JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I’m Jad Abumrad.
ROBERT KRULWICH: I’m Robert Krulwich.
JAD ABUMRAD: This is Radiolab.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And today we’re, um, we’re celebrating a multiple set of anniversaries because it was 80 years ago-80 years ago that Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater decided to allow Martians to invade the state of New Jersey.
JAD ABUMRAD: Hmm.
ROBERT KRULWICH: It’s one of the most famous broadcasts in broadcast history because it freaked people out.
JAD ABUMRAD: Yes, and then, uh, merely 10 years ago we decided to take another look at this broadcast, which has gotten very complicated and layered and disputed in some ways over time.
ROBERT KRULWICH: We’re now celebrating our tenth. They’re celebrating their eightieth so along with Orson Welles, who I’m afraid couldn’t be here tonight.
JAD ABUMRAD: (laughter). May he rest in peace.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Yes. We would like to present our homage to-I guess to microbes.
JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.
ROBERT KRULWICH: To the little earthlings that saved the planet.
JAD ABUMRAD: Right, so in honor of the microbes, in honor of “War of the Worlds,” which broadcast 80 years ago today-tonight, here is our take on “War of the Worlds.”
[CLAPPING and OUTER SPACE SFX]
JAD ABUMRAD: October 30, 1938. On that night, the United States experienced a kind of mass hysteria that we had never seen before and the reason-which, today sounds almost comical-was a radio play.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater on the Air in the “War of the Worlds.”
JAD ABUMRAD: Around 12 million people were listening, most got the joke. It was Halloween after all but if you consider that about 1 out of every 12 people didn’t the joke, that’s what surveys found afterwards. About out of every 12 people who heard the broadcast thought it was true and that some percentage of that 1 million people ran out of their homes, towels over their faces, clutching children, breaking limbs. Well, that constitutes a major freakout. And in this-our first ever live hour of Radiolab here at St. Paul, Minnesota Fitzgerald Theater we ask why? Why did people panic? And, of course, we’ll ask the big questions, which is, can it happen again? I’m Jad Abumrad. Thank you all for coming and where is my co host? Krulwich?
ROBERT KRULWICH: So let me-let me just say at the outset, I’m just a tiny bit puzzled, why?
JAD ABUMRAD: Before you do, can you just tell everyone who you are?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Oh, I am-didn’t you just say? I’m Robert Krulwich is my name and with all due respect, I mean, if we had any number of things we could’ve done in the hour. Could’ve done sex lives of watermelons, something interesting about chrysanthemums, I don’t know, why choose a Martian invasion in a radio show from 1938? Old, old, old.
JAD ABUMRAD: Okay, well, I guess it’s a valid question you ask. Truth is, I actually only discovered the “War of the Worlds” recently in 2001, actually not long after that day in 2001 and it just really struck me and it wasn’t so much that the broadcast had a kind-of-end-of-the-worldness that we were all feeling in real life at that moment but it was more just the way that the story unfolded, step by step by step and how-in the broadcast you feel like you were lost inside of a newscast.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Which is not unlike what is was like on September-
JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah, we were all, you know, glued to the TV in real life, grasping at these pieces of news, trying to figure out what was going on and that was very much-I think what they were trying to create in the broadcast but now, many years later, what I’m really left with is a question.
ROBERT KRULWICH: What?
JAD ABUMRAD: Well, if I were alive in 1939 in front of the radio and I heard those sounds, what would I have thought? Would I have believed it? I mean, I don’t know. What about you?
ROBERT KRULWICH: I don’t really know, I don’t really know.
JAD ABUMRAD: Okay, well, let’s do something. Let’s actually go back to 1938 and see if we can figure out how these sounds landed on people’s ears and what information they had in their heads and I need your help with this.
ROBERT KRULWICH: (laughter) Okay, how would I help with that?
JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah, you-I want you to go over to that seat right there. That’s-we’re going to call that seat, 1938.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Oh, all right. 1938.
JAD ABUMRAD: Okay, now just-let’s all just imagine there you are on your easy chair and you’re maybe drinking a cream soda. Let’s tune the dial.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Okay.
[OLD RADIO SOUNDS]
ROBERT KRULWICH: Okay, I’ve got something on the dial here.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen from the Meridian Room in the Park Plaza Hotel in New York City we bring you the music of Raymond Rocello and his orchestra.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Who is Roc-? Marge, you know a Raymond Rocello?
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: (INAUDIBLE) Raymond Rocello leads off with, “La Campasita”
JAD ABUMRAD: Now, you don’t know that there’s no such person as Raymond Rocello and that it’s just a record in a CBS studio but it sounds professional enough so you sit back, you relax. But then,
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News. At 20 minutes before 8 central time, Professor Farrell (sp?) of the Mt. Jennings (sp?) Observatory reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas occurring at regular intervals at the planet Mars. The spectroscope indicates the gas to be hydrogen and moving toward the Earth with enormous velocity. We now return you to the music of Raymond Rocello playing for you in the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel situated in downtown New York.
JAD ABUMRAD: So, at this point you think-
ROBERT KRULWICH: I’m thinking explosions on Mars, hydrogen gas moving towards Earth. How it could be so bad if I still get to listen to the fabulous notes of the lovely Raymond Roc-Rocello?
JAD ABUMRAD: And he does continue to play for another minute, 34 seconds. But then it happens again.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: Following on the news given in our bulletin a moment ago, the government meteorological bureau has requested—
[ARCHIVE fade out]
JAD ABUMRAD: Now, before we ahead any further-before we go any further, let me ask a really basic question here, I mean, we’re dealing with a play, a radio play.
ROBERT: KRULWICH: Yeah.
JAD ABUMRAD: Why would Orson Welles and his posse of troubadours start their play this way?
ROBERT KRULWICH: The original H.G. Wells story was written in 1898 so it was really an old book at the time and there is no reporter character in the book by the way. Does everybody know this “War of the Worlds” story? Or most people do? The story is basically this. Little green creatures from Mars with thirst or something have to leave their planet and they come to Earth. They’re not very nice, uh, people. They invade, they destroy quite a number of us and in the end they get killed by little viruses. Our smallest inhabitants of our planet bite them and destroy them and it’s science fiction, of course, but in 1938 most kids knew this story. It was a very popular so I don’t see why-
JAD ABUMRAD: Right, and, in fact, let me bring in a clip from Orson Welles’ producer at the time, John Houseman (sp?)
JOHN HOUSEMAN: Uh, Orson and I chose it. We decided that the time had come we should be doing a science fiction show and so we tried a few that weren’t very easy to do-
JAD ABUMRAD: And just a few days before they had to be on the air with their next installment, John Houseman pulls that book off the shelf and shows it to O.W and says, hey, what about this? And Orson Welles says, this? You want me to do this?
