When did you first hear The Mercury Theater On the Air‘s (TMTOTA) 1938 production of “The War of the Worlds” (WOTW) for CBS? I first heard about it when watching Woody Allen’s sentimental tribute to the “Golden Age” of radio, Radio Days (1987). In one memorable scene, a man deserts his date and runs from his car when his radio announces a Martian invasion. Here, with only a few months until WOTW’s 75th Anniversary, I want to explore how it is that we are still listening to this radio artifact, and in what ways the continued presence of WOTW is culturally significant.
As many scholars have noted, including Michele Hilmes in the recently published Radio’s New Wave (2013), radio has traditionally been considered an ephemeral medium defined by the simultaneity and liveness of broadcasting. Yet, I argue that part of the reason the WOTW broadcast has come to be so famous and notorious is that it has continued to circulate in our culture through discourse, as well as through material artifacts. This repetition shapes the cultural meanings associated with the 1938 production in ways that are different from the immediate cultural impact it had at the time of its original broadcast.
TMTOTA‘s performance of WOTW seems engineered for immediate impact as a sensational Halloween prank intended to shock, and impress critics, listeners, and other radio practitioners as a live program. This intention is implicit in the realism of TMTOTA‘s update of WOTW’s setting from H.G. Wells’ original Victorian England location to then-present day New Jersey, along with the use of a news bulletin format for the first two-thirds of WOTW. The infamous panic caused by the broadcast was probably also encouraged by TMTOTA‘s distinction (at the time) as a commercial-free sustaining program; listeners tuning in mid-broadcast might have believed they were listening to news of an actual alien invasion because they did not hear the product placement or reference to sponsors present in most of the other entertainment radio of that era.
The WOTW live broadcast was immediately significant in 1938 in several ways. It made Orson Welles and TMTOTA famous, which enticed Campbell’s Soup into sponsoring TMTOTA (the program became The Campbell Playhouse in December 1938). “War of the Worlds” also became a lightning rod for radio’s supposedly dangerous potential in the public sphere, and it was subsequently studied by the famous Radio Research Project. It also functioned as a way for listeners to make sense of World War II and the fear of invasion by foreign, aka “alien,” enemies. These meanings are there for us to consider, but as contemporary audiences listen to the original broadcast through multimedia platforms like YouTube, listeners are positioned as temporal tourists of a sort. As the recording plays, audiences are treated to period photographs of Welles performing, as well as the hum and hiss of an older, analog recording, which adds a patina of age that invites listeners to revel in its pastness.
Orson Welles’ assures audiences at the end of WOTW there is no alien invasion, saying this performance has “no further significance.” This is certainly not the case, as it was absolutely intended to have be immediately culturally significance. Yet, neither CBS, Welles, nor other members of the TMTOTA could have anticipated its longevity within our media culture. Indeed, beyond the film Radio Days, WOTW has become an intertextual marker throughout our media culture to signify moral panic and the duplicity of media audiences, and it has been referenced with pastiche in television shows like Futurama. Indeed, 75 years later, the radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds” has come to be a significant artifact of residual radio, a term which I use rather than the fan term “old time radio” (OTR), although sometimes this term can be useful to define this community of enthusiasts. The term “old time radio” connotes the pastness of these radio recordings, however, building on Raymond Williams’ discussion of dominant, emerging, and residual media, I use the term residual radio to express how radio artifacts transform and change over time.
Like other recordings of radio from the first half of the 20th Century, WOTW was produced at a time when radio was considered the dominant form of domestic entertainment. The WOTW broadcast and subsequent overwhelming reaction emphasize the dominance of radio entertainment in the 1930s, a presence intended within WOTW’s original commercial network radio production culture. I argue that its lingering presence in our media culture is, conversely, residual: it continues to be present within media culture despite the indifference or neglect of the dominant media industry that originally produced it. Contemporary interest in WOTW is perpetuated by radio enthusiasts, historians, and others long after any profit imperative exists for CBS. This is made possible by several factors, the least of which is the preservation and availability of WOTW’s live broadcast on lacquer transcription discs, which have been used to distribute it as a material artifact for listeners, scholars, and radio producers to rebroadcast it.
The 1938 WOTW radio broadcast was first commercially released in 1968 by the Longines Symphonette Society (LSS) as a vinyl LP. It had been electronically rechanneled to simulate stereo from the original transcription discs. This was part of LSS’s larger project of selling compilations of radio drama, along with other labels which were also selling OTR compilations in the late 1960s, such as Nostalgia Lane or Golden Age Records. As Derek Kompare has argued about TV DVDs, selling radio programs as discrete objects changes our interactions with them; they become something collectible, and for radio drama, they become a marker of their residuality in our culture through the nostalgic paratexts (such as packaging) that often accompany them. This 1968 release occurs during what I would call the first wave of nostalgia following the end of radio drama’s institutional presence on network radio in 1962. WOTW was released as a cassette tape by Metacom as part of their Radio Reruns cassette series in 1977, which I think marks another moment when we see a cultural revival of radio drama occuring shortly after CBS’ began producing CBS Mystery Theater in 1974, which was a radio anthology series that showcased science fiction and horror radio drama similar to that of The Whistler or Inner Sanctum Mysteries, and the syndication of classic radio productions from the commercial network radio by local radio broadcasters, such as KNX 1070 in Los Angeles. The continued presence of radio drama, either from the classic network era or in the style of old radio drama, demonstrates the continued interest and engagement with radio drama by audiences.
WOTW’s notoriety is obviously explicitly a result of the attention the mainstream media gave it at the time, as well as the fame and success that followed Orson Welles ascendance in film, and subsequently, his position in the critical and academic canon of auteurs. However, WOTW’s circulation through LP, cassette, rebroadcast, and mp3 also implicitly shapes how people look back at this time in entertainment history, while also allowing this recording to become an object of fetishism and desire.
Today, WOTW is available to purchase as an mp3 on iTunes, Amazon, and other sites that offer radio files from a bygone time. This technology allows us to pause, rewind, and play WOTW while surrounded by its paratexts, whether it be the album cover showcasing newspaper headlines from the time, or links in the side bar to YouTube videos of Orson Welles apologizing to the press for scaring listeners at home. The circulation of the WOTW radio broadcast encourages a contemporary spectatorship in which WOTW is not only a sensational or thrilling drama, but also a nostalgic and familiar object whose different material incarnations are sold to collectors on Ebay, and whose minor details are debated by fans online. This forum, for instance, is composed of fans that were born long after the original broadcast and yet still debate why people tuned into the WOTW original broadcasts late and missed the disclaimer that it was a fictional program. These debates, and others, point to WOTW’s function in the everyday life of listeners who engage with residual radio. As Cornel Sandvoss has argued about other fan behavior, this artifact and its cultural meanings become a mirror for fans. It can be a symbol of their superior knowledge of history, of their taste in quality programming, or their engagement with Orson Welles’ celebrity across media platforms. And in this way, it gives us a case study to consider how broadcast media continues to circulate in our culture long after its initial distribution over the airwaves, and how it comes to have different meanings for listeners across time and space.