by Tim Crook
When you consider the history of the twentieth century,
broadcasting skits or hoaxes are more associated with radio than with
television. This is because radio was the first electronic medium of mass
entertainment and radio is a more psychological medium. Its relationship with
its audience is based on an emotional and imaginative bond. In 1997 radio has
not lost its importance as a huge and significant source for news and
entertainment and the opportunity to hoodwink the audience is as strong as it
has ever been.
There are few people who are unaware of the panic created by the Mercury
Theatre on Halloween night 1938. The radio adaptation of H G Wells's 'The War
of the Worlds' had been transformed into a close representation of an American
entertainment programme interrupted by urgent news bulletins. Orson Welles is
credited with the idea, Howard Koch is credited with writing the script and the
outstanding, almost naturalistic acting of the cast is credited with convincing
hundreds of thousands of people that the Martians were invading New Jersey.
Professor Hadley Cantril at Princetown University researched and published
the only study into the relationship between the power and effectiveness of a
broadcast of this kind and the reaction of the audience. 'The Invasion From
Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic' remains one of the most significant
sociological and psychological studies of radio.
I think we can now say that the panic was the result of a mischievous
determination to shock and confuse by Orson Welles and the unusual circumstances
of the period and the actual day of the broadcast. I think the evidence
available to us indicates quite strongly that Orson Welles deliberately sought
to create alarm, although he did not anticipate the scale of the panic.
CBS was aware of the risks of listeners being taken in by the realism of the
writing and performance. Documentary evidence shows that producers insisted on
changing real place names to fictitious ones, but the ersatz place names still
had a ring of authenticity. Orson was conscious of the psychological impact of
Herbert Morrison's emotional ad-libbed radio description of the destruction of
the Hindenburg just over a year before. In fact the actor playing the reporter
in the production was directed to listen to and study the broadcast in a CBS
booth during the rehearsals. An attempt was made to mimic the voice of
President Roosevelt, and the production pastiched the texture of contemporary
networks which were continually interrupting music and soap opera broadcasts to
bring the latest news developments from European crises such as Munich and the
expansionist designs of the German, Italian and Japanese dictatorships.
The poignancy of the confusion can be attributed to the fact that the CBS
Mercury Theatre series had an intelligent audience that could engage powerfully
with the skilful imaginative and emotional manipulation of the Mercury company.
It would be classed as an ABC1 audience nowadays. It is claimed that the
audience was boosted on this particular night because the higher rated Charlie
McArthy Show began with an unusual operatic aria and its regular listeners
twiddled the dial and found dance music on the CBS networked station
frequencies. The drama programme's four per cent audience was probably boosted
by inadvertent desertions from the popular thirty four per cent audience for the
McArthy show. Listeners tuning in after the beginning of both programmes would
have been unaware that the drama was a fictional copy of contemporary radio icon
sounds and the Charlie McArthy show did not start with its usual content.
The rest, as they say, is interesting history. The power of radio was
established, Orson Welles's name reverberated around the world, Campbells' Soups
decided to sponsor the programme, and Orson later readily acknowledged in the
1980s that his plan to 'make a radio splash' got him to Hollywood to make
Citizen Kane. In fact his entree to Hollywood was exceptional in the degree of
artistic freedom given him.
The hysteria and controversy surrounding the 'War of the Worlds' broadcast
was also accentuated by the hostility of the newspaper media which had seen the
infant and now adolescent radio medium aggressively competing for advertising
revenue. Here was an opportunity to exaggerate the degree of the panic. It does
not appear that anyone died as a result, but listeners were treated for shock,
hysteria and even heart attacks. Somewhat suspiciously there were more newspaper
offices than police stations swamped with frantic queries: 'What is happening?
Where's the nearest bomb shelter? What must we do?'
The author of the original novel, H G Wells, was not particularly impressed.
On the following day he is reported as saying 'the dramatisation was made with
a liberty that amounts to a complete rewriting and made the novel an entirely
different story. It's a total unwarranted liberty'. By 1940 his attitude had
somewhat mellowed because he was happy to meet and be interviewed by Orson on
live American radio. Why had his early antipathy evaporated? It might have
something to do with the fact that the broadcast and publicity had boosted sales
of one of his more obscure novels.