JAD ABUMRAD: He had trouble in one sense?
JOHN HOUSEMAN: No, he said it was dull, he said it was boring. It was something that happened 50 years ago. Everybody knows it didn’t happen. So who the hell cared?
JAD ABUMRAD: Right.
JAD ABUMRAD: If we’re going to make people care about this old story, we’ve got to update it. Not 1898. 1938. And it just so happened that one month prior something had happened that forever changed, well, the world and the news.
ROBERT KRULWICH: What was that?
JAD ABUMRAD: We’ll begin with this man.
ARCHIVE, Hitler: (speaking German)
JAD ABUMRAD: Hitler was threatening Europe, first Austria, then Czechoslovakia, World War II was right around the corner and CBS sent a team of guys to cover this story, among them Edward R. Murrow.
ARCHIVE, Murrow: Columbia (sp?) continues its expensive coverage of the European crisis.
JAD ABUMRAD: And in September Murrow and his producers did something with the news that was kind of novel. They broke in.
ARCHIVE, newscast: We interview this program of music by Harry James and his orchestra to bring you a bulletin just received in the WOR newsroom.
JAD ABUMRAD: Now, this had happened before but never quite like this with live reports, eyewitness accounts, and never quite so much.
ARCHIVE, newscast: We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important bulletin from the United Press.
JAD ABUMRAD: In just one month, these bulletins become so numerous-
ARCHIVE, newscast: We interrupt our program to bring a special broadcast.
JAD ABUMRAD: That bulletins were practically interrupting bulletins.
ARCHIVE, newscast: We interrupt our program to bring a special broadcast.
ARCHIVE, other newscast: We interrupt our program to bring a special broadcast of the United Press.
ARCHIVE, other newscast: We interrupt our program to take you to the NBC newsroom
ARCHIVE, other newscast: Here is a special bulletin.
ARCHIVE, other newscast: From the NBC newsroom.
JAD ABUMRAD: So, after weeks and weeks of hearing these constant interruptions, it’s easy to understand why this play-
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: Ladies and Gentlemen, following on the news given in our bulletin a moment ago-
JAD ABUMRAD: Didn’t sound like a play.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: The government meteorological bureau has requested the large observatories of the country to keep an astronomical watch on any further disturbances occurring on the planet Mars. We have arranged an interview with the noted astronomer, Professor Pierson (sp?) who will give us his views on this event. In a few moments, we will return you take you to the Princeton Observatory at Princeton, New Jersey. We return you until then to the music of Raymond Rocello and his orchestra.
ROBERT KRULWICH: I don’t if I need any more Raymond Rocello but I need to know a little bit more about this, uh, Martian thing.
JAD ABUMRAD: Isn’t it interesting how slowly it starts?
JAD ABUMRAD: And by the way, what time you got on your, uh, your pocket watch there?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Uh, the pocket watch says: 8:04.
JAD ABUMRAD: All right, 8:04. Tell me when it gets to 8:05.
ROBERT KRULWICH: To what?
JAD ABUMRAD: 8:05.
ROBERT KRULWICH: To 8:05?
JAD ABUMRAD: 8:05.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And now.
JAD ABUMRAD: This is my favorite minute in understanding one of the greatest media hoaxes of all time because the thing that’s interesting is that at this moment in October of 1938 our-Orson Welles in the Mercury Theater of the Air were not that popular. They had a tiny, tiny slice of the audience. And so not too many people were listening, certainly not at the beginning, from 8 o’clock to 8:04 and so not too many people heard this very important introduction.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: The Columbia Broadcasting System and affiliated stations present the “War of the Worlds” by H.G Wells.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Whoa, wait, why didn’t they hear that?
JAD ABUMRAD: Well, cause at that very same moment the majority of people listening were tuned into this.
ARCHIVE, newscast: The makers of the Chase & Sanborn coffee you know is fresh presents the Chase and Sanborn hour.
ROBERT KRUlWICH: Ah, the Chase & Sanborn hour, now that-that was good. That was Ed Bergen (sp?), it had the puppet-
JAD ABUMRAD: That’s right.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Charlie McCarthy who-who-who liked girls-
JAD ABUMRAD: That’s right, it was the most popular show at the time, ran opposite the Mercury Theater on the Air, had ten times the audience but at 8:05 the host, Don Ameche, introduces a not so popular singer
ARCHIVE, radio newcast: And it’s the rousing, rip-roaring song of the vagabonds from the Vagabond king. (song starts)
ROBERT KRULWICH: No, no, no, no.
JAD ABUMRAD: And just at that moment, thousands-hundreds-we don’t know how many listeners started to dial surf
JAD ABUMRAD: Where they landed on the Mercury Theater on the Air, already in progress, where they stayed put.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: We are ready now to take you to the Princeton Observatory at Princeton-
JAD ABUMRAD: Because by then a strange meteor had landed.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: Where Carl Phillips, our commentator will interview Professor Pearson, famous astronomer.
ARCHIVE, Phillips: Professor, may I begin our questions?
ARCHIVE, Pearson: At any time, Mr. Phillips.
ARCHIVE, Phillips: Professor, you’re quite convinced as a scientist that living intelligence as we know it does not exist on Mars?
ARCHIVE, Pearson: I’d say the chances against it are a 1,000 to one
ARCHIVE, Phillips: And yet, how do you account for these gas eruptions occurring on the surface of the planet at regular intervals?
ARCHIVE, Pearson: Mr. Phillips, I cannot account for it.
ARCHIVE, Phillips: Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen.
JAD ABUMRAD: Now, we’ve had four interruptions. At this point, you call your whole family into the room.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Marge! Meteors on-meteors on Mars, Marge. Meteors-what? Meteors on Mars.
JAD ABUMRAD: And just as you are utterly confused, along comes the expert. You know, people surveyed afterwards said that, I didn’t believe this thing. I thought it was all baloney until I heard that government official guy or the Princeton professor and this script is chock-full of believable experts.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: Dr. Gray of the Natural History Museum, Professor Inverskollvers (sp?) of the California Astronomical Society, General Montgomery Smith, Captain Lansing of the Single (sp?) Corps.
JAD ABUMRAD: Maybe subconsciously that had an effect to convince people that something was, in fact, happening, a feeling furthered a moment later when the Professor and a reporter called Phillips go live to that field in Grover Mills, New Jersey where that meteorite-or whatever it is-has landed.
