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War of the Worlds – Reflections on Radio Broadcasting

war of the worlds

Reflecting on the U.S. elections, I thought of a 1938 radio broadcast – War of the Worlds.

On the last Sunday evening in October 1938, Earth was invaded by aliens. Sort of. The CBS radio network broadcast Orson Welles’ adaptation of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. More than a few listeners thought it was real. At least, that’s what we were told.

According to Wikipedia, newspapers printed at least 12,500 articles about the broadcast and its impact. “In the days following the adaptation, widespread outrage was expressed in the media. The program’s news-bulletin format was described as deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast and calls for regulation.”

War of the Worlds was an interesting media event for several reasons. First, it demonstrated the power of this relatively new media to engage the masses. Second, it opened the door wide for media to spend a lot of time talking about media. Truth is, War of the Worlds had very few listeners. The program had a market share of less than 2% and few were fooled. The panic was largely an invention of subsequent newspaper coverage and what we today call “spin”.

Could War of the Worlds Happen Again?

Yes, it just did. Media talking about media, talking about media, and so on forever. Most of us in Canada (and likely elsewhere) got awfully tired of U.S. Election coverage. Particularly that of Donald Trump. The man actually had very little to say. And most of it was limited to 140 characters of less. Then the mass media jumped in with hours of commentary, interpretation and deconstruction, mainly of what each other was saying.

The difference from 1938, though, was that mass media was joined by social media and related web sites. Events in 1938 were bad enough, with hysteria driven by thousands of newspaper articles over three weeks. Imagine what life might have been like with a continuous feed of tweets and wall postings about the alien invasion. I am sure there would have been some really creative You Tube videos, as well.

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