From Mercury to Mars – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 From Mercury to Mars: After the Martians: The Invasion of “Daytime” in the War of the Worlds Controversy Mon, 20 Jan 2014 15:46:11 +0000 Cartoon reprinted in Howard Koch's The Panic Broadcast: Portrait of an Event (1970).

Cartoon reprinted in Howard Koch’s The Panic Broadcast: Portrait of an Event (1970).

In an impassioned letter to the FCC the morning after the famous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, Skulda Baner of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, protested the control that the “99%” had over network radio schedules.  Urging the FCC to stand strong against the hysterical masses unnerved by the broadcast, Baner argues:

“From morning to night radio is packed with Pacifiers.  Give us who are weaned to more solid foods something to fill our bellies, too!  Let us have our Mercury group – intact, uncastrated, unsterilized, unchained.  Or else… wrap your whole damn’ radio system in cellophane and tie it with pretty pink ribbon and hand it, in tote, to Kindergarteners Incorporated, U.S.A. to play with forever and forever! [sic]”[i]

The vivid imagery in this letter – radio programs as pacifiers, the Mercury Theater players “uncastrated,” a radio system shrink-wrapped, feminized and turned over to the masses – exposes much of the gender (and frankly class) discourses underpinning the American Broadcasting system.  What I find so intriguing about the heated public discussion immediately following the War of the Worlds broadcast – in letters to the FCC and to Orson Welles, in newspaper pages, and in industry trade journals – is not just the way the controversy comments about the power of radio or the susceptibility of the audience, but the way in which the gendered logics embedded in the broadcast system rose to the surface in these debates and informed the popular, industrial, and regulatory discussions about the mass “hysteria” of October 30, 1938.

From Herbert Corey's article "Radio's Growing Pains," Nation's Business (February 1939).

From Herbert Corey’s article “Radio’s Growing Pains,” Nation’s Business (February 1939).

Under the cover of daytime, as Michele Hilmes would phrase it, the radio industry and its critics had long engaged in conversations about commercialism, vulnerable audiences, and broadcasters’ responsibilities to these “fragile publics.”  By the mid-1930s, the division of the broadcast schedule – daytime hours dedicated to selling products to impressionable female consumers and evening hours devoted to prestigious, big-budget programs aimed at men and their families at leisure – fueled the commercial expansion of daytime and added new force to industry conversations about the susceptibility of the female masses.  As national sponsors poured money into melodramatic serials and claimed hours in the daytime schedule for themselves, broadcasters and critics ruminated about the implications of the commercially driven daytime schedule.  How did the fragile daytime audience read melodramatic programming like serials?  Should broadcasters rein in advertisers and restore balance and variety to the daytime schedule?  Did female audiences need to be protected from the programming that presumably they and sponsors loved?  Broadcasters’ relative inaction on these questions reflected, in part, their belief that the existence of a rational audience of male-headed families and high-profile evening programming was an effective counterbalance to the hours of profit-making programs aimed at lower class, uncultured and impressionable female listeners.  However, the days, weeks, and months following the WOTW broadcast figuratively thrust popular and industrial discussions about the daytime female audience and its influence over broadcast schedules into “prime time.”  The reports of “mass hysteria” engendered by WOTW spawned a rather hysterical chorus of journalists, broadcasters, government officials, and citizens (like Skulda Baner above) amazed at the susceptibility of the prime time listening public, concerned about the mass public’s preparedness for war, and fearful of this audience’s apparent size and potential effect on radio schedules.

In this context, fear of the feminization of radio – or, if you will, the invasion of prime-time radio by daytime listeners – shaped the ensuing discussion about what the government should do or not do in response to the broadcast.  To entertain further regulation of the broadcast industry, argued Alvin J. Bogart of Cranford, N.J. in a letter to the editor of The New York Times, was to replicate the “hysteria” of impressionable listeners:

“condemnation of the network for the childish hysteria and panic on the part of many listeners would place the Communications Commission on a par with those emotional and somewhat moronic individuals who, in shame at their own credulity and panic, are now indignant and vindictive.”[ii]

To permit indignant listeners and their unrestrained emotions to control radio, suggested Skulda Baner in a follow-up letter to the FCC, was, among other things, to authorize the “emasculation” of radio.[iii]  The trade journal Broadcasting concurred in March 1939, arguing that the threat of government censorship motivated by the WOTW broadcast and the FCC’s subsequent investigations into chain broadcasting a few weeks later was making American radio “impotent.”[iv]

Headline from The New York Times, November 1, 1938.

