The Panic Broadcast


It was 70 years ago today—October 30, 1938—that Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre traumatised American radio listeners with their brilliant adaptation of The War of the Worlds. I wrote about that recording last year so rather than repeat myself, here’s the final words from Howard Koch’s 1970 book about the play, The Panic Broadcast. (That’s the cover of my cheap paperback edition.) Koch was charged by Welles and producer John Houseman with the task of condensing and updating HG Wells’ novel and he ends his book with an examination of the lessons to be learned from the resulting hysteria. America’s current crop of demagogues on TV and radio—and the audiences prepared to take everything they say at face value—render his words as apposite now as they were forty years ago.

Meanwhile, how can we protect ourselves from politically biased information coming to us through the mass media? It isn’t as simple as dialing another station as in the case of the Martian scare. In my opinion, the only safeguard we have is the cultivation of a skeptical attitude toward all authority, to regard no person or office sacrosanct, to accept nothing that doesn’t accord with our experience and our knowledge acquired from other sources.

Most of my generation were brought up to give unquestioned obedience to authority, whether parental, religious or political. The result has been a compliant and conformist society that has tolerated a war every decade, all sorts of racial and economic inequities and a progressive spoliation of our planet. The management, shall we say, has been less than perfect.

But for the first time there are signs of a change and we have good reason to hope that the world won’t be lost by default. Today all authority is being questioned and challenged, especially by the young. The American people have become more concerned with public affairs on every level. They are taking less on faith; the individual intelligence is beginning to assert itself in self-protection and therein lies the promise of a society with the attributes for survival.

If the nonexistent Martians in the broadcast had anything important to teach us, I believe it is the virtue of doubting and testing everything that comes to us over the airwaves and on the printed pages – including those written by the author of this book.

The Mercury Theatre on the Air | An archive of the radio shows

Previously on { feuilleton }
The night that panicked America
War of the Worlds book covers

2 thoughts on “The Panic Broadcast”

  1. John, I love the blog and feel that what you do is important. I came here via Jahsonic.

    There is a recent interview with Claudio Simonetti of Goblin fame on the DJ History blog, check the archives.

    Perfect Sound Forever have a very good overview of Popol Vuh.

    More recently Carl Craig and Moritz Von Oswald have reinterpreted both Ravel and Mussorgsky for Deutsch Grammofon.

    Are you familiar with William Basinski and his Disintegration Loops vol 1-4 ?

    Many Thanks for your work here, what no Samhain?

  2. Hi Scott and many thanks for the comments. I’m very familiar with William Basinski and was actually playing part of The Disintegration Loops a couple of days ago. He’s firmly ensconced in my iTunes ambient playlist. And I have nearly everything Popol Vuh recorded, I’ve been listening to them since I first found their double-reissue on the Cosmic Couriers label in 1981.

    Samhain? Do you mean the festival or the band? If the former, I’m not a pagan purist so I don’t mind using the Christian vulgarisation.

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