Halloween is typically the most active day of the year for shortwave pirates…so, here are two things you’ll want to do this Halloween:
Check out Andrew Yoder’s new pirate radio blog with its deceptively simple title, the Hobby Broadcasting blog. Andrew is the author of the Pirate Radio Annual and a guru on shortwave pirate radio. His blog is still relatively new, but he has already posted several station loggings and QSLs. He’s even logged some Halloween stations, as Halloween began last night in Universal Time.
Like Andrew, listen for pirate radio stations today! Turn on your radio anytime today, but especially around twilight and tune between 6,920 – 6,980 kHz. Pirates broadcast on both AM and SSB; you’re bound to hear a few.
Without a doubt, one of the most famous broadcasts in radio history––indeed, in American history––was Orson Welles’ radio production of the H. G. Wells’ classic sci-fi novel, The War of the Worlds. A Halloween radio drama from the The Mercury Theatre on the Air series from the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), The War of the Worlds aired on October 30, 1938–exactly 75 years ago, today. And it’s still creating a stir…
The Welles’ production of The War of the Worlds invariably receives a side note or breakout in US history texts because of the unprecedented panic it incited in unsuspecting radio listeners during the tense period just prior to World War II, when radio was truly king of mass media and information. Listeners reportedly took to the streets upon hearing the Mercury Theatre’s seemingly credible “accounts” of monsters from Mars invading New Jersey.
Because many listeners tuned in the production without hearing the Welles’ introduction to the drama, they heard what sounded like a live news report of Martians attacking our planet. While it seems dubious today, what made Welles’ production so convincing was his innovative use of mock news breaks, and what listeners described as a “deafening” silence after a supposed “eyewitness report.” It sounded, in short, terribly authentic, and therefore convincing.
Few believe Welles was intentionally trying to trick his audience; rather, sources suggest he was attempting to treat his listening audience by infusing what would have otherwise been a fairly staid radio drama with imagination, creating a captivating thriller.
The result? By most accounts, Welles’ succeeded. Without doubt, The War of the Worlds propelled this young theatrical director into the public spotlight, onto the big screen, and made his name known the world over.
Last night I had the pleasure of viewing a brilliant documentary about The War of the Worlds on PBS’s American Experience. It told, in detail, of the events leading up to the production, the very convincing reasons why it had the impact it did, and offered entertaining listener accounts from letters sent to CBS. If you missed it, you can watch it, too, by clicking here.
NPR’s RadioLab also devoted their most recent show to Welles’ production of The War of the Worlds. You can listen to their broadcast on their website, or via the embedded player below:
…Or forgettable myth?
Then this morning, I read a rather provocative article by Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow in Slate; their mutinous view of the impact of Welles’ The War of the Worlds broadcast flies in the face of the American Experience and RadioLab documentaries and, indeed, every history textbook which devotes space to Welles. These authors claim:
“The supposed [War of the Worlds] panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary in the PBS and NPR programs, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.”
The authors go on to explain that the myth of Welles’ mass hysteria was fabricated:
“How did the story of panicked listeners begin? Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.”
I believe Welles’ controversial radio production did something for radio listeners regardless of the level of panic it may––or may not––have engendered. Welles’ Halloween production left them (and us) with a gift. How so?
Prior to the dense radio propaganda surrounding World War II, The War of the Worlds undoubtedly made radio listeners, from that point forward, seriously question what they were hearing over the air. It forced them to listen with a skeptical ear, to realize that no matter how “real” a report might sound, not to assume its authenticity just because it was broadcast on the radio––or, for that matter, printed on the page of a newspaper. This was to become an invaluable tool in the coming days of American involvement in the war, especially for GIs desperate for news from the home front while propaganda seized the media. Whether during Welles’ thrilling production or in the news frenzy that followed, radio’s power had been publicly highlighted, and that power was sure to have an enormous impact on the coming world war.
In conclusion, perhaps we need another such event in this age of television and Internet. All too many people no longer question what they see, read, or hear from either source; these readers/viewers accept reporting of any stripe with blind faith, swallowing news bites and opinion pieces like digital candy. Then they tweet…and re-tweet.
Indeed, this is a common complaint I hear from many shortwave radio listeners. I suspect this is because we, in contrast, tend to be motivated by hearing the many differing voices on the air and allowing our grey matter––our brains––to discern fact from fiction.
We owe Welles a debt of gratitude.
But don’t take my word for it…
Regardless: whether Welles created widespread or merely local panic, or whether you even buy my theory that this production taught us to question what we hear, it’s difficult to deny that the Orson Welles’ production of The War of The Worlds was a brilliant, ground-breaking radio drama. And, I would add, great seasonal entertainment. Fortunately for us, almost 75 years later (nearly to the minute!), we can listen to archived recordings of the original CBS production.
In the meantime, many thanks to Neil for sharing his personal radio history:
I developed a love for electronic things in general at a very young age. My folks had a huge problem with me taking phonographs apart to try to figure out how they worked. I remember my older brother Lee, starting a log of AM radio stations that he could receive, and getting a Wards Airline multiband radio that received Shortwave. It was right about then (early 70’s) that I was given my first Shortwave radio. We had a family friend who lived nearby that had traveled the world. She referred to herself as The Baroness Charlotte Serneaux Gregori. She owned an import/export company in New York, and was an accomplished painter of abstract art. Her house was filled with things she had collected in her travels, and she found out that I was curious about Shortwave radio. She gave me a small National Panasonic AM/SW transistor radio. That hooked me.
My second radio also came from her. Another National Panasonic. I still have this one, but it is not functional anymore. I went through a series of radios, including some of the classics (Panasonic RF-2200, Sony 6500, Sony 2010, Sangean 803a). I owned some Ham Radio equipment for a time, hoping to get my license, but that didn’t happen till about 2 years ago.
Charlotte passed away when I was a teenager. I have a couple of her paintings in my possession, as well as that radio. I recently purchased a Bulova AM-SW transistor radio that reminded me of the original one she gave me. I am having it restored to its original glory, which I hope to also have done to the second one. That might be a bit more of a job though.
I think one of the most valuable things I got from radio listening was to get more than one view on world events. When something happened in the world, I would listen to the BBC, Radio Australia, Radio Canada, Radio Tirana (for comic relief mostly), and many others.
Neil’s Nissequogue River State Park QRP expedition
These days I’m a licensed Ham. I love experimenting, and playing with low-power equipment, and I’m thrilled with the way Ham radio has embraced my career in computers now with digital modes, SDR, and so much more. I have gotten back into building things. I have to think that being a SWL for 40 years before getting my Ham license gives me a different perspective on the world of Ham radio. With everything going on in that world for me, I still listen. I’m a little disappointed in the direction that Shortwave radio is heading, but there’s still something to hear, and multiple views and opinions to absorb. I miss the good old days, and wish I had some of todays technology back when there was more to hear. Can you imagine having a SDR in the early 80’s?
The BBC World Service Radio Archive (Prototype) contains over 50,000 digital recordings, spanning 45 years of the World Service; indeed, more than the BBC can tag and categorize by hand. Read below to learn how you can create a login with the archive, browse, listen to and tag recordings if you wish.
BBC Research & Development is running an experiment with the BBC’s World Service radioarchive to demonstrate how to put large media archives online using a combination of algorithms and people. With your help we aim to comprehensively and accurately tag this collection of BBC programmes.
This prototype website includes over 50,000 English-language radio programmes from the BBC World Service radio archive spanning the past 45 years, which have all been categorised by a machine. You can explore the archive, listen to the programmes and help improve it by validating and adding tags.