Headline from The New York Times (November 1, 1938).

Given this binary, the logical solution to a system threatened by emotion and the feminine masses was thus a “virile” broadcast industry.  As much as the press helped to fan the flames of the WOTW controversy as discussed by Michael Socolow and Jeffrey Pooley in their recent Slate article, the press, joined by broadcasters, some listeners, and even some members of the Communications Commission, forcefully defended the radio industry’s right to remain free of government censorship.  A strong and unfettered broadcast industry, many in the press argued, was essential to stem the tide of feminization threatening American radio and to protect the mass audience from itself.  The public interest would not be served, argued FCC Commissioner T.A.M. Craven, by a “spineless” radio industry.[v]  The only reasonable recourse for a FCC without the legal power to censor broadcasts was an Obama-like beer summit on November 7, 1938, a private chat between FCC Chairman Frank McNinch and the presidents of NBC, CBS, and Mutual that resulted in the networks’ pledge that they would watch their charges – their performers and their impressionable listeners – more closely.

Teasing out the gendered logics of the system and the discourses circulating around the WOTW broadcast, I suggest, gives us a deeper understanding of broadcasters’ relationship to their audiences and to the regulatory possibilities open to the FCC in this context.  The fear of the feminization of the prime-time radio audience , I suggest, fueled the social scientific research into susceptible audiences that Josh Sheppard spoke about in his previous post in this series, prompted investigations into programming like radio serials in the 1940s, soap operas in the 1970s and 1980s, and daytime talk shows in the 1990s, and legitimated broadcasters’ role as a “guardian” of not just the airwaves, but of radio audiences more broadly.  The discursive debates, prompted by the WOTW broadcast, allow scholars a glimpse, if only for a moment, at the operative gendered logics informing the shape and structure of the radio industry.

welleswtower_squareThis is the twelfth and final post in our From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 Years, which was conducted in partnership with the Sounding Out! blog. Thanks to all our contributors for making this a fantastic series and also our readers for following the posts over the past six months.

Miss any of the previous posts in the series? Click here for links to all of the entries.


[i] Letter to FCC by Skulda Baner, October 31, 1938, Box 24, Richard Wilson – Orson Welles Papers, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan.

[ii] Letter to the Editor from Alvin J. Bogart, October 31, 1938, The New York Times, 22.

[iii] Letter to FCC from Skulda Baner, no date, Box 24, Richard Wilson – Orson Welles Papers, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan.

[iv] “Radio Becoming Impotent From Fear of Federal Censorship, Says Article,” Broadcasting, March 1, 1939, 18.

[v] “FCC Is Perplexed On Steps to Take,” The New York Times, November 1, 1938, 26.


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From Mercury to Mars: Vox Orson Thu, 16 Jan 2014 18:19:07 +0000 WelleswTower_squareV2In this eleventh installment of our ongoing From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio After 75 Years series (in conjunction with Sounding Out!), Murray Pomerance provides an analysis of Orson Welles’ voice, which was without question one of the signature dramatic instruments of the twentieth century, and today retains a compelling power to instruct, to hypnotize and beguile.

As From Mercury to Mars series editor Neil Verma explains in his introduction over on Sounding Out!, Pomerance presents a study of Orson Welles’s voice itself — not what it does, how it was used, or what it “represents,” exactly — but a study that tries to get at what Pomerance calls “that instrumentation [Welles] cannot prevent himself from employing except by silence.”

Click here to read Murray Pomerance’s full essay over on Sounding Out!.

This is the penultimate post in our ongoing series in partnership with Sounding Out!From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 YearsStay tuned for the series’ final installment from Jennifer Hyland Wang, which will be published here on Antenna this coming Monday, January 20th.

Miss any of the previous posts in the series? Click here for links to all of the earlier entries.