Attempts have been made to imitate the War of the Worlds scam within
regulatory controls. Not surprisingly the US Federal Communications Commission
launched an urgent enquiry and produced a raft of laws for US broadcasters to
guard against deception of this kind again. Regulators in other countries
The 1996 BBC Radio One FM's production of Independence Day on Nicky
Campbell's show is an example of imitation. The invasion of British locations by
aliens had powerful parallels. The Phoenix, Arizona radio station KTAR620AM
lovingly produced a 1995 version placing the 'War of the Worlds' story in
contemporary Arizona and engaging their entire on-air and production talent in
the project. Producer Doren Fronterhouse went to St Mary's Basilica in Downtown
Phoenix to record the bells as they chimed on Halloween night 1995. The station
also warned its audience for many weeks that this programme was going to be
aired as their special Halloween 'trick or treat'.
Television has never been able to match up to radio for the force and terror
of 'broadcast panics'. A UK ghost hunting programme featuring celebrities such
as Michael Parkinson created a murmur of alarm one Halloween night in the 1990s
and BBC Television's early Panorama April Fool's joke about the spaghetti
harvests in Switzerland had a fair number of people fooled in 1957. Television
was a relatively new medium of mass communication and the authoritative
introduction and endorsement by Richard Dimbleby helped emboss the item with
Orson Welles's 1938 portrayal of the expert astronomer, Professor Pierson,
who is lost for words and has nothing to say in 'War of the Worlds', underlines
how the audience's reliance on experts and information icons can be used to
deceive and panic.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the year 1957 belonged to an era when
recreational travelling abroad was still the preserve of only the few. So faked
pictures of growing spaghetti combined effectively with the voice over:
"Spaghetti cultivation in Switzerland is not on
anything like the scale of the Italian spaghetti farms...Many of you will have
seen the huge spaghetti plantations in the Po Valley."
Richard Dimbleby's sign off cue 'And that is all from Panorama on this first
day of April' was too subtle a remark for those who had been easily deceived.
Viewers wrote in to ask where they could buy spaghetti plants and one viewer
asserted that the programme had got it wrong; spaghetti grew horizontally, not
Further research yields much richer examples of panic caused by radio spoofs
and cock-ups. A little known broadcast by the BBC from Edinburgh on January 17th
1926 convinced many listeners that a revolution in London had resulted in the
destruction of the Houses of Parliament by trench mortars and the Minister of
Transport being hanged from a tramway post.
The similarities between Father Ronald Knox's burlesque talk entitled
'Broadcasting the Barricades' and the 'War of the Worlds' fiasco are remarkable.
Once again the cultural context is relevant. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917
had created a moral and political panic in the West. British, American and
French troops had been actively fighting alongside the White Russians seeking to
crush the Soviet State. The first Labour government had been brought down by the
fake Zinoviev letter published in the Daily Mail and falsely alleging collusion
between Labour and the 'expansionist international communist conspiracy'.
Britain was only a few months away from the General Strike. Radio was generally
the preserve of the high disposable income middle classes, although by this time
it was being played in public places such as pubs and cafes.
Father Knox's burlesque was transmitted at 7.40 pm. The spirit of the talk
was punctuated by periodical announcements 'We will now switch over to the dance
band' or other light music. The 'War of the Worlds' was broadcast at 8 pm. US
Eastern Standard Time. The tension of the unfolding drama was heightened with
frequent announcements such as 'We will now return you to Ramon Raquello and his
orchestra' after frequent interruptions from flash bulletins. Father Knox's
script told the story of a mob of the unemployed assembling in Trafalgar Square
and being incited to sack the National Gallery. Having sacked the National
Gallery, it surged down Whitehall, attacked government offices, destroyed
wildfowl in St James's Park with empty bottles and then blew up the Houses of
Parliament using trench mortars. As Big Ben had fallen to the ground, listeners
were informed that in future the BBC time signals would be sent out from
Edinburgh. The burlesque became a representation of reality because the talk
was deliberately infected with human fallibility. A report that Mr Wutherspoon,
the Minister of Transport, had been captured and hanged from a lamp-post was
later corrected. He had in fact been hanged from a tramway post.
The 'War of the Worlds' broadcast reproduced the realistic fluffs of a live
outside broadcast at the farm where alien spaceships had landed. Reporter Carl
Phillips stumbled and asked his interviewees to speak louder into the
microphone. Another astonishing similarity is that Father Knox's talk finished
with the mob marching on Savoy Hill to destroy the BBC's then headquarters. War
of the Worlds script writer Howard Koch took some delight in wiping out the
Columbia Broadcasting Studios a few minutes before the end of the 1938 drama.
The Father Knox broadcast was accompanied by stage-managed sound effects of
explosions and a yelling, screaming mob. Listeners contacted newspaper offices
and the BBC to ask 'what is happening in London? Was it true that Big Ben had
been blown up? Had the National Gallery been sacked? and Was the Government
calling upon loyal citizens?'