ARCHIVE, Pearson: The metal casing is definitely extraterrestrial, uh, not found on this Earth. (INAUDIBLE) of the Earth’s atmosphere usually tears holes in a meteorite, this thing is smooth and-you can see it’s-
ARCHIVE, Phillips: Something’s happening. Ladies and gentlemen, this is terrific. This end of the thing is beginning to flake off. The top is beginning to rotate like a screw and the thing must be hollow. (background shouts, he’s moving, stand back, keep those men back, keep those idiots back, the top’s moving)
ARCHIVE, Phillips: Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I’ve- I’ve ever witnessed. Someone-someone is crawling-something, I can see coming out of the black holes, illuminous discs. And the eyes, there might be a face, might be-good heavens, something wiggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from it rimless lips-
ROBERT KRULWICH: I hate rimless lips actually.
JAD ABUMRAD: As do I. Now, before we get too far into this scene, let me play you a-another clip.
ARCHIVE, Hindenburg newscast: The thing is gliding toward us like some great feather, no doubt-
JAD ABUMRAD: Recognize this?
ROBERT KRULWICH: No.
JAD ABUMRAD: Let’s listen to a little bit more.
ARCHIVE, Hindenburg newscast: looking down, burst into flames, get this, Charlie, get this and it’s (INAUDIBLE) oh, get out of the way, please. It’s burning-bursting into flames and-and it’s (INAUDIBLE) oh, the humanity and the passengers.
JAD ABUMRAD: This is tape of the Hindenburg crash, still fresh in people’s minds, it happened one year before the broadcast. Before going on the air that night, actor Frank Reddick, who played that reporter, Carl Phillips in the field, he went to the library, dug up this old tape or not so old and played it to himself.
ARCHIVE, Hindenburg newscast: Oh, the humanity. And all the passengers.
JAD ABUMRAD: Over and over.
ARCHIVE, Hindenburg newscast: Oh, the humanity. And all the passengers. Oh, the humanity. And all the passengers.
JAD ABUMRAD: To get himself in that right frame of mind for that now-famous attack scene in that field in New Jersey.
ARCHIVE, Phillips: Those creatures-know what that means-anything (sound) wait a minute, something’s happening. Some shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against the mirror. It’s a- flames in the mirror-a bunch of men, head on. Oh, I can tell you the flames (people screaming) the whole field surrounded by the woods and barns, automobiles, spraying everywhere, coming this way now, about 20 yards to my right.
JAD ABUMRAD: The transmission cuts off. 12 million people have just heard slithery, green aliens eviscerate policemen, farmers and reporters followed by nothing.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue the broadcast from Grover Mills. Evidently, there’s some difficulty with our field transmission. However, we will return to that point at the earliest opportunity.
JAD ABUMRAD: And when they do return, what you learn is that that grounded flying saucer that just zapped all those men has now stood up, it’s grown legs. It’s as tall as a tree and it is marching (sound effect) through the countryside, stomping everything in its path and then we are taken to field reports, live battle scenes between militia and pods but before we do, let me play one more clip. This one is real.
ARCHIVE, radio newscast: If you live in one of the areas mentioned and you have a child of school age and wish to have him evacuated, you should send him to school tomorrow, Friday, with hand luggage containing the child’s gas mask, a change of underclothing-
JAD ABUMRAD: This is Edward R. Murrow reporting from London-same time period-just to give you a sense of how scary it was to be alive at this moment in time. Kids in England were being told to take gas masks to school.
JAD ABUMRAD: All of which would have made the following dramatized battle scenes
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: We take you now to the field headquarters of the state militia near Grover Mills, New Jersey.
JAD ABUMRAD: All the more real.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: 31 meters, 37 degrees. Fire! (sound of explosion)
JAD ABUMRAD: Here the New Jersey militia fire on a fleet of Martian pods
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: 24 meters.
JAD ABUMRAD: To no avail.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: Fire!
JAD ABUMRAD: Their shells bounce right off. And the Martians-in retaliation-release a cloud of poisonous gas, which slowly overtake the soldiers .
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: 15 meters. (coughing) Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings that landed in the Jersey farmland tonight are a vanguard from an invading army from the planet Mars. The battle, which took place tonight at Grover Mills has ended in one of the most stop-and-defeats suffered by an army in modern times. 7,000 men armed with rifles and machine guns pitted against the single fighting machine of the invaders from Mars. 120 known survivors. Just a moment please, Ladies and Gentlemen. Another bulletin from Langenfield (sp?), Virginia. The monster’s now in control of the middle section of New Jersey and has effectively cut the state through its center. Highways to the north, south and west are clogged with frantic human traffic. Police and army reserves are unable to control the mad flight. Communication lines are down from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic Ocean. Railroad tracks are torn and discontinued. Marshal law prevails throughout New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. Another bulletin… fighting planes report enemy machines …increasing speed north, taking over houses. This time we take you to Washington: citizens of the nation, Secretary of the Interior. I shall not try to conceal the gravity of…(INAUDIBLE) has handed me…the situation…cylinders are falling all over the country. This is the end now. No more defenses.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: Everything wiped out (echoed).
JAD ABUMRAD: We don’t know exactly how many people panicked that night. Here’s what we do know. The Trenton police department got 2,000 calls in under 2 hours. The New York Times switchboard received 875 calls alone from people wanting to know where they’d be safer. On the roof? Or in the gas raid shelter. In the cellar?
ROBERT KRULWICH: We’re lucky we do have transcripts of what happened on the other side of radios that night, thanks to a Princeton sociologist, who went out and conducted a series of interviews after the broadcast and what’s amazing is effective that broadcast was. Some listeners said, they actually felt like they were choking. Others reported to police that they saw, with their own eyes, as they looked at the Manhattan skyline and they saw a thin, veil of smoke from the battle over the city. Some said they saw Martian machines high-stepping their way down the Palisades, splash, splash, splash, uh, and many people-when they called operators or police-didn’t say, oh my god, we’re being invaded by Martians, oh my god, we’re being invaded by Germans. Here are some of the literal transcriptions. This is what real people actually said. All right, everybody ready?
ACTOR 1 AS CONCERNED CITIZEN: I knew it was some Germans trying to gas us all but when the announcer kept on calling them people from Mars, I just thought he was ignorant.
ACTOR 2 AS CONCERNED CITIZEN: I immediately called up the Maplewood Police and asked if there was anything wrong? They answered, we know as much as you do. Keep your radio tuned in and follow the announcer’s advice.
ACTOR 3 AS CONCERNED CITIZEN: I called to my husband, Dan, why don’t you get dressed? You don’t want to die in your working clothes?
ACTOR 4 AS CONCERNED CITIZEN: I looked in the ice box and saw some chicken left from Sunday dinner that I was saving for Monday night dinner. I said to my nephew, we may as well eat this chicken. We won’t be here in the morning.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure that the “War of the Worlds” has no further significance than the holiday offering it intended to be. We annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the CBS. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it. And that both institutions are open for business.
