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Thursday, May 21, 2015

From Then to Now: A journey by a story teller who held the nation in his hands.


(A true story)

On the evening of October 30, 1938, radio listeners across the United States heard a startling report of a what was initially thought to be a meteor strike in the New Jersey countryside. With sirens blaring in the background, announcers in the field described mysterious creatures from outer space, terrifying war machines and thick clouds of poison gas moving toward New York City. As the invading force approached Manhatten, some listeners sat transfixed while others panicked and ran to alert neighbors or to call the police. Some even fled their homes flooding the roadways with cars and accidents.

All of this was reported by wire services and appeared in newspapers from coast to coast. There was only one hiccup. It was actually a radio program.

The next day, the Boston Globe's banner headline read: "Radio Play Terrifies Nation."

Orson Welles broadcasting
Yep, the play was a fake newscast... a tale spun by 24-year-old Orson Welles who, later in his remarkable career, was seen by many to be the greatest movie director of all time.

At this moment though, radio was the medium that made the most noise and Welles' Mercury Theater was one of its premier programs. There were no televisions or cell phones. Social media was limited to eavesdropping on the neighbors' party-line telephone conversations.

It was estimated that the radio drama was believed by more than a million people who didn't hear the disclaimer at the beginning of the program

Word spread from person to person and there was some sense of panic... but the reports that made the news turned out to be broad exaggerations with little basis in fact. Yet, the medium proved the message valid to many and Welles showed how to use its power. This, of course, was before Brian Williams was born.

Welles proved he knew how to move and motivate a listener. He showed it again with one of the top rated movies of all time, Citizen Kane.  And 30 years after his death, his unfinished last movie, The Other Side of the Wind will finally be produced for release this year, the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Rotten Tomatoes' list of the 250 greatest movies of all time, has Welles' Citizen Kane and his The Third Man as nos. 2 and 3, just behind The Wizard of Oz. If his new movie, 77 years after the radio broadcast, achieves as much, Welles would be the first to show such transcending breadth. 

An early radio
Today, from Star Wars to Avatar and beyond, special effects and new technology innovations have evolved and given us a pseudeo-sophistication. For those who have only seen a radio of that day in museums, radio was special in a way that anyone who hasn't had that original experience could never know. We have literally evolved our way past that emotion.

 Broadcast Hysteria by Brad Schwartz tells the story of Welles' radio play and "the art of fake news." But it's his conclusion that tells why early radio was the perfect medium for drama. Like a movie, it had all the scripting, actors, sounds and elements but the staging, costumes and visualizations powerfully play out in the mind.

Television, Schwartz says, demands visual depiction but radio captured its audience in a different way. "It's not so much that picturing the Martians in one's head makes them easier to believe, it is that people see the Martians they are ready to see."
Earlier radio broadcast
Radio was the true 'theater of the mind' and it was powerful.

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