Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Broadcast Hysteria

Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News

A. Brad Schwartz

Hill and Wang



"Journalism and Showmanship"

We have spent so much time in the past few weeks listening to "special dispatches from the Press Radio bureau" that it was a relief to hear a few of such bulletins over which one did not have to feel concern.

-Daniel C. Knickerbocker, Jr., of Syracuse, New York, to Orson Welles, October 31, 1938

With the household around him in chaos, Oliver Whateley picked up the phone and called the police in nearby Hopewell, New Jersey. "Colonel Lindbergh's son has been stolen," he said in his pronounced Scottish burr. "Will you please come at once?"

It was the evening of March 1, 1932-five years after Whateley's employer, Charles Augustus Lindbergh, achieved international celebrity as the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Public fascination with the slim, handsome, and shy "Lone Eagle" had only continued to grow following his historic flight, as the decadence of the Roaring Twenties gave way to the despair of the early thirties. Lindbergh's quiet heroism and storybook family life gave Americans something to look up to as the world seemed to fall apart around them. Now the news that Lindbergh's twenty-month-old son had disappeared from his crib would shock a nation still suffering through the darkest days of the Great Depression.

Within half an hour, newsrooms in three states had gotten word of the crime and begun frantically revising their front pages. A horde of reporters descended on Hopewell, and thousands of curiosity seekers soon followed, stampeding all over the Lindbergh estate and making a general mess of the crime scene. By the next day, when headlines nationwide screamed "LINDBERGH BABY KIDNAPPED," the daily routine of millions of Americans effectively ground to a halt. "Did you ever see such a day?" wrote the prominent humorist and columnist Will Rogers a few days later. "Nobody don't feel like doing anything, taking any interest in anything. The attention of the world is on a little curly haired baby. Until he is found we can't get back to normal."

Unable to focus on anything else, Americans hungered for news of the case. Newspapers, even though they printed countless extra editions, could never keep up. In one day alone, The New York Times answered over three thousand phone calls from people impatient for updates. And so radio, a relatively untried news medium, stepped in to meet the demand. Station WOR, out of Newark, had broken the news first, with a bulletin at 11:35 p.m. on the night of the kidnapping. Meanwhile, CBS and NBC dispatched crews to New Jersey, setting up impromptu studios wherever they could-in a hotel room, above a store, even in a restaurant. Both networks broadcast virtually nonstop for the next 150 hours, passing every bit of news they received on to anxious and eager listeners.

Broadcast journalism had been born twelve years earlier, in a hastily built shack atop a factory in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From that makeshift studio, station KDKA made history by reporting the results of the presidential election of 1920 as soon as they rolled off the news wires. But in the decade that followed, as the number of "radio homes" in the United States jumped from sixty thousand in 1921 to 16.7 million in 1930, broadcast news grew little beyond covering such special events. The Lindbergh kidnapping saga marked the first period of extended news coverage in the medium's history, the moment when broadcast journalism came of age, and it changed forever the speed at which news traveled. But, as the historian Robert J. Brown has noted, listeners embraced radio news not just because it was fast, but because it was riveting. The powerful intimacy of radio, which broadcasters were just beginning to understand, conveyed the drama and emotion of the "crime of the century" in a way print media never could. When, on May 12, 1932, police found the badly decomposed corpse of an infant and quickly identified it as the missing child, the entire nation mourned as one. Radio had helped create a collective loss of innocence; many would long remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they learned that the Lindbergh baby was dead.

This kind of shared national experience was an entirely new phenomenon. Never before in human history had such a great mass of people, spread over such a wide area, been able to follow events instantaneously. Radio allowed people to be both disparate and together, isolated yet involved; it helped foster a sense of national community at a time when economic and social turmoil threatened to tear the country apart. And no one understood this power better, or harnessed it quite as well, as the newly elected President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

When FDR took the oath of office on March 4, 1933, the American banking system had essentially collapsed. Thirty-eight states had temporarily closed some or all of their banks, forcing people to live off their pocket change or revert to the barter system as they waited to withdraw much-needed cash. Roosevelt had a plan to stabilize the financial system, but it had no chance of success if nothing was done to allay the nation's fears. So, on the night of March 12, he used the radio to make his case to the American people, reassuring sixty million listeners that their savings were indeed safe. In the first of what came to be known as his "fireside chats," the President explained, in simple and direct terms, why this crisis had occurred, how his administration planned to solve it, and what was required of the American people to make the plan work. Above all, he sought to dispel what he called "the phantom of fear," to prevent people from taking hasty or panicky action. "You people must have faith, you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses," he said. "Let us unite in banishing fear."