From Mercury to Mars: The Shadow of the Great Detective: Orson Welles and Sherlock Holmes on the Air Fri, 10 Jan 2014 13:57:22 +0000 WelleswTower_squareV2In this tenth installment of our ongoing From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio After 75 Years series (in conjunction with Sounding Out!), A. Brad Schwartz explores the connection between Orson Welles and Sherlock Holmes. From his earliest experimentation with radio as a student to his final radio performance in the 1950s (a BBC production of “The Final Problem”), Welles regularly turned to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.

Schwartz, who co-wrote the recent PBS special on the “War of the Worlds” panic, argues that echoes of the Holmes stories can be heard throughout Welles’s radio work, including his performance as the ethereal crime-fighter The Shadow. It was partly by learning from Conan Doyle’s example of great storytelling, Schwartz claims, that Welles reshaped the rules of radio drama.

Click here to read A. Brad Schwartz’s full post over on Sounding Out!.

This post is the tenth in our ongoing series in partnership with Sounding Out!From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 YearsStay tuned for Antenna’s next installment from Jennifer Hyland Wang on Monday, January 20th.

Miss any of the previous posts in the series? Click here for links to all of the earlier entries.


From Mercury to Mars: The Legacy of War of the Worlds: What Happened Here? Mon, 16 Dec 2013 15:00:55 +0000 welllesradio2I wouldn’t be writing this today if Orson Welles’ iconic radio program The War of the Worlds didn’t have one of the most highly visible and significant legacies of any soundwork in radio history, as proven by the recent events of #WOTW75.  A few months back in the series, Eleanor Patterson made a strong and convincing argument for the program’s long survival as an example of “residual media,” tracing its migration from recording to recording and limning its cultural impact; Neil Verma proposed it as “one of the great works of the twentieth century” on a par with key films, novels, and paintings.

Its approach to literary adaptation was innovative, as Shawn VanCour argued; Josh Shepperd demonstrated its impact on the history of communication research; and both Debra Rae Cohen and Jacob Smith showed us that the innovative aesthetics of The Mercury Theatre on the Air were not limited to WOTW alone.  Kathy Battles pointed to its cultural resonance at the time, and Cynthia Meyers to its continuing relevance as a teaching tool.

cbs-radio-mystery-theaterYet what happened to this legacy of innovation in American radio drama that Welles’ career so emphatically marks?  We can trace the tradition of creative radio drama forward through the suspense serials of the 1940s and 50s, jump to the 1970s with Himan Brown’s CBS Mystery Theater – and then virtually nothing, certainly not on a regular basis, until we get to the present radio revival.

The conclusion to Neil Verma’s Theater of the Mind eloquently discusses the “mineralization” of works like WOTW, since we can never hear them as audiences in the 1940s did – and I would argue as he does that at least in part this is because listening to radio drama of any kind is no longer part of our everyday experience.

But let’s not forget that this is not true everywhere, or even very many other places – elsewhere in the world, radio drama has an unbroken tradition that incorporates old work with new, and where American radio’s influence is a living thing.  Just yesterday, from my temporary perch in England, I listened to a group of British and American actors perform their version of James M. Cain’s The Butterfly, complete with Western drawls and sound effects, in a joint BBC/Cymru Wales production.  It’s part of a Cain series.

BBC-Radio-4-Extra-007Here, The Archers continues its 63-year daily run, and on the BBC Radio 4 Drama page, a list of 13 genres in the sidebar helps the listener sort through the hundreds of currently running dramatic productions: originals, adaptations, serials, and revivals of old time US radio shows. You can listen to them, too.  The launch of Radio 4 Extra in 2011 created a permanent digital platform for radio soundwork, though subject to odd release windows.

So – what happened here (putting my American hat back on)?  This is something that has never been adequately explained.  I’ve taken a stab at it, in my “Rethinking Radio” piece written some 10 years ago, but besides pointing to the re-localization of radio in the 1950s and its turn to musical formats, the other obvious difference is the lack of a national public broadcasting sector that remained strong, on task, and well funded throughout the post-TV decades and into the digital present.