JAD ABUMRAD: That was Orson Welles concluding the “War of the Worlds” broadcast with those words. Basically, ha ha, it was a joke. Gotcha. But it was only after he and his producer, John Houseman left and read the papers the next day that they understood just how much trouble they had caused.
JOHN HOUSEMAN: Well, it was very disagreeable because of-for at least a couple of hours-we believed we were mass murderers.
ARCHIVE, Welles: Extremely surprised to learn that a story, which has become familiar to children through the medium of comic strips and-
JAD ABUMRAD: This is Welles in the press conference that following day.
ARCHIVE, Welles: Many succeeding novels and adventure stories should’ve had such an immediate and profound effect on radio listeners.
JAD ABUMRAD: So immediate and so profound that the FCC Commissioner at the time, George Henry Payne, labeled the Mercury Theater on the Air-get this-terrorists.
JAD ABUMRAD: Radio terrorists.
ARCHIVE, Payne: But there is one thing we must not overlook: all this took place in 1938. In a less sophisticated yesteryear that did not know the Atom bomb, guided, missiles, and rockets that shortly may fly to the moon.
JAD ABUMRAD: Edward R. Murrow in 1957. Was he correct when he said that? Were we really so unsophisticated in 1938? I mean, so different from now?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, let’s see, huh.
[SFX time rewinding]
JAD ABUMRAD: We interrupt this broadcast for some breaking news, uh, this just in. It seems we may have gotten a few things wrong when we, uh, performed that show many years ago. Most notably, just now, when I said that the FCC Commissioner in 1938 called Orson Welles the radio terrorists. In his statement, he certainly suggests that but if you read it, it seems like he was actually referring to a statement he made a year earlier where he was calling radio producers who terrorized children and he doesn’t actually name Orson Welles by name. I just botched that, my apologies. And we have this guy to thank for bringing it to our attention.
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: Michael Socolow and I’m an associate professor of journalism and communication at the University of Maine.
JAD ABUMRAD: And, uh, Michael Socolow also makes an interesting argument that the panic may not have been as large as we made it sound, for example, uh, we state the 12 million people were listening on the night, which is a widely quoted number and it comes from polling done six weeks after the “War of the Worlds” first aired. Socolow suspects that the actual number of listeners was way smaller and there’s no way to know for sure but he trusts a poll conducted that night.
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: That night when the broadcast was on 5,000 Americans were surveyed by the C.E Hooper Company.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Uh huh.
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: The ratings survey company. Why are we bothering with a survey done six weeks later where the newspaper tells everybody that there was this giant panic? Why don’t we look at the surveys that night? And the survey that was done 12 hours later by CBS the following morning?
ROBERT KRULWICH: What do the two surveys immediately after say?
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: The C.E Hooper ratings survey found 98 percent of the respondents were not listening to Orson Welles or “War of the Worlds.” They were listening to the Chase and Sanborn hour or their radios were off or they were listening to another program. Of the two percent that they found that were listening to “War of the Worlds,” not a single respondent thought it was a news broadcast.
JAD ABUMRAD: Socolow strongly suggests that the panic was actually trumped up by the newspapers who were trying to piss on this new medium called radio that was taking away their, you know, audience.
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: Exactly. Here was the opportunity and radio-the radio industry and the newspaper industry had been battling for years. Throughout that decade, the entire newspaper industry had been losing money, political prestige, and other things to the radio industry, you know, some of their best employees. And so they were waiting for a way to really to prove to advertisers and to federal regulators, you know, they had the first amendment, they understood responsibility-these are the newspaper managers. These radio guys were conflating advertising with programming, they were frightening their viewers, they acting irresponsibly. And remember, this is a month after Munich when radio proved that news really works on the radio. Well, one month after radio news, you know, comes of age, suddenly they’re conflating news accounts with fiction and they’re acting irresponsibly and they’re terrorizing the public and so the newspaper industry had the perfect thing to hang their critique of radio on.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Huh, interesting.
JAD ABUMRAD: That is interesting. So, all those-all those eye witness accounts about the panic and I thought it was this and I packed my bags and whatever, whatever, and all these sort of reports of people miscarrying, do you feel like that’s all in memory embellished or how do you explain that stuff?
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: Let me give you-let me give you an analogy, okay, if you were to ask 100 Americans today, did you see a plane fly into the World Trade Center on September 11th, I think you would get an extremely high percentage of people say they saw that plane fly in. But that’s because it’s part of our national visual memory. It’s really a trauma and it’s-it’s the kind of that hysteria and panic we’re talking about. It’s that moment in time in our relationship to the media, okay?
JAD ABUMRAD: Hmm.
MICHAEL SOCOLOW: But if you were to actually find out whose TVs were on live at 9:48 in the morning that day and who was actually watching there would be a discrepancy in that number. Now, am I saying all those people are lying? All those people are confused? No, what I’m saying is that the relationship of memory to the media is extremely complex.
JAD ABUMRAD: Complex, indeed. And we thank Michael Socolow for checking our facts. And if you believe, as he does, that the 1938 panic was-well, didn’t happen or wasn’t as bad as it sounds that actually makes what we talked about next in our live broadcast even more puzzling.
ROBERT KRULWICH: We’ll be right back with Radiolab live.
[INTRO MUSIC IN]
[INTRO MUSIC OUT]
JAD ABUMRAD: This is Radiolab, I’m Jad Abumrad.
ROBERT KRULWICH: I’m Robert Krulwich.
JAD ABUMRAD: We’re in St. Paul, Minnesota in the Fitzgerald Theater. Our subject today is the “War of the Worlds” broadcast originally on October 30, 1938.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Okay, now I’m going to ask the house for a show of hand, do you think that somebody else could imagine the broadcast-using the exact same script, more or less, also with Martians, also invading, also interrupting the musical things, same deal. After all the publicity for the 1939 broadcast, could you do it twice, show of hands, please? Ah, some of you don’t think so. Go-ah. Look, if we-you-you-if there wasn’t another one of these, what would we be doing for the next 40 minutes?
JAD ABUMRAD: Well-
ROBERT KRULWICH: So-
JAD ABUMRAD: Those of you who’ve raised your hands-I’d say it’s about 75 percent of you-you are correct. Because it has happened again and I want to tell you a story-an amazing story, really. An underreported story of a “War of the Worlds” reenactment happened in the mountains of Quito, Ecuador, 1949. We were really luck, we had a reporter, Tony Fields, who happened to be traveling there. We asked him to do a couple of interviews and he brought back some tape and he played it for me. All right, Tony, set the scene for me: 1949, Quito. Where’s Quito?
TONY FIELDS: Quito is the capital of Ecuador. Quito is in the middle of the mountains, in the Andes mountains. \
JAD ABUMRAD: Hmm.
