scripts and microphones

the psychological power of radio


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.


war of the worlds

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.


Orson Welles

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?'


H.G. Wells

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 followed suit.


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 credibility.


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 vertically.


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 flash.


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 Bardot.


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.



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