Monday, October 26, 2009

2003 War of the Worlds Radio Documentary

With the 71st anniversary of the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast coming up this Friday, October 30, I thought I'd post a link to audio of a 30-minute radio documentary I produced for the 65th anniversary in 2003.

I hosted this program live early on the morning of October 31, 2003 on KBCS-FM in Bellevue, WA (preempting the first half-hour of a delightfully titled program called "Nerd Rock"), and preceded by an airing of the complete original 1938 recording (without permission from the Koch estate, I must now belatedly admit).

Featured are contextual audio cuts, such as Herb Morrison describing the 1937 Hindenburg crash; audio "highlights" from the September 1938 Munich Crisis (including Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain); as well as Ed Murrow a few years later from London during the Blitz.

My favorite part of the show are the cuts from a phone interview I did with Albert Frank, who passed away a year or so ago. Mr. Frank spent his entire life in Concrete, WA (about two hours from Seattle) and was there when the War of the Worlds broadcast and a poorly timed power outage conspired to send at least one woman screaming into the streets (which Mr. Frank witnessed). Concrete was written up in newspapers everywhere at the time for mass hysteria among its residents, and it was a joy to hear about the episode from someone who was actually there.

Waging The War of the Worlds: A History of the 1938 Radio Broadcast and Resulting Panic
By John Gosling

Published by McFarland
Order via or 800-253-2187

247 pages $45 softcover
34 photos, appendix, notes, filmography, bibliography, index, plus original radio script by Howard Koch
Available December 2009

The 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds has long been the stuff of legend: the 23-year-old Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air took a musty Victorian era science fiction story and turned it into a crackling series of simulated news bulletins detailing a Martian invasion of the United States. As the hour-long CBS broadcast unfolded on the night before Halloween—just a few weeks after the Munich Crisis had kept listeners glued to their radios for authentic scary news—many of those tuned in mistook the drama for the real thing and panic ensued.

It reads like urban legend, and feels impossible to imagine by contemporary media saturation standards (where consumers have multiple news sources constantly at their fingertips—literally). But what’s most amazing some 71 years later is that the myth-like story of what happened on October 30, 1938 is pretty much true. While there are sensationalized elements of the story—injuries and deaths among those panicking—that never really happened, the broadcast remains as chilling as described (a complete recording is available here), and subsequent analysis at the time by social scientists (and decades later by media historians) confirm that at least a million Americans believed that they were hearing actual news reports rather than a radio drama.

The phenomenon and attendant facts have been ripe for the kind of comprehensive treatment that John Gosling gives them in his new book Waging The War of the Worlds. Gosling is not the first to attempt to provide a detailed history of The War of the Worlds, but he is the first to so thoroughly document the infamous broadcast, and seemingly all possible context for the imaginary invasion and its decades-long aftermath.

Gosling goes back to London in 1926, when a BBC drama production included simulated news coverage of a labor riot (including the mob’s tearing down of Big Ben). He gives us the blow-by-blow of Welles and company in 1938. He takes us to Ecuador, for a 1949 War of the Worlds Spanish-language broadcast that so enraged listeners, they burned down the radio station. And he takes us to Buffalo, New York and Providence, Rhode Island for similar (though less destructive) broadcasts in the 1960s and 1970s. Along the way, Goslin also goes deep into intriguing questions, including who actually wrote the script: not Orson Welles, but future Casablanca screenwriter Howard Koch.

Gosling is a science fiction expert based in the UK, but generally does not let this get in the way of his mastery of a very American subject. However, there are a few areas where, I’m guessing, Gosling’s thorough though geographically remote grasp of American broadcasting does detract from what are arguably minor points. Gosling characterizes Herbert Morrison, the WLS Chicago broadcaster who made the famous recording of the Hindenburg disaster, as a “local reporter” from New Jersey. And, in an area that’s become one of my personal pet peeves in media histories, Gosling examines the War of the Worlds phenomenon from a decidedly East Coast perspective—considering only the 8pm Eastern Time broadcast and ignoring the fact that the show played at 5pm on the West Coast (and not examining what differences this may have created in listener experiences of the program).

Though Waging The War of the Worlds includes a thorough bibliography and “filmography,” it ironically lacks any listing of available audio recordings. I’d love to hear some of the later broadcasts that Gosling describes (another recent book—called The War of the Worlds, by Holmsten and Lubertozzi—while not as thorough as Waging, includes a CD of the original show as well as clips from other broadcasts). Also, Gosling’s bibliography leaves out one of the best previously published analyses of the broadcast: Robert J. Brown’s 1998 Manipulating the Ether: The Power of Broadcast Radio in Thirties America (also published by McFarland).