The BBC never stopped producing innovative radio drama. Welles’ tradition jumped ship and emerged on distant shores.  Thanks to digital platforms and other nations’ public broadcasting systems, the legacy of American radio drama lives on – just not primarily in America.

welleswtower_squareThis is the tenth post in our ongoing series in partnership with Sounding Out!From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 Years. Stay tuned, as there are still more entries to come! The next Antenna post in the series will be arriving from Jennifer Hyland Wang on January 20th.

Miss any of the previous posts in the series? Click here for links to all of the earlier entries.


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From Mercury to Mars: Devil’s Symphony: Orson Welles’ “Hell on Ice” as Eco-Sonic Critique Mon, 02 Dec 2013 16:56:12 +0000 WelleswTower_squareV2In this eighth installment of our ongoing From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio After 75 Years series (in conjunction with Sounding Out!), Jacob Smith turns his attention to an unusual Orson Welles radio play based on a now-forgotten historical adventure novel about an ill-fated polar voyage. He makes the case that, today, The Mercury Theatre on the Air’s 1938 production of “Hell On Ice” is becoming even more resonant and relevant, as it is acutely in tune with current anxieties about planetary crisis.

Smith argues that “Hell On Ice” stands out as a proto-environmental critique. It contemplates the catastrophic collapse of human society, not unlike the Mercury Theatre’s famous “War of the Worlds.” But whereas the “War of the Worlds” broadcast was a science fiction thriller that tapped into anxiety about the looming war in Europe, the “Hell On Ice” show (which aired three weeks earlier) used historical fiction to dramatize the error of human attempts to master the globe. Smith writes, “That makes it perhaps the best companion to ‘War of the Worlds,’ a play in which the thwarted invader is no alien – it’s us. Listening to the play today, ‘Hell on Ice’ is not only a masterpiece of audio theater (among fans, the most beloved of all Welles’s radio works) but a powerful ‘eco-sonic’ critique as well.”

Click here to read Jacob Smith’s full post over on Sounding Out!.

This post is the eighth in our ongoing series in partnership with Sounding Out!From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 YearsStay tuned for Antenna’s next installment on Monday, December 16th.

Miss any of the previous posts in the series? Click here for links to all of the earlier entries.


From Mercury to Mars: War of the Worlds and the Invasion of Media Studies Mon, 11 Nov 2013 16:00:15 +0000 The Invasion from Mars, one of the events that legitimated the very study of media. ]]> Sociologist and public opinion researcher Hadley Cantril.

Sociologist and public opinion researcher Hadley Cantril.

One may picture, too, the sudden shifting of the attention…” – H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds (1898)

Hadley Cantril, Educational Radio, and The Princeton Radio Research Project

What was the effect of The Mercury Theatre on the Air’s 1938 “War of the Worlds” (WOTW) broadcast on Communication and Media Studies? Besides being one of the seminal works of Mass Media history, WOTW turns out to be the subject of the first major commissioned analysis of audience reception that helped to legitimate the reliability of public policy research. The name of that influential study was The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic, written by Hadley Cantril and first published by Princeton University Press in 1940. How Cantril’s book came to be commissioned is almost as central to the history of media research as the program itself.

The back story actually begins with the problems faced by educational broadcasters in the 1930s, the forerunner to public broadcasting in the U.S. Before 1934 there was a robust experiment in public pedagogy run out of universities and school districts, but the Communications Act of 1934 privatized the use of radio so extensively that only about two-dozen stations remained. One of the reasons this happened was because there was no evidence that educational radio was in fact educational. But after 1934, FCC commissioners E.O. Sykes and Anning Prall were interested in classroom extension services via radio, if research could show that educational technology was a viable use of frequency allocations.

In 1935 the FCC formed an exploratory commission with the Office of Education to examine this question, called the Federal Radio Education Committee (FREC). Princeton psychologist Hadley Cantril was designated by the FREC to supervise a special study on audience reception. He obtained funds from the Rockefeller Foundation and received support from William Paley of CBS through the appointment of a young CBS researcher named Frank Stanton. Cantril also recruited a young Austrian immigrant named Paul Lazarsfeld, and his wife Herta Herzog, completing the core of what became known as the Princeton Radio Research Project (PRP).