In June 1944, the Germans had been given ample opportunity to appreciate the
imminence of the invasion of France. A 23 year old teleprinter operator from
Camden Town working in the London Fleet Street offices of Associated Press
accidentally ran the tape message that Eisenhower had announced a landing in
Europe three days before the actual event. The punched tape of the practice
flash had been fed into the live teletype machine. It took Joan Ellis only two
minutes to realise her mistake. By this time American radio networks had
broadcast the news. It had also been distributed across four continents. It was
timed 4.39 pm. on June 3rd, US Eastern Standard Time. The competitive American
radio networks were 'on the trigger' to be the first to announce the news. In
fact CBS veteran sportscaster Ted Husing interrupted his account of the Belmont
Stakes with the news 15 seconds after the AP false report reached the New York
newsroom. There has never been such a rush of apologies and corrections in the
history of broadcasting. Police stations, government departments and
broadcasting stations were still besieged by inquiries from millions of people
who had been convinced that the invasion of Europe had begun. Joan Ellis became
'The Girl Who Was Too Keen' and 'She Told World 'D-Day Is Here' - Apologises".
Fortunately the location of the landing had not been disclosed in the news
In recent decades, radio has been effective in developing a 'skit genre'
which engages the listeners in ironic entertainment rather than fooling them.
This is the realm of the spoof broadcaster who uses mimicry and verisimilitude
to deceive ordinary people, politicians and public figures into making fools of
themselves. 'Candid Camera' is the television equivalent. It is copied across
the world and provides huge entertainment. It also has the capacity to satirise
and play a subversive role. In Britain, Chris Morris has developed the technique
on Radio One FM and has transferred these skills to his Channel Four television
'Brass Eye' series. He has achieved a sophisticated level of entertainment as
well as exposing the cynicism of the Media's relationship with politicians and
pressure groups. He has tricked Tory MPs into offering obituaries about Michael
Heseltine and persuaded public figures to wax vacantly about the dangers of a
fictitious drug menace.
America's legendary shock jock Howard Stern has used 'spoofing' as just one
of the many subversive mechanisms to lampoon the world around him. But the
radio spoofer of the century award should probably go to Montréal's
Pierre Brassard whose 'Blue Powder Drive Home Show' on station CKOI has
successfully duped his holiness the Pope, Her Majesty the Queen and Brigitte
In October 1995, Brassard convinced the Queen that he was Canadian prime
minister Jean Chrétien. He was able to persuade her in a 17 minute
telephone conversation that it would be a good idea if she could broadcast an
appeal to the French-speaking province of Québec not to break away from
Canada in yet another nail-biting referendum. Part of the extraordinary
conversation was in French with Brassard asking 'Are you wearing a costume for
Halloween?' She replied: 'No, no. It's for the children'. This scam was
achieved through the skill of Brassard's cheek and mimicry and the Queen's
misfortune that her officials could not confirm the authenticity of the call
beforehand because Chrétien had been out campaigning. The broadcast had
political poignancy because it exposed an element of bias in the Queen's
attitude to the Canadian debate over Québec's independence.
The development of phone-in and talkback programming in the last 25 years
has provided the opportunity for audience interactivity so that listeners can
now turn the tables against the broadcasters themselves. The limited amount of
time and resources available to check phone-in contributors provides an
environment 'ripe for the picking'. US 'over the edge' sound artists have
already succeeded in disrupting licensed programmes through phone-in
participation as well as using illegal transmitters to 'crash' on established
frequencies. It would not be inconceivable for a group of subversive
broadcasters to 'swamp' an existing news phone-in programme with realistic
reports of a catastrophic event tinged with political embarrassment. Back-up
calls from apparent emergency services could easily convince the station's
newsroom of the authenticity of the event. More highly staffed and experienced
national newspapers have been duped by lone hoaxers such as 'Rocky Ryan' whose
efforts have created front page embarrassment, and the newspapers had the
advantage of hours to make a proper evaluation. In radio, presenters and
producers have minutes and seconds.
I am aware of two young playwrights who have been regularly contributing to
national and local phone-in programmes with a repertoire of spoof characters.
They have been copying the material to use in a future stage play. The late
Peter Cook used an assumed character to communicate on the overnight programme
of the London independent station LBC.
So the spoof potential of radio lies in the willing desire to suspend
disbelief. If this can be described as a human weakness then it is present in
all of us. In radio, both listener and broadcaster can now find ways of exposing
the medium's vulnerability.
this web page is brought to you by: