To most individuals living in the United States on October 30, 1938, this Sunday evening seemed like any other Sunday evening. Around 7:00 pm, millions of families across the country were finishing dinner and waiting to tune into their favorite radio show. Approximately 34.7 percent of the nation’s listenership would be tuning into NBC’s the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show at 8:00 pm. However, on this particular Sunday evening, another radio broadcast was about to make history. As usual many listeners of the Bergen and McCarthy show decided to “twiddle” their dials instead of listening to coffee advertisements. At 8:12 pm those listeners who turned the dial on the Chase&Sandborn coffee ads found themselves, stunned, listening to what seemed like a live report of an alien invasion occurring in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. The ‘live report’ was actually part of the Mercury Theatre on the Air’s fictional Halloween broadcast, the War of the Worlds. Howard Koch’s radio adaption of H.G Wells’s 1898 novel resulted in chaos. People all over the country began fleeing cities; calling loved ones, and flooding churches and police stations. The reaction forced audiences and networks alike to realize that “when the circumstances are right the media can create panic and other effects that are unpredictable, disruptive, and wide-ranging.” In my essay I will discuss the three major reasons why the radio dramatization War of the Worlds broadcast resulted in a nationwide panic: first the fear of foreign invasion was a realistic concern in 1938; secondly the show’s manipulation of sound blurred the line between fiction and reality in a way that had never been done before; lastly newspapers across the country printed stories that exaggerated the hysteria in an attempt to tarnish radio’s reputation as a serious and reliable media outlet.
The War of the Worlds aired during a period of political turmoil and paranoia in America. Fears of foreign invasion and anxieties toward technological advancements governed people’s reaction to the broadcast. In the late 19th century technological advancements in wire technology, such as the telegraph and later radio broadcasting, made communication faster and more affordable. In fact, according to a study done by Hadley Cantril, in 1938 “out of the then 32,000,000 families in the United States, 27,500,000 had radios- a greater proportion than have telephones, automobiles, plumbing, electricity, newspapers or magazines.” With the threat of war lingering on the horizon, radio was no longer a household luxury; it was a necessity. In his book, Terror on the Air!: Horror Radio in America, Richard Hand explains, “that 1938 America was a post-depression nation in a global context that was governed by paranoia: an empire like Japan threatened to expand aggressively, as did the sinister fascist regimes in Germany and Italy, while the values of an old world imperialist such as Britain seemed to jostle with the revolutionary ideology of Stalin’s Soviet Union.” On May 6, 1937 the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed. On May 7 audiences across America tuned into listen to Herbert Morrison’s eyewitness account of the Hindenburg airship disaster. Morrison’s impassioned radio broadcast left listeners awestruck. Another important political broadcast focused on the issue of Czechoslovakia. The ‘Munich Crisis’ began after Adolf Hitler demanded Great Britain and France to allow Germany “to annex part of Czechoslovakia containing a large German ethnic minority… to millions of Americans the world seemed to be on the brink of war. It was. And to many of those listeners, the crisis pointed to the possibility that the United States might be dragged into the war and, perhaps less plausibly at the time, even be invaded by an enemy force.”After Morrison’s news broadcast of the Hindenburg Disaster and the events that lead up to the Munich Pact, it became clear that radio was the primary news...
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