Between 1936 and 1939 the trio of Cantril, Lazarsfeld, and Stanton streamlined the methods of “media effects” research, which notably became the primary approach taken by Mass Communication departments after WWII. Lazarsfeld has received many accolades for his methodological contributions, and deservedly so, but it seems to have been forgotten that it was Hadley Cantril who directed the project. And not only was he the director, but he innovated the first model of effects research as early as 1936 by combining the survey research methods of the commercial networks with social psychology. The synthesis of these two methods permitted researchers to account for trends in social opinion with a very high degree of accuracy. Further, results were reproducible even in disparate studies. The key to their success came from the capacity of the “technique,” as Cantril called it, to divide and subdivide demographic characteristics of listeners into specified social profiles.

Though first developed to evaluate the effectiveness of educational broadcasting, the PRP began to turn their attention to the question of how radio aesthetics influenced social opinion. They found that if slight adjustments were made to content, that patterns of reception would palpably change among different demographic groups. Further, listeners had developed tacit anticipation about how they should respond to the ordering of content in a broadcast.

Excerpt from Hadley Cantril's personal letters.

Excerpt from Hadley Cantril’s personal letters.

October 31, 1938

The day after the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, a request came from Frank Stanton’s employer – the Columbia Broadcast System (CBS) – for an opportunity to test their new “technique.” Cantril wrote in one personal letter: “when the broadcast of October 30 occurred, with its responses in mass hysteria over a wide area, the Princeton researchers recognized that here was a perfect opportunity for their inquiry.” On the Wednesday following the broadcast two field workers began the first Mass Communications research canvass—in Orange, New Jersey. They visited the homes of 30 persons who were known to have listened to the broadcast, while other researchers began to tabulate statistics from other sites.

Interviewees reported that they had not been listening very closely, but disruptions to the familiarity of the broadcast in the form of news flashes made them so terrified that they forgot what they had heard just a few minutes before. The play purported to present an invasion by armed beings from Mars, but only four of 30 listeners actually had understood this storyline. Four thought the invasion was by animal monsters, another four thought it was a natural catastrophe, eight thought that it was an attack by the Germans, and one Jewish woman had interpreted the broadcast as an uprising against the Jews.

When asked what made it so realistic, the overwhelming response was that the program’s introduction of well-known government officials and prominent scientists was persuasive. And more so the technical features of the broadcast, its appearance as an interruption of a dance program, the shifting of the news flashes from place to place, the gasping voice of the announcer, his muffled scream when he was about to break down, all contributed powerfully to the illusion. One woman reported that she saw people literally running down the street screaming. Another reported that her town was immediately deserted. However, these instances were often exaggerated.

Title page from the first printing of The Invasion from Mars (1940).

Title page from first printing of The Invasion from Mars.

The “Effects” of WOTW upon Presumptions and Practices of Media

As Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow have written, Cantril found that there were only a small percentage of “panic” responses to the program, significantly lower than popular folklore has led us to believe. So why is WOTW such a key text for Mass Media history?

The important outcome, as far as the researchers themselves were concerned, was that for the first time a statistically notable sampling of receptions to a media event had been measured. The PRP was able to paint a realistic and thorough picture of the types of responses that occurred, including sub-divided categories of which demographic groups responded in what way.

Among famous legacies of the study: WOTW accidentally indicated just how powerful Mass Media might be as a tool for propaganda. With the aid of Harold Lasswell and Gilbert Seldes, the PRP began to develop propaganda research by the early 1940s. Another less known outcome is that Frank Stanton realized that the demographic analysis he helped to invent could predict likely audience reception in advance, instead of measuring responses after broadcast. Whenever we talk about broad audience appeal or “niche audiences,” we are in part talking about Stanton’s post-PRP/WOTW research and development legacy.

welleswtower_squareThis is the seventh post in our ongoing series in partnership with Sounding Out!From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 YearsA special thanks to everyone who participated in the #WOTW75 collective listening experiment on October 30th. Stay tuned for more blog posts in the From Mercury to Mars series during December and January.

Miss any of the previous posts in the series? Click here for links to all of the earlier entries.


#WOTW75 — It’s Time for “War of the Worlds”! Wed, 30 Oct 2013 14:49:59 +0000 Click here to stream our broadcast in your web browser from WHRW in Binghamton, New York, beginning tonight at 7:00 PM Eastern Standard Time!

