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Orson Welles then and Opie & Anthony now: The decline of shocking entertainment

By C.T. Rossi
web posted September 2, 2002

The true power of the modern mass media was revealed on October 30, 1938. The specific medium in question was radio - more specifically, the CBS radio network. The small group of men and women rammed through boundaries heretofore unbroken. They were the members of the Mercury Radio Theater - their leader, a brash (and rash) young genius, Orson Welles. What Welles and company did that night was stage a radio drama, namely The War of the Worlds, which launched a mass hysteria in a nation-wide listening audience.


The technique that made Welles' broadcast adaptation so terrifyingly effective in paralyzing audiences with fear was a mock reality. Though Welles provided a disclaimer in the prologue to the story, once the actors began the story, it sounded like an actual news report and those who tuned in late to the broadcast heard 40 minutes of "news" before the next disclaimer was read.

In that first portion of the program, listeners thought that they had tuned into the music of Ramon Raquello and his Orchestra from the Meridian Room of the Park Plaza Hotel, but soon enough the dance music was interrupted by an "emergency news report" from the most unlikely of places - Grover's Mill, New Jersey. While many people in the New York/ New Jersey metropolitan area had never heard of Grover's Mill, soon all of America would "know" that this small town near Princeton was the staging ground for a Martian invasion of the Earth.

What was described to the listening audience that night sounded as real as the description of the Hindenburg crash, which coincidentally (or perhaps not) occurred in New Jersey less than 18 months before the broadcast of The War of the Worlds. By Halloween morning, the New York area newspapers were filled with reports that thousands of people had placed calls to newspapers and police seeking advice about protective measures that could be taken against the poison gas used by the Martians. The New York Times alone received close to 900 inquiries from concerned citizens.

But while most media outlets were content to report the aftermath of Welles' product, most journalists did not have the perspective to stop to realize that a seminal moment had been reached in the history of mankind. One did, however.

Writing about Welles and his troupe in the New York Tribune, Dorothy Thompson understood the full implications. She noted that "few effective voices" convinced the general public of the "totally unreasonable." She likewise realized that the effects of the broadcast "demonstrated beyond a question of a doubt, the appalling dangers and enormous effectiveness of popular and theatrical demagoguery...". Thompson rounded out her brilliant analysis by comparing radio reports of Hitler's army, which terrified Europe a month before, to Welles who "scared thousands into demoralization with nothing at all."

The dangers of "popular and theatrical demagoguery" are still present today though the techniques are used more for cheap carnival antics by "shock jocks" than the skill displayed by Welles.

Recently, WNEW-FM in New York cancelled the Opie and Anthony Show when it was learned that a Virginia couple, who had been arrested for having sex in New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral, were enticed into the act in order to win prizes from the radio show. The "world" created by radio entertainment which Orson Welles used to terrify a nation for an evening is now under the control of people base enough to use the medium to suborn public sexual acts that are both illegal and sacrilegious. Given today's "reality entertainment" culture, WNEW executives displayed uncommon good judgment in holding the shapers of the media-created fantasy world responsible for the actions of those they influence.

After the broadcast of The War of the Worlds, Orson Welles found himself the center of great public controversy. CBS, hearing that an FCC investigation might be forthcoming, even contemplated canceling the Mercury Theater. The broadcast also raised the ire of censorship advocate U.S. Senator Clyde Herring of Iowa, who saw radio as a demoralizing force on American society and was advocating that all radio broadcasts be subject to government review.

While Welles' critics overreacted to what was essentially a piece of brilliant hoaxical theater, people at the time did have salutary fears that any mass medium has inherent dangers in its application. As the "fourth wall" between drama and the audience is slowly destroyed by "reality television" and interactive shock jock contests, no longer does anyone seem to see the danger in confusing what makes good entertainment and what is real.

C.T. Rossi writes on contemporary culture and politics for the Free Congress Foundation.

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