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The War of the Worlds (WKBW, Buffalo, 1968-71-75)

After trying in 1938, again in 1944 and once again in 1949, you might think the Earth would finally be safe from the unwelcome attentions of the planet Mars, but you can't keep a good Martian down, or indeed a good idea, and in 1968 the invaders were back for another assault on the airwaves. The location this time was the city of Buffalo, and in homage to the original 1938 Orson Welles broadcast, the invasion was timed to start at 11pm on the Halloween night of October 30th. Behind this new version was Jefferson Kaye, the Program Director of renowned local Radio Station WKBW. The station already had a reputation for producing interesting Halloween productions (Kaye would be involved the following year in a spoof story that Paul McCartney had died,) but the War of the Worlds was to prove one of the most ambitious undertakings for the station.

The intention was not to copy the original broadcast, but to bring it up to date in the way a modern newsroom might well cover such a monumental event. While previous versions utilised familiar place names and actors merely impersonating politicians and military personnel, the WKBW version took the concept to its logical conclusion by drafting in real newsroom staff and borrowing regular DJ Sandy Beach to create an extremely realistic portrayal of an invasion. It was planned originally that the newsroom cast (Jim Fagan, Don Lancer, Joe Downey and WKBW TV anchor Irv Weinstein) would read from a prepared script, but in rehearsal it became apparent that people more used to the rapid fire approach of live radio were uncomfortable with the precision required of a radio drama. It just wasn't working as Kaye had envisaged, so he decided to let them adlib much of the material. It was an inspired decision and likely explains why the broadcast was to have such a memorable impact on its listeners, despite the best efforts of the station to forewarn them.

Mindful of the potential for a damaging debacle like that in 1938, the station had conducted the most intensive campaign in its history to alert listeners to the existence and nature of the forthcoming broadcast. For 21 days prior to the transmission date, announcements were broadcast hourly. Press releases went to police and other emergency services, plus schools, newspapers and television stations. Anyone in the eight counties surrounding Buffalo likely to receive calls from the public were alerted, yet all these preventive measures did nothing to stop over 4000 reported calls to police and telephone company switchboards that Halloween evening. Canada is even reported to have sent National Guard forces to the Peace Bridge, Rainbow Bridge and the Queenstown Bridge.

The broadcast that set this new panic in motion began in wholly innocuous fashion with a news report from Joe Downey using real up to the minute events, leading with President Johnson's surprise announcement of a cessation of bombing missions in Vietnam (what became known as his "October Surprise") and following on with various minor local crime stories. The final story in the news report is a brief mention that mysterious explosions have been detected on Mars. With no sense of unease or any inkling that something untoward is happening, the airwaves are then taken over by DJ Sandy Beach for his Halloween evening show. Beach cracks a joke about the explosions and plays several musical tracks and adverts before a breaking news spot reports on concerns by NASA that the explosions might cause communications disruptions on Earth. More music follows, but at the end of Hey Jude by The Beatles comes something a lot more ominous. A meteor has reportedly slammed into Grand Island, a town northwest of Buffalo that is located on a large island in the middle of the Niagara River. The news is considered so serious that Beach is bumped off the air for continual rolling news from the scene.

Jeff Kaye anchors the story in the studio, with Don Lancer and Jim Fagan in the field, both approaching the imperilled island from separate directions. The events are now relayed largely through the observations of these reporters, with news stories radioed in on a seemingly ad-hoc basis, peppered with lots of miscues, broken misheard communications and the discordant crackle of radios. As it becomes increasingly obvious that this is no meteor, the sense of unease grows. Fagan and Lancer sound worried, then disorientated and finally totally terrified, and when the Martians emerge and begin firing their Heat Ray, the effect is truly awesome. It is not hard to understand why listeners were horrified. The action never lets up from this moment, with the Martians setting up their War Machines and military forces laying down a spirited but ultimately futile defence with artillery and fighter planes. The demolition by military engineers of the bridges to Grand Island is a particular highlight of the production, with a frantic John Irving (a television news reporter) reporting that people have been caught in the explosions.

Aside from this sort of local colour, the WKBW production does differ in several significant ways to the original Orson Welles broadcast. For one thing, the short interludes of orchestral music are largely replaced with full-length tracks. By contrast, Welles took advantage of his listeners' inattention to whip the action across New Jersey at breakneck speed, such that people did not notice the implausibility of the Martians rapid advance of the brevity of the interludes. The Buffalo version is much more tightly constrained geographically and plays out (at least initially) at a far more leisurely pace, with all of the significant action set within the bounds of Grand Island and Boston. Most significantly, Kaye took the unusual decision to end the story with the Martians apparently victorious and he himself the last man left, dying on the street. There is no last minute reprieve thanks to the actions of bacteria and germs on the Martians.

If things were tense in homes and on the streets of Buffalo that night, then so too was the atmosphere in the studio. The phone was ringing off the hook with frightened people and worried that the situation was getting out of hand, Kaye went to the studio to implore director Dan Kriegler to let him make a very direct statement on air that the broadcast was nothing more than a drama. Kriegler refused and as Kaye tells the story, it literally almost came to a fistfight. With an impasse developing in the studio, Kaye crossed to the tape machine, which was playing the broadcast and said, "Danny, if you don't let me go on the air, I'm going to rip this tape right out of this machine and run like hell onto Main Street with it, and you'll never finish it." Strangely, almost exactly the same situation had arisen in 1938, with John Houseman (producer to Orson Welles) threatening to hit a CBS executive who wanted to break into the broadcast with a disclaimer. Just as eventually happened in 1938, Kriegler relented and Kaye got onto the air, though it is interesting to consider that listeners had had ample opportunity to discover the truth prior to this, with the furious action being interrupted on several previous occasions by messages from sponsors, which made it abundantly clear that the whole thing was nothing more than a drama.

Kaye sat in his office after the broadcast convinced that he had blown his bridges on-air and metaphorically. He thought that his days were numbered and believing he could expect to be summarily fired, wrote his resignation and slipped it under the door of the station manager. But as it happened, there was no reprimand and WKBW got some priceless publicity. Kaye was confident enough to repeat a slightly retooled version in 1971, (with no reports of a panic) which replaced Sandy Beach with Jackson Armstrong but otherwise retained the original material. Dan Kriegler has disowned this version because it cuts out a lot of the build-up, though it is arguably the better for it. I suspect however that if listened to in context, the 68 version was a great deal more unpleasant to the listeners simply because it took such a low-key approach. Many people actually rang the station to ask when The War of the Worlds was going to start, unaware that it already had.

Plenty of people who should have known better were certainly fooled. In his introduction to the 1971 version, Kayes tells several entertaining stories, though perhaps some of the details might be taken with a pinch of salt. In one case, a prominent local newspaper that had been sent press releases still sent a news team to Grand Island. A county civil defence unit apparently also went on alert and a local police station began issuing out firearms to its officers.

Though there was nowhere near the same scale of panic, the 1968 version compares very favourably with the Orson Welles original, and might even be considered its superior in some respects. It is certainly fair to say that in terms of realism it scores very highly. WKBW did one further version in 1975 but by this time Kaye had left the station and it is considered a far weaker production.

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War of the Worlds, Buffalo 1968. Listen to audio clip of Martians crossing river from 1968 Buffalo production. (MP3, 2.09 mins).


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