Before Waging the War of the Worlds, those interested in a thorough understanding of the topic were required to assemble a variety of out-of-print sources—Hadley Cantril’s Invasion from Mars; Howard Koch’s The Panic Broadcast; as well as memoirs and biographies of Welles and his associates. Thanks to Gosling, one book can now serve as the definitive single source for old-time radio buffs and reference librarians everywhere.

While the American public is not likely to ever be fooled again by a broadcast, one sure way to cause a radio panic in 2009 would be to deprive the serious scholar or armchair enthusiast of their own copy of Waging The War of the Worlds.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Orson Welles, Major Bowes and . . . Balloon Dad?

I almost always enjoy reading Frank Rich's weekly column in the Sunday New York Times for his deft weaving of cultural and historical references into scathing contemporary comment. So I was especially pleased when I read Rich's column about "Balloon Dad" Richard Heene in today's (Sunday, October 25, 2009) New York Times, where the columnist makes two references to 1930s radio programs.

The first reference is to the much-cited War of the Worlds panic-inducing broadcast of October 1938. The second is to the now obscure Major Bowes Amateur Hour, something of a precursor to American Idol. I credit Rich for his fluency in American pre-television media history, and for being willing to regularly reference programs that few among the living can remember.

In fact, I think it was just last week (or maybe the week before) that Rich's column mentioned another 1930s radio figure: controversial priest of the airwaves Father Coughlin. With all these radio references flying around, I can't wait to see how Rich will work Amos 'n' Andy into a column about the run-off election in Afghanistan ("I's regusted, President Karzai!"); Joe Penner into a column about stalled health care reform ("Wanna buy a public option?"); and Jack Pearl into a column about Speaker of the House Pelosi ("Vas you dere, Nancy?).

On a semi-related media metaphor note, another talented New York Times writer a few years ago (who I've been unable to identify and unable to find online) brilliantly called pioneering 1990s tabloid video perps Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco the "Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob of Reality TV."

This kind of lively, informed writing is exactly what media criticism needs more of, if only to balance what typically comprises the broadcast beat: puff piece performer profiles and cautionary tales of talk radio that use the word "demagogue."

Otherwise, media criticism may as well be written by Charlie McCarthy.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Long-Running Seattle Radio Show Keeps On Going

It's one of the longest-running live radio programs in the United States, and a throwback to an earlier era of "live remote" broadcasting. Please see the piece I wrote for about KING-FM's weekly live broadcast of the Compline service from St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle.

Incidentally, this piece was in the works and mostly finished when the news broke last month about KING-FM's financial woes. It's nice to finally have this happier story published!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I STILL Love Local & Live TV, Too

Not to go too far off format here, but I'm working on compiling a list of The Most Compelling Moments on LIVE Local TV in the Seattle area for an article I'm writing for to mark next month's 61st anniversary of commercial TV in this area. My draft list appears below, in chronological order and featuring some minimal annotation and a question or two.

Also, I was on The Dori Monson Show on News Talk 97.3 KIRO FM today (Tuesday, October 20) speaking with Dori about this project. He also took a few calls from listeners with their recommendations for the list. Audio of the 2:00 o'clock hour of the program is available here (I think I come on at about the seven minute mark).

Please take a look at the list and let me know what you think. Anything missing? Anything that shouldn't be there? The criteria are purposefully ambiguous and vague; the main requirements are that the broadcast was live, and that it was local or had local significance. I fudge a little here and there.

Please help me out by weighing in via the comment-posting function below.

First Regular Telecast in Seattle
KRSC (which later became KING) broadcast a high school football championship game at Memorial Stadium; West Seattle and Wenatchee played to 6-6 tie.
November 25, 1948 (Thanksgiving Day)

Seafair Hydro Races on KING
Quicksilver crashes killing driver and passenger (Mathiot and Whittaker); Bill (Rhodes) O’Mara leads the audience in the Lord’s Prayer.
August 4, 1951

First TV Newscast on KING with Charles Herring
First local TV newscast west of Minneapolis and north of Los Angeles.
September 10, 1951

Seafair Hydro Races on KING and KOMO
Dash 80 Barrel Roll (by test pilot Tex Johnston). Slo-Mo V flips completely over and lands right side up; Lou Fageol badly injured. KING stays on the air longer than KOMO and announces Gale V is correct winner rather than Miss Thriftway.
August 7, 1955

JP Patches Premieres on KIRO (first thing shown on KIRO)
Monday, February 10, 1958

