Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Journey Back to Radiofrightopia

It's not that American radio, in general, is a bad broadcast medium now. It's just not as much fun as it once was. Everything is so corporate and regimented, with little room or, frankly, tolerance for spontaneity. Each minute is planned out by the book, every song played is slotted for a specific time, and pretty much every caller to a talk show on any level is screened, lest they interfere with the "flow" of a particular show. In many cases, radio stations which offer a menu of new or even old music must pay recording labels and faceless middle men immense sums of money, and in today's economy finding sufficient sponsorship to pay for it all can be a nightmare, so sometimes even sponsors of questionable repute are welcomed into the fold. It's all so damned complicated now. Unfortunate corporate decisions, lawsuits, government interference, fast-track options, sellouts and buyouts have all left their mark on an industry either too wounded or drugged out on an airwave high to notice its own arterial blood spurts. The intimacy between broadcaster and listener has suffered tremendously. That's progress, some might say. Oh yes, there's money in radio, sometimes big money, but what one gains in comparison with what one loses can be important. A plethora of faithful listeners doesn't always equal success.

Sometime in the 1960s I purchased the premiere issue of an old copy of Radio Digest. Dated February, 1939, the publisher intended to showcase transcripts or adapt sections from broadcasts of important radio programs of the era. I think I purchased it via mail order because it featured a piece about Mercury Theater's famous "War of the Worlds" presentation of October 30, 1938. (Not to be confused with broadcaster Glenn Beck's company, also called Mercury, which I believe was named to pay homage to Orson Welles' organization -- but, by the way, isn't that sort of like Disney trying to copyright the term, "Seal Team 6?" Maybe some things perfectly named should simply be left alone and admired from afar, the fragrant historical bloom of their existence left intact.)

In fact, Radio Digest included the entire transcript of H.G. Wells' drama as performed by Orson Welles and his fellow Mercury Theater players. Yes, this was long ago -- even the cartoon shown here jokes about the Nazis, whose intentions and ability to inflict colossal international horrors were on the verge of making the world sit up and finally take notice.

The Mercury Theater actors, we are told, perched before their "live" radio microphones, wrapped in anxiety because they felt Wells' book was "old-fashioned," and the listeners' likely boredom with the old "men from Mars" theme would cripple audience numbers.

However, they failed to realize that members of the public who tuned in faithfully to hear (ventriloquist) Edgar Bergen and (his wooden associate) Charlie McCarthy on another network would tune in to the Mercury Theater broadcast long after preliminary warnings about "War of the Worlds" being a fictional broadcast. Nor, it seems, did the Mercury Theater players realize the frighteningly realistic depths to which they would carry their dramatization. Remember, this was a time long before television, when radio and newspapers were the ruling media. Ethereal voice transmissions reaching family radios provided entertainment and time-passing trivialities, as well as important news.

The rest is well-recognized history, of course, and even today UFO researchers accept that the panic ensuing due to that broadcast weighed heavily upon future U.S. government attempts to curb public interest in real UFO incidents.

What sort of panic erupted during radio's finest scary moment in 1938? According to Radio Digest, drawing upon reports originally printed in a publication entitled Radio Guide Weekly, the instances abounded:

Police officer John Morrison, in charge of the switchboard at the Bronx Police Headquarters watched as "all the lines became busy at the same time." The first caller he took shouted, "They're bombing New Jersey!" The excited caller explained that he heard it on the radio, and upon going to his roof "could see smoke from the bombs, drifting toward New York."

"I can see the fire from here!" insisted a Boston woman speaking with a newspaper reporter. "I'm getting out of here!" she exclaimed. "Everybody in the neighborhood is getting out of here!"

From San Francisco, a caller asked, "My God, where can I volunteer my services? We've got to stop this awful thing!" In a cruel twist of fate, the city power plant at Concrete, WA "failed at the height of the broadcast," plunging already terrified residents into darkness and a firm conviction that Martians had landed. Many fled into surrounding hills and would not return to their homes until searchers went looking for them.

Evidencing something a bit more extreme, a Pittsburgh man arrived home amidst the broadcast to find his wife clutching a bottle of poison, screaming, "I'd rather die this way than like that!" Interrupting what could have been the golden news story of which tabloids of the yet-unborn fifties would drool over, the husband grabbed the poison and succeeded in calming his frantic wife.

Reminiscent of a John Waters film, an hysterical woman in Indianapolis rushed into a church during evening services and threw the entire congregation into panic mode and flight when she screamed, "New York is destroyed! It's the end of the world! You might as well go home to die! I just heard it on the radio!"

In New Jersey, a man reportedly phoned New York's Dixie Bus Terminal, warning them to "keep your buses out of the war zone." Offering no additional information, he simply announced, "The world is coming to an end, and I have a lot to do."

Finally, from East Orange, New Jersey, Radio Digest tells of a man searching desperately for gas masks, but only finds two ammonia masks, inadequate for modern warfare. Feeling unable to protect his wife, three children, mother-in-law and himself in any other way, he loaded his shotgun. "If we could not escape the gas I was going to use the gun to kill my children," he explained. "And when I found out it was only a play I wanted to kill the man responsible." (Contemporary societal note: Proper marital etiquette suggests that any similar situation occurring today might result in the man shooting his mother-in-law "by accident," using a fear-of-aliens defense in court. Successfully.)

More than 70 years after the Mercury Theater incident, radio broadcasts continue to bring horror stories to anxious listeners. Unfortunately, most of the worst stories aren't fictional -- and yes, as we said, the fun is gone, traded away for the complexities and uncertainties resolutely ensconced in a world tethered by hopelessly scrambled brains.