TONY FIELDS: And-
JAD ABUMRAD: Small town, big town?
TONY FIELDS: Quito now is a big city. At the time it was a pretty small city. Um, the word that everybody I spoke to used to describe the way that Quito was in 1949-
JAD ABUMRAD: Mm hmm.
JAD ABUMRAD: Was tranquilo.
VOICE 1: Tranquile.
VOICE 2: Muy tranquila.
VOICE 3: Ciudad tranquila.
JAD ABUMRAD: Like tranquil?
TONY FIELDS: Exactly. It is what is sounds like and Radio Quito was the most popular radio station.
TONY FIELDS: Everybody listened to it.
JAD ABUMRAD: So, those are your basic ingredients. You got a small town, population: 250,000. You have one major radio station, which also happened to be in the same building as the one major newspaper, El Comercio. And the leader of the radio station-the guy who ran it-a devious fellow by the name of Leonardo Paez. One day someone shows up with a script for Orson Welles-not H.G Wells-Orson Welles’ version of “War of the Worlds,” gives it to Leonardo Paez, he reads it, says: brilliant. We’ve got to do this here in Quito
TONY FIELDS: They insert local place names, you know, so instead of the Martians landing in New Jersey, they would land in Cotocollao, which is on the outskirts of Quito, they write in parts for government officials, the Minister of the Interior, the mayor of Quito.
JAD ABUMRAD: Are these actors or real government-
TONY FIELDS: These would be actors
JAD ABUMRAD: Doing impressions.
TONY FIELDS: Doing impressions, that’s right.
JAD ABUMRAD: Whoa.
TONY FIELDS: Not only that. Paez got his bosses at the newspaper, El Comercio, to agree to run little articles in the newspaper in the two days leading up to the broadcast reporting that strange objects had been seen in the skies over Quito.
JAD ABUMRAD: Wow. So he set out to screw with people, basically, I mean, he was planting paranoia.
TONY FIELDS: It really seems like he wanted people to believe what they were hearing that night.
TONY FIELDS: Okay, so Saturday, February 12, 1949, the day of the broadcast. All day long listeners hear an announcement.
ARCHIVE, Quito newscast: Buenas noches, senoras y senores,
TONY FIELDS: That there’s going to be a special performance by the Duo Benitez Valencia
JAD ABUMRAD: Benitez Valencia?
TONY FIELDS: Yeah, Benitez Valencia at the time were one of the most popular musical acts in town
ARCHIVE, Quito newscast: en Radio Quito.
TONY FIELDS: 8 o’clock roll around, Benito Valencia launches into their performance. They play a few songs
ARCHIVE, Benitez Valencia: (playing songs)
TONY FIELDS: Then suddenly there’s an interruption
JAD ABUMRAD: Wait, what was that?
TONY FIELDS: Well, it turns out that Leonardo Paez-in addition to the other tricks he had up his sleeve-he had a sound effects guy in the corner that was
JAD ABUMRAD: (laughter)
TONY FIELDS: creating this sound.
JAD ABUMRAD: Like, one of Garrison Keillor’s guys-kind-of-thing?
TONY FIELDS: That’s right.
JAD ABUMRAD: Tom Keith, everyone!
TONY FIELDS: Eventually the music stops and Leonardo Paez comes on the air and says,
ARCHIVE, Paez: (speaking Spanish)
TONY FIELDS: Please, dear listeners, excuse the technical difficulties, there seems to be some sort of atmospheric conditions in interfering with the Radio Quito signal but you are listening to Radio Quito brought to you by, you know, such and such and now back to Benitez Valencia.
ARCHIVE, Paez: Benitez Valencia. (music playing)
TONY FIELDS: So, we hear another couple songs and then there’s another interruption.
ARCHIVE, Paez: Atencion, Atencion.
TONY FIELDS: That’s Leonardo Paez again and this time-this time it’s a news flash.
JAD ABUMRAD: So, now we’re on script basically.
TONY FIELDS: That’s right, that’s right. They send Paez to report from the scene.
ARCHIVE, Paez: Cotocollao.
TONY FIELDS: And Paez is doing a play-by-play and what is this thing, oh my god, the top’s unscrewing, here come the tentacles.
ARCHIVE, Quito newscast: (alien sounds)
TONY FIELDS: And here come the heat rays
ARCHIVE, Quito newscast: (heat wave sounds)
TONY FIELDS: Then zap.
ARCHIVE, Quito newscast: (screaming sounds)
TONY FIELDS: Paez is fried.
ROBERT KRULWICH: (laughter)
JAD ABUMRAD: Okay, wait, wait, wait, do we have-forget reenactments-do we have a copy of the real broadcast from that night?
TONY FIELDS: All we have are descriptions. There is no existing recording of what was broadcast that night. And-and you’ll understand why in a second.
TONY FIELDS: By all accounts, it worked.
TONY FIELDS: Outside it was sheer mayhem
ARCHIVE, broadcast: (mayhem sounds, people yelling and running)
TONY FIELDS: Everything that happened next happened extremely quickly. People poured out into the streets. People were running but they didn’t know where to run. The spaceship was supposedly in the north of the city but this black cloud of gas was in the south and a lot of them actually did what any good Catholic would do. They made a beeline for the church.
JAD ABUMRAD: The church because they thought they’d be safe there? Or-or?
TONY FIELDS: Perhaps. Or perhaps because they wanted to get right with god before the world ended. There are even reports and I wasn’t able to confirm this but there are reports of men confessing to adultery right there in front of their wives.
JAD ABUMRAD: Ohh.
TONY FIELDS: And priests absolving whole crowds at once.
JORGE RIBADENEIRA: Panico en la calle de quito que ella ya no pude hacer nada tuvimos que salir
TONY FIELDS: This is Jorge Ribadeneira, who is a long-time journalist, worked for many years at the newspaper. He was listening with his family. They all believed it. They all ran outside, found a taxi cab, threw the kids in (INAUDIBLE) ran behind the taxi cab.
JORGE RIBADENEIRA: (speaking Spanish) decir.
TONY FIELDS: They were going to-
JORGE RIBADENEIRA: Tuvimos que salir.
TONY FIELDS: Flee the city.
JORGE RIBADENEIRA: Cuando llegamos a la calle
TONY FIELDS: And he tells me that he sees-going the other way-this convoy of military trucks.
TONY FIELDS: Filled with soldiers.
JAD ABUMRAD: Wait, real trucks? Real military vans?
TONY FIELDS: Real military vans with real soldiers. And cops behind them and they’re screaming towards the north of the city.
JAD ABUMRAD: Where are they going?
TONY FIELDS: They’re going to Cotocollao to fight the Martians.
