Monday, October 26, 2009

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.

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