Seafair Hydro Races
Bill Muncey and Miss Thriftway have rudder troubles and sink a Coast Guard Cutter (and the Miss Thriftway).
August 10, 1958

Namu the Killer Whale Arrives in Seattle on KOMO
Bill Brubaker makes hundreds of short broadcasts from a tugboat from Puget Sound following Bob Hardwick and Ted Griffin’s flotilla towing Namu the Killer Whale to Seattle’s waterfront. Namu died a year later.
July 27, 1965

Ms. Washington Didi Anstett (of Kirkland) is Crowned Miss USA on KIRO
Anstett would later marry NBA great Bill Russell.
May 18, 1968

DB Cooper hijacking drama unfolds at SeaTac on KOMO, KING and KIRO
November 24, 1971 (Thanksgiving Eve, roughly 5-7pm)

Seafair Hydro Races
Jerry Bangs killed in Miss Squire crash.
Sunday, August 7, 1977

JP’s first Final Show
First final weekday show of the original series.
Friday, December 28, 1978

Sonics Championship Game on KIRO
I personally saw the final 12 seconds shown at the Mariners’ game at the Kingdome (Mariners beat Blue Jays 7-2 with 5,000 fans cheering).
June 1, 1979

Seahawks first appearance on Monday Night Football on KOMO
Jim Zorn passes to placekicker Efren Herrera after fake field goal attempt. Final: Seahawks 31, Atlanta Falcons 28.
Monday, October 29, 1979

Mt. St. Helens Eruption on KOMO, KING and KIRO
Sunday, May 18, 1980

JP’s Final Show (ever) on KIRO
Friday, September 25, 1981

King County Executive Ron Dunlap Eats Premature “Victory Cake”
Declared victory but was defeated in final vote count by Randy Revelle.
November 1981

Archbishop Hunthausen Blockades USS Ohio (Trident Sub) at Hood Canal
August 12, 1982

Kirkland Beats Taiwan to Win the Little League World Series on KOMO
August 27, 1982

Phil Donahue and Vladimir Posner host American/Soviet town meeting in Seattle on KING
December 29, 1985

Old I-90 Bridge Sinks While Being Renovated
November 24, 1990

Jeff Smulyan Announces Mariners For Sale
I think this was shown on live TV—need to confirm. Anybody?
December 6, 1991

Nirvana performing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Saturday Night LIVE on KING
Preceded by commercial for Mennen's Teen Spirit deodorant
(Not seen live in Seattle due to the time zone delay)
Saturday, January 11, 1992

Cougars defeat defending National Champion Huskies in snowy Apple Cup in Pullman
This was also a national telecast.
Saturday, November 21, 1992

Mariners beat the Yankees on KOMO in 11th inning of Game 5 of the Division Series
Edgar Martinez's hit is known by many baseball nuts as "The Double."
October 8, 1995

John Ellis Announces Mariners (again!) For Sale
This may have only been LIVE on radio. Anybody?
Saturday, December 14, 1996

Makah Whale Hunt a Success at Neah Bay, WA
May 17, 1999

WTO Riots
KING's coverage of late night rioters on the move from downtown to Capital Hill was particularly spooky.
November 30, 1999

Kingdome Implosion on KOMO, KING, KIRO and KCPQ
Sunday, March 26, 2000

Nisqually Quake Shakes Seattle City Hall (and City Council) on TVSea
Wednesday, February 28, 2001

Whidbey P-3 Orion Crew Returns from Captivity in China
April 11, 2001

Locally-Made Boeing Aircraft Used as Terrorist Weapons on 9/11
Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Seahawks vs. Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XL on KOMO
Sunday, February 5, 2006

Seahawks vs. Brett Favre's Green Bay Packers on Monday Night Football in snow storm (in Seattle!)
Seattle wins 34-24; Shaun Alexander has record 40 carries.
Monday, November 27, 2006

Federal Way's Sanjaya Malakar competes on American Idol
Not shown live in Seattle because of time zone differences. Maybe this shouldn't be on the list--I don't want to have to also list The Bachelor!!!
March-April, 2007

Pike Place Centennial Concert on the SEATTLE CHANNEL
All-star band “The Iconics” featuring members of the Presidents, Posies, etc. play local tunes, notably “The Old Settler” (with John Roderick of The Long Winters).
Friday, August 17, 2007

Gertrude (Bob Newman) Takes Off His (her?) Wig During Pledge Drive on KCTS with JP and Pat Cashman
December 5, 2007

Space Needle Fireworks experience technical difficulties and long delays on KING
December 31, 2007 – January 1, 2008


Sunday, October 11, 2009

High School Broadcasters and an Old School Broadcaster

Please see two pieces I wrote this past week for Seattle-based, the first about high school radio station KASB 89.9 FM in Bellevue, Washington; the other a profile of broadcaster Bryan Johnson, who this week celebrated his 50th anniversary with KOMO in Seattle.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Out of the Dark: A History of Radio and Rural America
By Steve Craig

Published by The University of Alabama Press

228 pages $42 hardcover
Notes, bibilography, index

Every week, Garrison Keillor and the cast and crew of Prairie Home Companion pay tribute to a little-remembered though still influential chapter in American broadcasting history: radio's heyday in rural, agricultural America.