JAD ABUMRAD: Get out. (laughing) So, if you had any doubt at this point, once you saw those military vans, you were like, oh, bleep, I’ve got to get the hell out.
TONY FIELDS: Right.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Wait, wait, wait, I-I-I-does-does everybody in Quito believe-didn’t someone call the general beforehand and say, tonight we’re having a broadcast-
JAD ABUMRAD: Well they-the mayor or someone who sounded an awful lot like the mayor was on the radio saying Martians were invading.
ROBERT KRULWICH: The mayor didn’t call the general before-
JAD ABUMRAD: Uh, no. No.
ROBERT KRULWICH: So-so then what happens at the end of the show? Assuming it ends the way they always do, ha, ha, ha, this is a joke, then what?
JAD ABUMRAD: Well, they stormed the radio station.
ROBERT KRULWICH: (laughter) Good.
TONY FIELDS: By the time the broadcast ended and it was announced that the whole thing was a play
JAD ABUMRAD: Hmm.
TONY FIElDS: Uh, huge crowds were in the streets.
TONY FIELDS: And word that it was a hoax spread pretty quickly. All that fear turned pretty quickly to anger
[SFX mob yelling]
TONY FIELDS: By 9:30 there’s a few hundred people outside the station. At some point this boxer shows up. There had just been a match in the central plaza and the boxer shows up and he’s driving this truck and the truck is full of rocks.
JAD ABUMRAD: Is full of what? Rocks?
TONY FIELDS: It’s full of rocks. Yeah.
JAD ABUMRAD: Huh.
TONY FIELDS: And people start hurling the rocks at the station, at the windows. And windows are shattering. They manage to break into the ground floor where the printing presses are. They’re smashing printing presses. At some point some people in the crowd materialize and they have these flaming torches and it just goes up like a match.
ROBERT KRULWICH: So-so were people hurt during this?
JAD ABUMRAD: Six people died.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Oh, really.
JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah. Most escaped. There was about 50 people in the building. Most got up to the roof, jumped to adjoining buildings but six people died. According to reporter Tony, uh, one guy stayed behind. The last guy on the air that night was a man by the name of Luis Beltran (sp?). Maria, are you there?
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): Yes, I’m here.
JAD ABUMRAD: Okay, this is Maria Beltran Testagrossa (sp?), Luis Beltran’s daughter. And Maria, you-you were listening to everything that just came before this.
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): Yeah.
JAD ABUMRAD: Tell us the story from your dad’s perspective from here forward.
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): Uh, well, he was-he was on the air, he was, uh, I guess hosting the music program and also doing some of the interruptions with the-the bogus Martians.
JAD ABUMRAD: But the point-the point at which the fire started, what was he saying?
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?):When he realized the magnitude of the situation, he went back on the air and began pleading for help, pleading for assistance from the police and the fire department but, uh, as you said before, no help came because the police were going to fight the Martians.
JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): And, uh, eventually, he was the last one left and uh, and he jumped out the window. I guess from either the third or fourth floor onto, a, uh, second floor balcony.
JAD ABUMRAD: Hmm.
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): And to break the fall- I guess, instinctively you want to break the fall-he grabbed onto the railing of that balcony. He was completely engulfed in flames at that point and the skin on his hands just remained on the balcony like a barbeque grill.
JAD ABUMRAD: Wow.
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): And, uh, from there he jumped to the ground but before he jumped he was pleading to the crowd to, I guess, catch him but they didn’t. He landed on cement.
JAD ABUMRAD: Oof.
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): Broke legs, arms, ribs, everything and compounded by the very, very serious burns that he had all over his body.
JAD ABUMRAD: So, he landed at the feet of an angry mob. What did-
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): An angry mob and he, uh, he recalled-as he’s losing consciousness-he just heard somebody say-just-just let him die in peace. Although some of the articles that I read-they tried to throw him back into the building.
JAD ABUMRAD: Really?
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): Someone, uh, grabbed him and put him in a jeep to take him to the hospital. Just a bystander. And, you know, he had so many scars-he had-as children my brother and I would play with his scars, we would trace them with our finger and ask him what happened, you know, how he got the scars and he would tell us about the fire.
JAD ABUMRAD: Would he tell you the whole story? Or (OVERLAP) how much of this did you know?
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): (OVERLAP) No, he didn’t tell us the whole story. He would just give us in broad terms that he had been in a building that had caught fire. As children we didn’t really ask him. Maybe had we been older and we had asked him, he would’ve told us the whole story.
JAD ABUMRAD: Hmm. And we should say that your dad stayed behind to try and help other people to get out of the building. Let me ask you a question thought, uh, your dad is obviously a hero but given the fact that he was one of the voices that created the panic-
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): Mm hmm.
JAD ABUMRAD: The panic, did he feel some sort of ambivalence about-
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): I don’t know in retrospect whether he did or not. I’m sure there must’ve been some ambivalence but from what I understand the story was kept-it was very top secret so that even the employees did not know what was going to be broadcast during that music program.
JAD ABUMRAD: Really, wow.
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): Um, I don’t know at what point he was informed of the details though, I don’t know how he felt about it. I wish I had had an opportunity to ask him.
JAD ABUMRAD: Mmm. Well, listen, Maria, thank so much for your time in joining us here and-
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): Sure.
JAD ABUMRAD: Uh, you know, thanks.
MARIA BELTRAN TESTAGROSSA (sp?): Take care.
ROBERT KRULWICH: I just want to know what happened to the guy who planned the hoax.
JAD ABUMRAD: Uh, well, he, uh-he got out through the roof like a lot of others. He hopped to the next building, hid out for a few days and then fled the country to Venezuela never to return.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Never to return?
JAD ABUMRAD: Never to return. But I should say that among the six people who died that night was his girlfriend and a nephew of his.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Okay, so the 1949 Quito broadcast caused a whole lot of trouble. The 1938 New York broadcast caused a whole lot of trouble. Now, everybody here before who raised their hand and thought that this could happen again, you are right. Again. Now, Buffalo. 1968.
ARCHIVE, WKBW broadcast: Halloween night.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Updated for the times, sounds kind of like your basic DJ set until you hear this:
ARCHIVE, WKBW broadcast: What is this? Joe Alley (sp?) is handing me something that I’m supposed to read, thank you. Thank you, Joe. Uh, let’s see, the NASA, the National Space and Aeronautics Administration, those people have alerted all their space watch and, uh, facilities to be on the alert for unusual communication difficulties tonight. A spokesman for the federal agency referred to the explosions on the planet Mars and said it was not known if it would have the same effect on Earth communications as similar explosions on the surface of the sun, I guess they’re talking about sunspots and things like that so, uh, I don’t know, it means that it’s going to be hard to hear communications from NASA, “can you hear me down there in South Carolina?” As long as you can hear WKBW, what difference does it make about communications? Rock ‘n roll WKBW Jackson...Halloween night...all together where it is...WKBW.