Follow @WOTW75 and tweet along with us at #WOTW75.

7:00-8:00 PM EST: An all-new audio documentary hosted by Brian Hanrahan (Cornell) and featuring critical reflections from a dozen prominent radio historians, including Kate Lacey, Kathleen Battles, Jason Loviglio, Damien Keane, Alex Russo, Tom McEnaney, and Antenna’s own Shawn VanCour and Josh Shepperd.

8:00-9:00 PM EST: The re-broadcast of the original “War of the Worlds” radio play (1938).

9:00-10:00 PM EST:  Hosted by Sounding Out! editor-in-chief Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman (Binghamton University), this hour includes live post-broadcast chats with Keane, McEnaney, and VanCour, and experimental soundscapes and drama produced by Binghamton University students and community members.

WOTW75_NV_Postcard_WEB (1)

Looking for the end of the world? Don’t panic, you’ve come to the right place. Our #WOTW75 project invites you to listen to and live-tweet Orson Welles’ classic “War of the Worlds” radio play tonight alongside hundred (thousands?) of others. This page has all you will need to participate.

When to Listen: Our project starts at  7:00 PM EST on Wednesday, October 30. Our goal is to keep in sync across listening sites everywhere.

How to Listen: Click here to stream our broadcast in your web browser from WHRW in Binghamton, New York. If this feed won’t work or goes down, see Alternative Listening Options below.

How to Respond: Use TwitterInstagram and post on our Facebook group page using the hashtag #WOTW75. Be sure to follow @WOTW75 on Twitter and reply to one another. Posting a comment here on this page is another option. Want to follow the conversation as a whole? Try our hashtag in tagboard.

Alternative Listening Options:  There are several other listening options available. You can stream the play from wellesnet, YouTube, or These should be suitable to play on an iPod, phone, or laptop. Please keep these links handy just in case something goes wrong with the WHRW feed (although we don’t anticipate this).

Public Radio Options: Want a real radio experience? KPCC Southern California Public Radio has generously given a feed out for free to a variety of public broadcasters, so check your local NPR, BBC, or college radio station. KPCC will have its own broadcast on Pacific time. They are sharing our hashtag, too. Here is a link with more information.

How to Help: All we need are your ears and keyboards, but if you want to help build the project, add your friends to our Facebook group and post items from that feed to your wall.

How to Document: Doing something creative while listening? Installing WOTW on a streetcorner, in a bar, an observatory? Roaming rural New Jersey with a flashlight? We need images and artwork. Snap a few for us and send them our way. Your responses will archived both digitally and in print.

There’s more: Here is a link to the most recent entry in our ongoing From Mercury to Mars web series about Welles and radio, for which #WOTW75 is the centerpiece. Also, here is a link to Howard Koch’s WOTW script, in case you’d like to read along. Here is a recent radio play contest, and here is a recent episode of the Aca-media podcast on WOTW. Check out PBS American Experience, which aired a major documentary on Tuesday night. Also, here is a new version of the story by Campfire Radio. Visiting New Jersey? There are live events out there in the moonlight, check out Raconteur Radio. Many more events and news items for the anniversary are up on wellesnet.

Thanks for joining in on the fun. We’re eager to read your tweets and posts, and proud to annihilate the world before your very ears.

Questions, ideas?

[Re-posted from our partners at Sounding Out!]


The #WOTW75 Experiment Sat, 26 Oct 2013 14:22:59 +0000 This Wednesday, October 30, be prepared for the #WOTW75 invasion. From 7:00-10:00 PM EST, participants from across the world, including numerous large groups gathering together for listening parties, will be tuning in to a special 3-hour online radio broadcast commemorating the 75th anniversary of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater’s “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast (1938). Designed as an experiment in collective radio listening, participants are encouraged to respond on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram with the hashtag #WOTW75, creating an archive of real time responses to the event. The heart of this project is the idea of reacting to the play as it “happens,” and to “do” listening in a way that’s both old and new at the same time.

