanity.” Kind of makes you feel better, doesn’t it?
The transfer of ownership for The Sound (100.3 FM) is taking longer than originally expected; it may now be as late as the second half of November before we lose one of the best FM stations in the past decade. Enjoy it while you can.
The impotent and essentially worthless FCC has decided that radio stations need not be part of the local community it is licensed to serve.
Reversing a rule that has been in place since 1934 in which “each AM radio, FM radio and television broadcast station to have a main studio located in or near its local community,” the FCC last week voted to remove that requirement using the argument that email and similar communications negate the need for a local presence.
I disagree. The airwaves are a public resource. Radio has been on a downward spiral as stations remove more and more local content. The new ruling essentially means an entire station need not even be part of the community at all. And you can be sure that cash-strapped companies will use this to their advantage; there truly is nothing to stop a station from moving the entire operation to another city. Or state. Or country.
This is not good for radio, whose executives are too stupid to see their own greed has devalued the entire industry. And since the FCC Commissioners refuse to do their jobs, it is time to disband the FCC. As decisions like this allow radio as an industry to decline into oblivion, there is no reason for the commission to exist anyway.