ROBERT KRULWICH: WKBW broadcast followed the same structure as the original broadcast we’ve hear tonight, long stretches of music then the news bulletins then the semi-realistic field reports, here’s one of them:
ARCHIVE, WKBW broadcast: ...you got walking injuries or…
ROBERT KRULWICH: You got the same vivid descriptions of Martians
ARCHIVE, WKBW broadcast: I can hardly look at it, I can hardly look it. It’s dripping saliva!
ROBERT KRULWICH: And according to the station manager, Jeff Kay (sp?), he kept the same outcome: people bought it.
ARCHIVE, Kay: Buffalo police and telephone company reported to WKBW that they received more than 4,000 phone calls. The Canadian military authorities dispatched military units to the Peace Bridge, the Rainbow Bridge, and the Queenston Bridge to repel invaders. The story was carried the next day by 47 newspapers countrywide and on the night of the show and during the show united press bureaus up and down the east coast of America were besieged by phone calls asking about the Martian invasion in Buffalo. Incredible? You’re absolutely right, it is incredible.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Thanks to the folks at WKBW Buffalo for that. What is this music by the way?
JAD ABUMRAD: This is the disco version of “War of the Worlds” 1978.
ROBERT KRULWICH: (laughter) There’s a disco version.
JAD ABUMRAD: Still sells a lot of copies, you’d be surprised. Here’s the obvious question to ask: why does this keep working?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, that’s a difficult question, I came across a psychology professor.
RICHARD GERRIG: I’m Richard Gerrig, I’m a professor of psychology in the cognitive experiential program at Stony Brook University.
ROBERT KRULWICH: He has this notion, Richard Gerrig does, that at root, people are suckers for stories, we just cannot help ourselves. When a story starts, you just kind of go, whoop.
RICHARD GERRIG: I think the norm is to fall into the story and that it’s unusual to sort of keep yourself from falling in. My favorite example is, there’s a scene in “Goldfinger”
ARCHIVE, Goldfinger movie: (theme music)
ROBERT KRULWICH: (singing) Bam, bam, bam.
RICHARD GERRIG: Yeah, the all time best James Bond movie, I think, where Bond is tied down spread eagle on a piece of metal and there’s this lazer coming toward him, which really looks like it’s going to cut him in two. And even as I’m saying that right now, I’m starting to feel a little bit of anxiety cause I’m picturing it my head
RICHARD GERRIG: Picturing that lazer coming toward him and, you know, spoiler alert: he doesn’t actually get split in two by the lazer, yeah, sorry. But here’s the thing, go and watch the movie now and see if you can get through that scene without experiencing the suspense. And it really seems to say something very powerful and strong about how immersed we can become in the narrative world.
ARCHIVE, Goldfinger movie: (theme music)
JAD ABUMRAD: This is Radiolab, I’m Jad Abumrad.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And I’m Robert Krulwich.
JAD ABUMRAD: And this:
JAD ABUMRAD: is the sound of 700 people who’ve come to bear witness to a recording of our show today. We are in the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota talking about the strange phenomenon that is the “War of the Worlds.”
ROBERT KRULWICH: You know, it’s really great that everybody’s here, of course, but there’s one guy I really wish had been here.
JAD ABUMRAD: Who’s that?
ROBERT KRULWICH: The Ecuadorian guy, Leonardo-what’s his-
JAD ABUMRAD: Paez.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Yeah, yeah. Because he’s the guy I wanna ask, like, what were you thinking? That’s what I want to know.
JAD ABUMRAD: Well, he’s dead.
ROBERT KRULWICH: He’s dead, yeah.
JAD ABUMRAD: Yeah.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, but how about Orson Welles. I would say to him, what were you thinking, I would say.
JAD ABUMRAD: Uh, dead.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Dead, yeah. So, I found a guy who I think is definitely alive.
DANIEL MYRICK: I am Daniel Myrick, co-writer, co-director of “The Blair Witch Project.”
ROBERT KRULWICH: Before making “The Blair Witch Project,” Dan Myrick heard a recording of the “War of the Worlds.” He was pretty young at the time, he was a teenager.
DANIEL MYRICK: I just thought it was brilliant, absolutely the coolest thing.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And more than anything else, he was impressed by the technique of the thing.
DANIEL MYRICK: There’s a couple moment in particular where they cut to the kind of on-site reporter-
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: Now, we’ll return you to Carl Phillips in Grover’s Mill.
DANIEL MYRICK: And it’s almost like they cut in a second or two early and you hear the reporter saying, so, are we on?
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: Ladies and gentlemen, am I on?
DANIEL MYRICK: Are we-are we on?
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: Ladies and gentlemen,
DANIEL MYRICK: And then he goes into his-into character.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: ...back of a stonewall…
DANIEL MYRICK: And it’s those beat, those little moments that really make it convincing. I get this kind of guilty excitement when I-when I know how it affected people.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And he was fascinated by the idea that scary stories get even scarier if you think they’re true so years later, fresh out of film school, he and his friend, Eduardo Sanchez decided to develop their own, uh, Welles-like project. It’s your basic scary witch story. Three, uh, kids go into the woods.
ARCHIVE, BWP movie: Okay, okay, okay, we’re leaving right now.
ROBERT KRULWICH: They get lost, they bump into the witch and then they die or they think they die, at least you never see them again.
ARCHIVE, BWP movie: ..no, please…
ROBERT KRULWICH: But when you entered the theater to see “The Blair Witch Project” the first thing you’d see on the screen are these two sentences: In October of 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found. So, the suggestion here is that what we see might be real.
DANIEL MYRICK: Well, we picked a subject matter that was difficult to disprove to the casual observer. Martians invading from outer space- you turn the channel to the next network and if no one’s reporting about it then you’re pretty well assured that it’s probably fiction but three missing students in the woods, you know that’s something that’s a little harder to disprove without a fair amount of scrutiny.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And it worked.
DANIEL MYRICK: We were getting calls from police, wondering where these three kids were and how come they never heard of this case-
ROBERT KRULWICH: You’re kidding?
DANIEL MYRICK: Oh yeah, I mean, it was constant. We still get emails occasionally on what part of the story’s real. You know, is there still any phenomena out in Burkittsville and da, da, da. It’s all fiction and it was all made up and I think it reinforces what Ed and I suspected that so much of us wants to believe.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Some people told Dan Myrick that after watching those three campers go into the woods, they themselves would never go camping again.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And he thought that was fabulous. He loved it.
JAD ABUMRAD: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, why would you not want people to go camping?
ROBERT KRULWICH: (laughter)
JAD ABUMRAD: I mean, honestly, why would you do that to people?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, I-I asked him.
DANIEL MYRICK: I mean, that’s why you’re doing it. We’re not making this movie to kind of scare people. We were making the film to really scare people.
DANIEL MYRICK: No regrets on people not wanting to go camping.
ROBERT KRULWICH: So, the question is: is that what Orson Welles was up to back in 1938? Was he just trying to give people a good ‘ol fashioned show business scare, make them scream way up in the balcony? Cause remember, at the time, that is what he claimed, that this was simply an entertainment.
ARCHIVE, Welles: This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character, to assure you that the “War of the Worlds” has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theater’s own version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying, boo!
ROBERT KRULWICH: But 16 years later Orson Welles changed the story. Here he is on the BBC, the year is 1955.
ARCHIVE, Welles: In fact, we weren’t as innocent as we meant to be. When we did the Martian broadcast we were fed up with the way in which everything that came over this new magic box, the radio, was being swallowed so in a way our broadcast was an assault on the credibility of that machine. We wanted people to understand that they shouldn’t swallow everything that came through the tap.
ROBERT KRULWICH: So, here are two ways to think about the “War of the Worlds.” One: it was a smashing entertainment using every trick they could think of, including inventing some new ones to scare you silly. Master storytelling. Or-or and it was: we’re trying to send you a warning. Don’t trust everything you hear on the radio, it’s not always true.
JAD ABUMRAD: So, which one was it, you think?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, I asked a professor, Jason Loviglio.
JASON LOVIGLIO: Me?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Yeah, you.
JAD ABUMRAD: Jason?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Yeah, him. He’s a radio historian at the University of Maryland. He says that what Welles understood was that a newscast is often two things at once. In a newscast, you hear something scary or disturbing sometimes but it’s going to be told to you in a way that soothes you, meaning the authority of the voice, the newscaster’s steady voice coming through the radio-it will calm you like President Roosevelt’s famous fireside chats.
ARCHIVE, Roosevelt: My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking.
JASON LOVIGLIO: When you study the rhetoric that Roosevelt used, he really did convey two messages. One: we’re in terrible danger and two: I’ve got it covered. And that is sort of the-the authoritative voice coming out of the darkness, this sort of invisible, disembodied voice of the powerful man, um, the news anchor.
ARCHIVE, radio newscast: September 22, 1940.
JASON LOVIGLIO: And we’ll see this with Murrow on the rooftops of Britain.
ARCHIVE, Murrow: I’m standing on a rooftop
JASON LOVIGLIO: During the blitz.
ARCHIVE, Murrow: Looking out over London. Straight in front of me now you’ll hear two sounds in just a moment (war sounds). There they are.
JASON LOVIGLIO: He’s giving us a story of an unfolding emergency.
ARCHIVE, Murrow: I should think in a few minutes, there will be shrapnel around here.
JASON LOVIGLIO: But his mastery of information, his mastery of his own voice, his bravery on the scene.
ARCHIVE, Murrow: You may be able to hear the sounds of guns off in the distance, very very faintly, like someone kicking a tub.
JASON LOVIGLIO: This was the beginning of the formatting of fear, the formatting of crisis and so people go the news-not to be afraid but to be afraid and then to be reassured.
JAD ABUMRAD: Robert?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Uh huh?
JAD ABUMRAD: You file things for the news.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Yeah.
JAD ABUMRAD: Do you buy this? That a news reporter does these two things simultaneously scares and then reassures and then scares-
ROBERT KRULWICH: No, no, you never go, you know, cover the governor and say, first I’m going to scare them and then I’m going to assuage them, no one would do that.
JAD ABUMRAD: But why else would you talk that way? I mean, not you.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Oh!
JAD ABUMRAD: But I mean
ROBERT KRULWICH: That the form-in the news is a-because the guy is always there because he’s an anchor, that’s the word means. It is a reassuring thing to see night after night, telling and telling. But Loviglio says that the real genius of the “War of the Worlds” was the Welles put you into a newscast where you expect anchors to anchor and you expect reporters to report and then bzzzt he kills the reporter and the anchor.
ROBERT KRULWICH: And suddenly you’re left all by yourself in your own living room all alone.
JAD ABUMRAD: That is exactly right. The moment of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, which still frankly terrifies me, it’s this moment right here.
ARCHIVE, Mercury Theater: ...head on...the flames (screaming) woods...automobiles...spreading...coming this way now...about 20 yards to my right-
JAD ABUMRAD: It’s like that silence is terrifying. No anchor, no reporter. No one to reassure you. Okay, but forgetting that for a moment, what about this second lesson he had to teach us-the thing about: don’t believe the radio? What about that? Did it work?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Well, Professor Loviglio says, if that is really what Welles was trying to do, if you believe that, well, then he failed-actually he worse than failed. The “War of the Worlds” not once, not twice-we’ve told-shown you three broadcasts tonight, it was so good at grabbing an audience and sucking them in that the Welles formula-you might call it-the newscast that scares you enough to keep you listening has been adopted by-of all folks-news companies.
ARCHIVE, TV broadcast montage: Right now at 11, a night of shopping turned into a night of fear...swarming over borders, flooding cities and towns...Muslim immigrants ...teens texting and driving, it’s a deadly mix… terror in the toilet… and sinkholes and landslides… python in the potty... A rabid baby goat terrorist working at one of our airports?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Terror in the toilet, pythons in the potty, I-maybe there was some-
JAD ABUMRAD: Could be true.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Snakes somewhere near a toiletry facility of some kind but it probably wasn’t a python and it probably wasn’t your toilet but you don’t know that. You want to hear that it belongs to Mrs. James C. McGillicutty of 2214 Beaudry (sp?) Boulevard and not you so you-you want to be reassured and so you listen and so fall in. And if Orson Welles retelling a Martian invasion story by H.G Wells-
ROBERT KRULWICH: that most people already knew- if he could grab us and if they could do it again in Ecuador and then if they can do it again in Buffalo, what does that tell you? It tells you that we can’t help ourselves. Even if the headline is slightly preposterous, even if it’s slightly scary, even if it’s slightly false, we will listen.
JASON LOVIGLIO: The fear that these broadcasts generate now suck us in and you’d think 70 years later, we’d be more sophisticated and critical when the local newscaster tells us that there’s something we’re feeding our children that could kill them and they’ll tell-we-I still listen. I’m a media critic and I still wade through the commercials to see, what is it that I’m doing to kill my child?
ROBERT KRULWICH: Even it it’s really (INAUDIBLE). Your shoelaces will kill you after this message.
JASON LOVIGLIO: I-somehow it gets me every time.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Yeah, and Welles knew.