the Little Red Reviewer

War of the Worlds Redux

Posted on: January 29, 2020

I didn’t have another Vintage SciFi Month post planned. . .  until I yesterday afternoon when I listened to a very fun episode of RadioLab.   (and yes, I listen to podcasts the same way I read anthologies: in random order)


The title of the episode was just War of the Worlds, and I could guess what it was about, but the episode was a million times more fun than I expected!   Sorry, Yes, this blog post is one huge advertisement for their hella fun War of the Worlds episode and for RadioLab in general.


Maybe you already know this timeline?

1898:  H.G. Wells writes War of the Worlds.

1938: Orson Welles does his Oct 30th radio broadcast of his version of War of the Worlds, which takes Wells’ story and makes it sort of news-y.


Right at the beginning of the broadcast,  Welles announces that this is a science fiction story,  and then at the end of the broadcast he announces it again.  He and his radio crew assumed they were giving people a fun Halloween scare.  And yet, people freak the hell out any way.

The Radiolab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich go into all sorts of fun historical detail about how how Newspaper and Radio were not friends, and “We interrupt this broadcast for an important news bulletin” was really new at the time, and how listeners would channel surf the same way we channel surf today.


It’s just a damn good podcast episode.


They talk about how the police station fielded hundreds of calls from people worried about a Martian invasion, and how people swore they saw smoke above the city. People had convinced themselves that they saw something, and they didn’t see anything! because nothing was actually happening!  And that Welles had no idea that he’d scared the shit out of people until the next morning when he read the newspapers.


The hosts then asked what I thought (boy was I wrong!) was a rather silly question:  Could someone pull this same stunt again?  Could someone trick listeners into thinking a radio drama about an obviously fake event was real?


um, Yes.


Two more times, actually!

the next time this stunt was pulled was in 1949, in Quito, Ecuador.  If you’re looking at the RadioLab transcript, CTRL+F yourself to “Quito”,  or head over to this article. The populace was so freaked out, and so angry to learn they’d been “tricked”, that they burned the radio station down.  Six people died.  the producer of the radio show had to flee the country.


You’d think that would teach people to not pull this stunt?  (or maybe on the flipside, you’d think it would teach people to not trust everything they hear, or to try to do some fact checking)


You’d be wrong.  on both counts.


In 1968, WKBW in Buffalo, NY, figured on Halloween Night, people would expect to have a fun scare. They did an updated version.   Part of their update was that they put in fully scripted commercials and ads from sponsors into the dramatization.  When the station started fielding calls from concerned listeners. . .


It’s been broadcast since,  except now adays when a radio station does a dramatization of War of the Worlds, they make sure everyone knows every five minutes that it is a radio play, that nothing is actually happening. (Also, you could just turn the channel to see what another station is saying?) Or, you pay good money to go see a “radio dramatization” performed on stage in a theater. it’s become a thing.


Ok, so yes, people will fall for this.  Many times.


As the Radiolab hosts say,  we hear a scary headline, and we can’t help ourselves.


Chances are, you’re not going to fall for a headline of “Martians Invade!”.  But newscasters have figured out that we’ll all fall for headlines like “Your soap could kill you!”,  “Poison lurking in plain sight!”,  “Don’t let this happen to you, or your child!”


I’m not making light of dangerous things in life, but I am making light of how the media makes headlines sound scary so that we’ll keep listening.  And then when they finally get to the story on “Poison lurking in plain sight!”  it’s them reminding people not to drink windex and to put your cleaning supplies in a cabinet with toddler locks if you’ve got kids or curious pets, because duh.


And who did those newscasters learn that trick from?  Who did they learn that “hook ’em good by scaring ’em!” trick from?


Orson Welles.


And don’t even get me started on Fake News.




2 Responses to "War of the Worlds Redux"

Hi Andrea.

In the seventies, a movie was made about the Welles broadcast. I have always been fascinated by ‘War of the Worlds’ and the infamous radio broadcast.

I read the H.G. Welles novel. Golly it is grim. Every movie I have seen for this book is quite grim. I wrote my own take on the story, but it is a slightly more whimsical version.

Happy Trails!

Liked by 1 person

As a fan of old radio, I’m fascinated by the War of the Worlds and the reaction to it. I’ve read/heard that part of the scare was channel surfing. A popular comedy show aired opposite War of the Worlds and some listeners tuned in for the opening of that, then when it went to a musical number, surfed over to see what else was going on and missed the public info that this is all a story and not real.

Liked by 1 person

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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