The Panic Broadcast by Howard Koch

The Panic Broadcast - Howard Koch

The full text from the front cover - and there is a lot of it - reads:


"The Panic Broadcast, The Whole Story of The Night The Martians Landed, Orson Welles' Legendary Radio Show Invasion From Mars, The Complete Script, With Many Photographs, Cartoons And Newspaper Articles of the Astounding Aftermath!

An Introductory Interview with Arthur C. Clark"


And all that in 163 pages! This is a bit of history that I fell in love with in grad school and have happily revisited every October since - either dealing out some history fun to students (and playing bits of the broadcast), or just re-listening to it myself. Not only interesting in itself, it's also a key piece of history in mass communications and one of the early attempts to study listener engagement and response (by Hadley Cantril). There's also still discussion on how widespread the panic was and how much it was made to seem larger by the resulting press coverage.


From the back of the book:


"On October 30, 1938, the planet Earth was invaded by men from Mars.
On that unforgettable night, Orson Welles and his fellow actors broadcast a radio dramatization of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. The show lasted forty-five minutes...
The story of the nationwide panic that followed reads like science fiction. Thousands fled their homes in panic. Highways were jammed. One woman in Pennsylvania tried to poison herself. How could so many have been so prepared to be terrorized?
Howard Koch, the man who wrote the radio play, has compiled the story of the broadcast itself, and the panic that followed, and offers a fascinating examination of one of the most astonishing phenomena in history!"


A few wikipedia links for those wanting background: War of the Worlds (radio drama), War of the Worlds (book). 


And an interesting bit of history - this was not the first or last broadcast panic of its kind. In 1926, the BBC had a similar incident (BBC Radio Panic). There was also a re-staging of the War of the Worlds radio play in - I want to say Brazil... Ah ha, here we go, it was later on in the book, where Koch discusses the broadcast's aftermath:


p. 111: "...A year or so after our program a radio production group in Lima, Peru, appropriated the play, translated it into Spanish and broadcast it to their countrymen. Again a panic occurred but on a smaller scale since there were fewer radios within the broadcast range. However, the aftermath was even more drastic - in keeping perhaps with the Latin temperament. When the Peruvians found out they had been tricked and the world wasn't coming to an end, they decided to put it to an end, at least, to the offending radio station, burning it to the ground."


I was eyerolling over the Latin temperament part. I'm not sure whether Roth is getting the Peru incident confused with another one or whether this one in Ecuador in 1949 is a different event. (I think it's the same event, only Roth has the date wrong.):


War of the Worlds Broadcast, Quito, Ecuador (February 1949)

War of the Words Invasion, Historical Perspective; by the author of book Waging the War of the Worlds


The Other War of the Worlds Panic Broadcast: Radio and Death in Ecuador

Yahoo Contributor Network, Oct 13, 2009


Welles got a huge amount of publicity from the broadcast, and Koch not as much. Welles was often asked about it in interviews years afterwards - and again, Koch, not as much, since screenwriters were usually delegated to background roles in Hollywood. Though you shouldn't get too sad for Koch since he went on to be one of the screenwriters on Casablanca, and his name is definitely in all the Hollywood history books. (Well, most that I've read anyway.) Welles just makes for a more dramatic biography when you look at the whole career.


Anyway I'd known Koch had published a book about the incident and I'd always meant to hunt it down and read it - but since I knew it was short and covered information I'd already read elsewhere, it was never high on the priority list. But this October I checked to see what the used book prices were - and they were so incredibly low it seemed silly not to get one and finally read it. So I can now check this off the decades-old To Read list.


One of the things you realize as you read the radio play is that it's seeming dullness is what made it so believable. Because long portions of the script read as fairly standard announcements or interviews that listeners were used to, it was easy enough to believe it was real. Well, until the monsters part. But then factor in that the world was on the brink of World War II, and then the hysteria seems a bit more understandable.


The full story of the Panic is nicely put in context by the recent PBS American Experience episode:


War of the Worlds (video, also link to transcript)


That episode uses actors, but they're saying the words of people who were interviewed after the event, as well as taken from letters that were written to the network.




[In parentheses is the quote that's at the start of each chapter.]




I. The World Came To An End - Almost ("In a sense I myself was one of the victims...")

II. The Radio Play ("Incredible as it may seem...")

III. The Aftermath ("I thought it was all up with us.")

IV. A Martian Visits the Scene of His Crime ("...wild night.")

V. Mars: Fact and Legend ("A planet of ebbing life...")

VI. The Privileged Voice ("People can be made to swallow poison...")




Various Quotes:


In 1969 Koch interviewed Arthur C. Clarke, and compared the aliens in Childhood's End to those in H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds, p 6-8:


Koch: ...If beings actually do arrive from other worlds, do you believe they would be apt to be monstrous as Wells portrayed them or highly civilized and sympathetic as you imagined them in your novel?


Arthur Clarke: I think that the sort of unmotivated malevolence which is typical of many science fiction stories is unlikely because some of the invaders in space that we've encountered in fiction would simply have destroyed themselves before they got anywhere else. And as I've suggested in quite a few essays, with a very high intelligence would also go higher moral values because, without these intelligence is self-destructive. However, at the same time, one must admit that in a practically infinite universe almost anything is theoretically possible to happen somewhere...


