On Oct. 30, 1938, radio audiences around America listened to, and panicked over, a CBS report about an alien invasion.
Listeners tuned in to a dramatization of “The War of the Worlds,” a novel by H.G. Wells, adapted by Orson Welles for the radio. An hour long, the play had no regular commercial breaks, leading listeners to believe aliens were actually invading America and only CBS was covering it.
Now 75 years later to the day, WHRW 90.5 FM will broadcast Welles’ radio play. Its event, “From Mercury to Mars: Welles and War of the Worlds at 75,” will celebrate the power of radio as well as Welles’ career as an artist. The original broadcast was an episode of “The Mercury Theatre on the Air,” a series of classic literary works adapted for radio by Welles’ Mercury Theatre company.
The three-hour listening party will be held at 7 p.m. in Appalachian Dining Hall’s common room in Mountainview College and broadcast live on WHRW. The first hour of the program will be a new audio-based documentary edited by Binghamton University alum Aaron Trammell ‘12, a doctoral candidate at Rutgers University. The documentary is co-produced by Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, the program’s host and an assistant professor in the English department who focuses on African-American literature and sound studies.
“[The documentary] features a dozen of the top media scholars in the country sharing their perspectives on radio in the 1930s, Orson Welles as an artist and radio man and on the alleged ‘panic’ the broadcast set off in 1938,” Stoever-Ackerman wrote in an email.
For the second hour, WHRW will rebroadcast Welles’ “The War of the Worlds.” Listening parties throughout North America and Europe will be united through the Twitter hashtag #WOTW75. Stoever-Ackerman said she is interested in understanding the difference between live events in the 1930s and in 2013, and observing how social media influences how people listen and experience being together “in the moment.”
“I am really interested in the cultural and social experience of liveness: its powers, its pitfalls and its potentials to shift social consciousness,” she wrote.
The final hour will include three panel discussions, a performance from local band Short Waves and sounds by students in Cinema 352: Performance Process. The class created a new soundscape for the final segment of the play, “after the invasion,” which originally used few sound effects. They used a combination of digital techniques along with older methods of sound recording that would have been used in the original “The War of the Worlds” broadcast. Some of the sounds were made by manipulating marbles by a microphone and by hacking into a coconut.
The first panel will be led by Stoever-Ackerman and will feature radio scholars Damien Keane, an assistant English professor at the University at Buffalo, Tom McEnaney, a comparative literature professor at Cornell University and Shawn VanCour, a professor of media, culture and communication at New York University. The second panel will consist of students at the listening party, and the third of the students in the Performance Process class.
“I wanted to inform the Binghamton University community, the Broome County area and, via WHRW’s online simulcast, global listeners about the history of radio in the 1930s, Orson Welles’ radio history and the history of the 1938 ‘The War of the Worlds’ broadcast, sharing the cutting edge of current radio and media scholarship with a wide and diverse audience,” Stoever-Ackerman wrote.