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The Panic Broadcast by Howard Koch (1970)

panic broadcast

There are very few good first hand accounts of the gestation and aftermath of the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938, so this gem of a book is one to be savoured and treasured. Howard Koch actually wrote the script for the broadcast, though there is some debate as to how much was his own work, how much Welles, and how much the organic contribution of the extraordinary troupe of actors and technicians that was The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

Incontrovertibly however it was Koch who wove together all the strands into the stunning script that was performed on the night of October 30th, 1938. He was given the assignment by Welles' right hand man and producer at the time, John Houseman just a week before it was due to be broadcast and it proved to be one of the most difficult things he had ever written, with anxious days and nights spent trying to find an angle that would work. The suggestion that the play be set in modern times and use new-broadcast like interruptions is said to have come from Welles, but Koch gave it life, lifting place-names from a hastily procured map of New Jersey to create the chilling march toward New York that saw so many people flee from the advancing Martians.

Koch's book is not by any stretch of the word a definitive or even particularly detailed account of the broadcast, but it benefits immensely from its first person narrative. These are the actual recollections and feelings of someone intimately involved in the broadcast, not second hand accounts or speculations. One can therefore forgive the brevity and padding of the book. Koch sensibly begins by laying down some background to his career and the frenetic activity that characterised a typical Welles production. He tells of the battle to write the script, and a particularly great personal story, that upon waking the next morning blissfully unaware of what had happened the night before, he walked to his Barbers, hearing snatches of conversation that he took to be news of some new aggression by Hitler. Only when seated in his barber's chair was he presented a copy of a newspaper with a banner headline that implicated him in one of the great mass panics in history.

There follows a complete reprint of the script, and then a great collection of accounts telling of the panic that engulfed the country, some from third parties, others that touched on Koch personally. One of the nicest parts of the book is the chapter that deals with Koch's first visit to Grover's Mill many years after the broadcast, finding a little hamlet that remembered the night with a mixture of bemusement and weary indignation.

While this is certainly not an in-depth work of research, the book is complimented by lots of great photographs and reproductions from newspapers of the time, adding up to a very nice snapshot of the broadcast and its aftermath.


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See also


Invasion From Mars by Hadley Cantril

Invasion From Mars by Hadley Cantril. Written just after the 1938 broadcast by Orson Welles, this is an indepth scientific investigation.

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