WOTW75_NV_Postcard_WEB (1)

#WOTW75 will revolve around a 3-hour live broadcast streaming online from WHRW, SUNY Binghamton’s student radio station. The first hour of the broadcast (7:00-8:00 PM EST) will feature critical reflections from radio scholars and media historians discussing the legacy of the infamous “panic broadcast.” The second hour (8:00-9:00 PM EST) will consist of a rebroadcast of the original 1938 “War of the Worlds” program. And the third hour (9:00-10:00 PM EST) will include a panel discussion with additional media scholars mixed together with “War of the Worlds”-inspired experimental music and drama performances from Binghamton University’s Radio Drama Division.

This #WOTW75 collective listening experiment is the centerpiece of the six-month long project From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio After 75 Years, which is being produced by Antenna: Responses to Media & Culture and Sounding Out!: The Sound Studies Blog.

More details about how to listen and participate will be posted here on Antenna and also on Sounding Out! on the day of the event. In the meantime, please follow the #WOTW75 Twitter account and check out the Facebook group page, where blank posters and e-cards can be downloaded if you wish to host a listening party in your area.



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From Mercury to Mars: A Hard Act to Follow: War of the Worlds and the Challenges of Literary Adaptation Mon, 14 Oct 2013 13:12:52 +0000


What is left to tell after the end of the world, and who is there to tell it? In his Mercury Theater signoff on October 30, 1938, producer and star Orson Welles boasted that the evening’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast had “annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed the C.B.S.” While these scenes of otherworldly invasion from the program’s opening 40-minute act have been a source of much discussion, its 20-minute closing act is seldom addressed and stands in stark contrast to the fast action and stylistic innovation of Act I.  Featuring Welles as Professor Pierson reading diary accounts of his travels through the ruins of New Jersey and Manhattan, Act II consists of two long stretches of voiceover narration, broken up by a short dialogue scene between Pierson and a passing stranger. While faithful to H. G. Wells’s 1898 book, this act’s reliance on monologue violated norms of 1930s radio production, which dismissed the technique as a regressive print convention unsuited for radio. However, WOTW’s own use of the technique was no mere technical error, but instead spoke to much broader shifts in the aesthetics of Golden Age radio drama, whose budding crop of auteur producers sought to challenge existing norms and cultivate more self-consciously “literary” styles of narration.

Disagreeable to recall

Narration in H. G. Wells’s novel framed as an act of writing.

Professor Pierson in the radio version reads from his diary.

While not without their advantages, literary adaptations presented numerous technical challenges that formed the subject of extensive discussion in early production literature. Serving as presold properties and ready programming fodder, adaptations had the added advantage of lending prestige to sustaining shows such as Mercury, directly aiding its bid for commercial sponsorship as the rebranded Campbell Playhouse scarcely a month after WOTW’s airdate. However, the technical challenges of literary adaptation were often daunting. Early writers were warned to approach literary content with caution, as most conventions of print narration were wholly unsuited for broadcast purposes. NBC’s Assistant Continuity Director Katharine Seymour, for instance, in her 1931 manual, How to Write for Radio, noted that “in adapting printed fiction to radio, a complete transformation must be brought about,” since “there will be no fine descriptive passages to relieve . . . a hackneyed plot” or “make up for the lack of action.” CBS Continuity Director Max Wylie, in his 1939 Radio Writing, argued that “[no] piece of literature . . . cannot, somehow, be creditably transmitted to the radio audience,” but concurred that some posed serious problems. In particular, he noted, was “the problem of the one-man story” that “takes place substantially within a man’s mind and which we experience by being taken to this mind. Here is the radio problem . . . to whom is the man going to talk?”

“The last man left alive” – excerpt from H. G. Wells novel.

While monologue might seem the obvious choice, Wylie noted that, “radio, still clumsy in the way it handles monologue, usually handles it by leaving it alone.” In fact, he added, “leaving it alone is surely the best way to handle it,” as its use almost always “gives away the author and shows him as having stumbled into a quagmire that is the result of bad leakage in his structural plan.”


Max Wylie, Radio Writing (1939).

The WOTW script was among several tasked to Howard Koch, who recalled receiving his assignment with a copy of Wells’s book and “instructions . . . to dramatize it in the form of news bulletins,” then working tirelessly with coproducers Welles and John Houseman to refine this technique in advance of the broadcast. Dominating Act I, these news reports rely more heavily on verbal description than is often recognized, but frequent handoffs between characters and extensive action within each scene still readily satisfy Seymour and Wylie’s criteria for successful literary adaptation. Following the collapse of the nation’s radio infrastructure and extermination of the local populace at the end of the act, however, Wylie’s question returns: who is there to talk to, and how to avoid the embarrassment of unmitigated character monologue? How, in other words, to save radio from lapsing into print?

