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The War of the Worlds on Radio

As a theatre of the imagination, Radio has been a natural home to science fiction from its earliest days, with a Buck Rogers radio series debuting as early as 1932 and the 1950's in particular enjoying a golden age of quality broadcasts with shows such as X Minus One.

You might however think that it was Orson Welles who first earned the unwelcome reputation as the purveyor of the worlds first mass panic conveyed by radio, but in fact it was an English priest called Father Ronald Knox who in 1926 caused a minor sensation when in the space of less than 15 minutes, he brought the British government crashing down at the hands of a popular uprising. His program entitled Broadcasting The Barricades has many surprising antecedents to the Welles debacle that was to follow, and it has even been suggested that Welles might have used Knox as a template for his broadcast.

Of course the best-known version of The War of the Worlds on radio undoubtedly is the one perpetrated by Welles and his Mercury Theatre On The Air, a spellbinding lesson in the power of the media and the very thin ice on which our civilisation is balanced. The Welles broadcast has gone down in history as the greatest mass panic of all time, and arguably, deservedly so, but it was not to be the last.

Just a few years later in 1944, a station in Santiago, Chile, staged their own version of the play, substituting local place names in the narrative and terrifying thousands of listeners across the country. It is said that there was one fatality due to a heart attack, but this was nothing compared to the carnage wrecked in Ecuador in 1949. Again, local place names were substituted and actors imitated well known public figures, but unlike the apparently unintentional nature of the previous two broadcasts, there have been suggestions (I believe in error) that the perpetrators of this version were bent on stirring up as much fear as they could. The result was an angry mob, furious at their tormentors, who on learning the truth of the situation torched the radio station responsible with the loss of many lives.

As you will see from reading other sections of this site, the Welles broadcast is one that resonated with Americans for many years after, and this is especially clear from listening to other science fiction shows. The 1955 series X Minus One, which dramatised some of the finest science fiction stories every written, is a case in point. At least 3 early episodes make quite deliberate and overt references to Welles, most notably in the episode The Parade. This particular episode has quite a pronounced debt to Welles, given that the story concerns Martians utilising the media (in this case the power of advertising) to facilitate their invasion. Approached by a Martian keen to hire his advertising agency, the agency owner responds incredulously "as in Orson Welles".

There have been a number of other instances over the years of radio stations resurrecting the Welles format and listeners reacting with concern, but none on the scale of the original. Probably the most famous since was the one broadcast by WKBW, a Buffalo radio station, in 1968. The people behind this broadcast had certainly learnt the lessons of the past, and saturated the airwaves and papers for weeks beforehand with news of their intentions, yet even this did not prevent a repeat of the panic caused 30 years earlier by Welles.

Of course there have been some straightforward adaptations of The War of the Worlds made for radio. The BBC have twice dramatised the story, once in 1950 and again in 1967 and there has apparently been a South African version (though it may have been a repeat of the earlier BBC version). Perhaps most bizarrely, the company Big Finnish, (who specialise in audio dramas on tape and CD about that great British science fiction character Doctor Who) even produced a story in which the time travelling Doctor is pitched into an adventure in 1938 alongside Orson Welles. While this is not strictly a radio drama, it is certainly worthy of note as evidence of the continuing strength and influence of The War of the Worlds. I'm sure there will be more to follow.

In Depth

1926
Broadcasting The Barricades, Ronald Knox

Broadcasting The Barricades by Ronald Knox. An amazing precursor to the Orson Welles broadcast from England in which people became convinced the revolution had begun

1938
The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles

The War of the Worlds by Howard Koch and Orson Welles. The infamous radio broadcast that terrified America on Halloween night.

1944
War of the Worlds, Santiago, Chile

The War of the Worlds. Santiago in Chile suffers a major panic when the Welles broadcast is remade to terrifying effect

1949
War of the Worlds, Quito, Ecuador

The War of the Worlds. A third radio inspired panic was triggered in Quito, Ecuador, but this one was deadly.

1950 / 1967
War of the Worlds Lux, The Lux Radio Theater

The War of the Worlds. The first BBC adaptation of The War of the Worlds in 1950 was followed by another in 1967.

1955
War of the Worlds, Lux Theatre

War of the Worlds, Lux Radio Theatre. The famous Lux Radio Theatre adapts the George Pal movie.

1968
WKBW War of the Worlds, Grand Island

WKBW War of the Worlds. A Buffalo radio station creates a minor panic with an updated version of the Orson Welles broadcast.

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