...HK: If such an expedition is launched to reach Mars, what benefits to mankind can we expect?


AK: Well, we just don't know yet. The benefits, as far as we can see, will be largely scientific and they will be enormous because any discovery on a new planet produces vast quantities of knowledge which is valuable as part of man's heritage and which inevitably has all sorts of unexpected repercussions and practical applications which can never be foreseen in advance. I feel reasonably sure we'll be living on Mars some day and many people will eventually call it home and perhaps look down on earth as a terrible place and be glad they're on Mars.




p. 11: "...I was an astonished contributor to this bizarre event which still occupies students of social psychology searching for clues why rational behavior was suspended on such a vast scale. In the course of forty-five minutes of actual time - the invading Martians were presumably able to blast off from their planet, land on the earth, set up their destructive machines, defeat our army, disrupt communications, demoralize the population, and occupy whole sections of the country. In forty-five minutes!




From the script of the radio play, to give you a flavor of it:


p. 49-50, Carl Phillips, a commentator/reporter, and a crowd are watching a large cylinder in the smoking crater...


(Suddenly the clanking sound of a huge piece of falling metal.)


She's off! The top's loose!
Look out there! Stand back!


Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed...Wait a minute! Someone's crawling out of the hollow top. Someone or...something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks... are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be...


(Shout of awe from the crowd.)


Good heavens, something's wriggling out of the shadow like a grey snake. Now it's another one, and another. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing's body.  It's large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face.'s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate. The monster or whatever it is can hardly move. It seems weighed down by... possibly gravity or something. The thing's raising up. The crowd falls back. They've seen enough. This is the most extraordinary experience. I can't find words... I'm pulling this microphone with me as I talk. I'll have to stop the description until I've taken a new position. Hold on, will you please, I'll be back in a minute.
(Fade into piano)


p 57-58, after the Martian has attacked. Read the following and imagine tuning in to the channel and not realizing it's a play (and also imagine you don't live in an era with the motto "photo or it didn't happen"):


Announcer Two:
Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars. The battle which took place tonight at Grovers Mill has ended in one of the most startling defeats ever suffered by an army in modern times; seven thousand men armed with rifles and machine guns pitted against a single fighting machine of the invaders from Mars. One hundred and twenty known survivors. The rest strewn over the battle area from Grovers Mill to Plainsboro crushed and trampled to death under the metal feet of the monster, or burned to cinders by its heat ray. The monster is now in control of the middle section of New Jersey and has effectively cut the state through its center. Communication lines are down from Pennsylvania to the Atlantic Ocean. Railroad tracks are torn and service from New York to Philadelphia discontinued except routing some of the trains through Allentown and Phoenixville. Highways to the north, south, and west are clogged with frantic human traffic. Police and army reserves are unable to control the mad flight. By morning the fugitives will have swelled Philadelphia, Camden and Trenton. It is estimated, to twice their normal population.


At this time martial law prevails throughout New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. We take you now to Washington for a special broadcast on the National Emergency... the Secretary of the Interior...


p. 65:


Operator Four:
This is Newark, New Jersey...
This is Newark, New Jersey...
Warning! Poisonous black smoke pouring in from New Jersey marshes. Reaches South Street. Gas masks useless. Urge population to move into open spaces... automobiles use Routes 7, 23, 24... Avoid congested areas. Smoke now spreading over Raymond Boulevard...




 p. 92, section with copies of various news stories, On The Record column by Dorothy Thompson, New York Tribune, Nov 2, 1938


[Orson Welles and The Mercury Theater of the Air] "...have cast a brilliant and cruel light upon the failure of popular education.


They have shown up the incredible stupidity, lack of nerve and ignorance of thousands.


They have proved how easy it is to start a mass delusion.


...For Mr. Orson Welles and his theater have made a greater contribution to an understanding of Hitlerism, Mussolinism, Stalinism, anti-Semitism and all the other terrorisms of our times than all the words about them that have been written by reasonable men.


...A twist of the dial would have established for anybody that the national catastrophe was not being noted on any other station. A second of logic would have dispelled any terror. A notice that the broadcast came from a non-existent agency would have awakened skepticism."




p 149, Koch trying to look to the future here, a section I felt was a tad odd, but then also very 1970 (when this was published) (or wait, it actually sounds pre-1970). In any case he's obviously trying to channel some of Clarke's ability to predict future trends (which Koch covered in the introduction):


"...It is no accident that many of our youth today rejecting our future are wearing Indian beads and adopting a form of tribal life. As far as I can see, they have no interest in "conquering" anything. They are looking inward, seeking by meditation, music and sometimes by drugs to transcend the limitations of their senses, to "blow their minds" as they put it, meaning to expand their consciousness by direct contact with its source, the "cosmic mind" referred to in Arthur Clarke's Childhood End.


Admittedly this probe into the psychic is stumbling, often irrational and sometimes dangerous, but every experiment of any dimension takes its toll. Whether or not they achieve the breakthrough they vaguely envisage, at least they are taking the first bold step into practically virgin territory which could yield more in human terms than anything we might find on other planets."