Yet again, public TV taught me something. Last night, I accidentally tuned into “American Experience’s” look at the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous radio dramatization of “War of the Worlds” on Oct. 30, 1938.
Welles decided to liven up a dull script by making the drama sound just like a news broadcast, complete with bulletins and eye-witness reports. History, or perhaps legend, has it that scores of Americans tuned in at some point after the opening introduction of the radio play and thought they were hearing about a real invasion from Mars. For Americans with nerves already rattled by an economic depression and Nazis on the march, believing more awful news, no matter how outlandish, wasn’t much of a stretch. Panic ensued.
The story is well-known. What I didn’t know is that a U.S. Sen. Clyde Herring, D-Iowa, played a prominent role in the immediate aftermath. This Wikipedia passage from Herring’s bio gives us the gist:
Herring’s reaction to Orson Welles’ 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast received national attention. In order to protect listeners, he urged adoption of federal legislation “inducing” broadcasters to first submit radio programming to the Federal Communications Commission before it could be aired. He declared that “radio has no more right to present programs like that than someone has to come knocking on our door and screaming.” No such legislation was adopted.
I found a passage from the book “Radio’s Civic Ambition : American Broadcasting and Democracy in the 1930s” that also pointed to Herring’s proposal. Basically, the Iowa senator wanted the FCC to form a special commission that would look over broadcast scripts, checking for obscene or frightening content.
Among bad ideas floated by Iowa politicians, this has to rank pretty high. Herring, as governor, also declared martial law amid violent farm unrest in Northwest Iowa during the depths of the Great Depression. But he did help give us Floyd of Rosedale, so there’s that.
And as the book points out, not everyone agreed with Herring’s response to Welles’ drama.
The Estherville Daily News opined, “if it becomes government policy for some hireling to decide what the public should or should not hear it is only another small step to dictate what should and should not be read.” I’m not a huge fan of slippery slope arguments, but Herring did seem to be holding a big bucket of grease.
But was there really mass panic? An article in the online magazine Slate says not so much. It points to ratings data from that fateful Sunday night indicating that very few people actually were listening. And there’s no real, solid proof that many folks twisted their dials to Welles’ show late.
So where did the notion of a radio panic come from anyway?
Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.
So War of the Worlds panic may have been more about a War for Advertising. Seems plausible.
Unfortunately, there’s a big, frustrating gap in online archives for The Gazette, so I can’t find an Oct. 31, 1938, front page to see how we hyped the event.
But Quad-City Times columnist Bill Wundram wrote about the anniversary today and has a link to the then-Daily Times blaring front page headlines, complete with Herring’s call for swift, misguided action.
And, if you’re curious what all the fuss was about, here’s a YouTube audio posting of the show. Click here if it doesn’t load below.