  • Excerpt from Act I: Long descriptive passages by commentator Carl Phillips are mitigated by dramatic action and periodic cuts to the studio announcer.
  • Excerpt from Act II: Long stretches of descriptive narration by Professor Pierson with minimal action and no additional voices.

If the reversion to novelistic conventions in WOTW from this perspective seems problematic, an alternative aesthetic trajectory may also be drawn that lets us see monologue as not merely a matter of poor craftsmanship, but rather as a contested category in larger struggles to renegotiate dominant production norms. As Neil Verma notes in his work on the aesthetics of Golden Age radio, a burgeoning group of auteur dramatists during the late 1930s and 1940s sought to stake their claim in radio and explore new storytelling possibilities for their medium. Less interested in policing boundaries between print and broadcasting than their forebears, many of these producers brought a distinctly literary sensibility to their work and pressed discarded techniques such as monologue into prominent use – from lengthy speeches in poetic verse for Archibald MacLeish’s “Fall of the City,” to Norman Corwin’s one-man play, “Soliloquy to Balance the Budget,” to more popular examples such as Arch Oboler’s Lights Out:

  • A criminal flees an angry mob in Arch Oboler’s “Super Feature” (Lights Out, March 16, 1938)

Such techniques retained their vitality in popular postwar programming, as well, from Suspense, to Philip Marlowe, Dragnet, and Frontier Gentleman:

  • Agnes Moorehead loses herself in the décor for Suspense’s dramatization of “Yellow Wallpaper” (July 29, 1948)
  • Joe Friday closes narrative gaps for a Dragnet narcotics bust, “The Big Man” (January 12, 1950)
  • Newspaperman J. B. Kendall fights rough in Frontier Gentleman’s “Charlie Meeker” episode (February 9, 1958)

As these examples illustrate, use of monologue quickly spread from a small cadre of experimental producers to a wide range of programming genres, moving in the process from a much-maligned embarrassment to an accepted and valued tool of radio narration.

Understanding the neglected second act of WOTW demands an appreciation of its problematic nature for a production culture that positioned character monologue as an embarrassing reminder of the medium’s continued struggles for autonomy and aesthetic legitimation. However, this production culture was itself significantly destabilized at the dawn of radio’s Golden Age, with its privileged norms actively contested by new writers and directors who sought to build their names and make their mark in the medium. At the end of the world, then, we perhaps find the beginning of new and larger story in the history of radio drama – one whose full telling will demand close attention to shifting styles and the production contexts in which they developed.

welleswtower_squareThis is the sixth post in our ongoing series in partnership with Sounding Out!From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 YearsStay tuned for the #WOTW75 collective listening experiment on October 30th that will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the original “War of the Worlds” broadcast.

Miss any of the previous posts in the series? Click here for links to all of the earlier entries.


From Mercury to Mars: “Welles,” Belles, and Fred Allen’s Sonic Pranks Tue, 01 Oct 2013 14:00:32 +0000 welleswtower_squareThe latest post in our From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 Years series (in conjunction with Sounding Out!) finds Kathleen Battles focusing on the humorous side of Welles. Specifically, the relationship between Welles’s post-“War of the Worlds” fame and how it was lampooned by Fred Allen, one of the great absurdist comics in modern entertainment and perhaps the most creative radio comedian of his era. Battles discusses how Allen made a career satirizing the cultural conventions of the day, with the radio industry itself being one of his favorite targets. The auteur genius figure of Welles was simply too rich a subject for Allen to forego.

Click here to read Kathleen Battles’s full post.

This post is the fifth in our ongoing series in partnership with Sounding Out!From Mercury to Mars: Orson Welles on Radio after 75 YearsStay tuned for Antenna’s next installment on October 14th, featuring Shawn VanCour on the aesthetics of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast.

Miss any of the previous posts in the series? Click here for links to all of the earlier entries.