The rise of radio antennae among the corn and wheat stalks is the subject of a fascinating new book by Steve Craig called Out of the Dark: A History of Radio and Rural America ($42, The University of Alabama Press). While Craig never mentions Keillor or his contemporary public radio cohorts, the DNA of Prairie Home Companion can be found, as any PHC fan knows, in the weekly program known as the Grand Ole Opry. It was Keillor’s visit to the Opry back in the 1974 (as a writer for The New Yorker) that first inspired him to create PHC.

Grand Ole Opry is one of the last surviving of the so-called “barn dance” and "hayride" programs that proliferated in the 1920s. Craig explains how big urban stations found it profitable to create programming such as the Opry that served listeners in the hinterlands as well as the big cities, and how the concept of “clear channel” stations (AM stations on special frequencies with powerful transmitters whose signals routinely traveled (and still travel) hundreds of miles) was promoted by the US Department of Agriculture. Out of The Dark shows that bureaucratic agriculture’s calloused fingerprints are all over the early days of radio, from the presence of key individuals on the Federal Radio Commission (forerunner to the FCC) to "extension" programming developed by the Department of Agriculture and distributed through radio networks and rural stations.

It wasn’t so long ago that rural, agricultural America felt as if it were another country. As recently as the 1980s, many areas distant from major cities lacked access to even that most basic staple of 20th century American culture: programming from the big three broadcast TV networks (and, of course, access to cable, satellite and Internet). A visit or drive through these areas a generation ago was like a trip to another time and place. It wasn't quite Deliverance, but people in these areas were exposed to far less broadcast media than urban residents, and they didn't participate to the same degree in the shared culture. But with radio, in its heyday, the situation was different. Radio connected rural Americans and urban Americans to the same pre-TV national culture until the 1950s, when the bulk of network programming moved to video. It's only been in the last few decades that rural Americans have again been able to easily connect with national broadcast culture again, through cable, satellite TV and the web.

Craig describes how urban stations such as Nashville’s WSM (still home to the Grand Ole Opry 84 years later) and Chicago’s WLS (the “Prairie Farmer Station”—home to Herb Morrison of the famous Hindenburg crash description) offered specialized rural and agricultural programming (including extension information, commodity prices, crop-related weather reports and the National Farm and Home Hour) but, more importantly, also made it possible for rural listeners to share in the same network comedy, drama and news programming in the evenings as their urban counterparts. Because of this, the development and strengthening of a common national identity via broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s was not strictly limited to urban areas.

In addition to specific information about rural radio, Craig also provides insightful and excellent contextual information often lacking in other more general radio histories, including how the NBC, CBS and Mutual networks actually functioned as networks; differences between sustaining and sponsored programs; and esoteric though important issues with networking programming (mostly broadcast live in this period) and time zone differences in the US.

Quibbles with Out of the Dark are few and minor. Conclusion sections in each chapter are text book-like and tend to stifle the narrative for the general interest reader. Also, the book has no photographs other than on the dustjacket; a few select images of key individuals and publicity stills from the handful of programs discussed would have been a nice addition to Craig’s thorough research and enjoyable prose.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Big Shifts in Classical Music Radio

I wrote last Friday, September 25 for about layoffs at Seattle's classical music station KING-FM. Today, has published a second piece, where I try to figure out what went wrong at KING-FM, and what options the station has for moving forward. From what I've learned, my guess is that KING-FM will shift its mostly commercial operation to something more resembling a public radio station.

If this happens, KING-FM won't be the only big city classical music station to have made this transition lately. Both New York's WQXR and Boston's WCRB are both in the midst of conversion from strictly commercial operations to listener-supported, non-commercial. WQXR was purchased from the New York Times earlier this year by municipal broadcaster WNYC; WCRB is in the process of being purchased by Boston public broadcasting giant WGBH.

No sale will be required for KING-FM to shift to non-commercial; the station is already owned by a non-profit organization and already collects a tiny amount of pledge dollars in support of its multiple commercial-free Internet streams/HD subchannels.