No president had ever spoken to the country like this, and the effects were immediate and unprecedented. A flood of telegrams from grateful Americans overwhelmed the White House as soon as the speech ended. Thousands of appreciative letters soon followed, each testifying to renewed faith in the future. Rather than rush to withdraw their savings first thing in the morning, people all over the country lined up to redeposit hoarded cash and gold. Within a month, $1.2 billion had returned to the banking system, and most of the shuttered banks successfully reopened. Roosevelt's address, and the cooperation of a nation, had staved off financial ruin. The radio had made it possible.

Roosevelt's success on the radio is often ascribed to his plain and straightforward speaking style, and to the unique timbre of his voice, which carried well over the airwaves. But that first fireside chat also showed his ability to capitalize on radio's immediacy, its "liveness," to spur listeners to action. In his speech, Roosevelt called directly on the American people to help pull themselves back from economic catastrophe. "We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system," he said; "it is up to you to support and make it work ... Together we cannot fail." Listeners responded to the urgency of his words because urgency is radio's defining characteristic. "What is heard on the air is transitory, as fleeting as time itself, and it therefore seems real," wrote the psychologists Hadley Cantril and Gordon Allport in 1935. By letting Americans hear history being made, radio came to represent the immediate present. Listeners learned to expect that what they heard over the loudspeaker was happening now, in the very moment of transmission. This quality of immediacy made momentous events seem even more pressing for radio listeners.

Throughout that Depression decade, radio delivered news of tragedies and crises from every corner of the continent with ever-increasing speed and intensity. To read about a faraway disaster in a newspaper was, in some sense, to learn about it in safety, far removed from the actual experience of living through it. But the radio made each catastrophe intense and immediate. Listeners, notes Edward D. Miller, actually felt transported by the words of correspondents and commentators as they experienced these tragedies in real time. Occasionally, the commentators themselves became a part of the story. In September 1934, when a devastating fire on the luxury liner SS Morro Castle killed 137 passengers and crew off the coast of New Jersey, radio broke the news first and covered the event throughout the day. As the announcer Tom Burley of WCAP in Asbury Park told his audience that the burned-out vessel was drifting toward shore, he looked out his window and saw the massive wreck sliding out of the mist. WCAP's studios sat right on the Jersey coast, and the Morro Castle was barreling straight toward his building. "My God," Burley blurted on the air. "She's coming in right here!" The ship beached a few hundred yards from where he sat, and in the following days, scores of New Jerseyites came to view the wreck, many of them drawn by the radio.

Other broadcasters stretched the medium's bounds far beyond New Jersey. Through transatlantic telephone wires and shortwave transmissions, radio regularly took Americans to Europe during one of the most tumultuous times in its history. H. V. Kaltenborn, the widely respected "dean of commentators" on CBS, recognized radio's ability to transport listeners and used it to educate his audience, whom he referred to as his "old traveling companions." In mid-1936, Kaltenborn even let Americans listen in to the sounds of actual fighting during the Spanish Civil War, as he hid with a microphone in a haystack near the Battle of Irún. Two years later, when Hitler's Germany annexed Austria, commentators like William L. Shirer and Edward R. Murrow brought eyewitness accounts of the fascist advance straight into millions of American homes.

All of a sudden, no crisis, disaster, or tragedy seemed truly remote anymore. Broadcast news kept Americans better informed about current events than they had ever been before, but it also kept the nation permanently on edge. "Instead of helping to relieve a disturbed people in time of war scares, floods, hurricanes, fires, etc., [radio] has taken the other side and for sensational 'scoops' kindled that fear with announcements breaking up programs," wrote one Connecticut man after the War of the Worlds broadcast. "Why, it is really sickening."Americans wanted to believe that the Atlantic and Pacific could isolate them from any future European war, but radio demonstrated that the world was much smaller than they thought. The very instrument that many turned to for escape and entertainment also helped make a scary decade even scarier.

Yet listeners remained fascinated with the medium's ability to connect them with distant happenings. They saw radio not just as a constant stream of information and entertainment, but as a newfound link to the outside world. Although smaller stations often aired prerecorded music or programming, the networks rejected the practice, because it violated radio's immediacy. "Even though such transcriptions cannot be distinguished by the majority of people from real performances, listeners feel dissatisfied," wrote Cantril and Allport. "The thought of a whirling disk cannot create the sense of participation in actual events that is radio's chief psychological characteristic." Or, as John Royal, vice president of NBC, put it in 1938, "The difference between a live program and a transcribed program is the difference between a pretty girl and her picture."

For this reason, the major broadcast networks banned the use of prerecorded content in the 1930s. Everything listeners heard over NBC and CBS in that decade-every concert, every dramatic program, every comedy show-aired live, because of preference, not technical necessity. The networks argued that the use of recordings in news broadcasts, even more than in musical or dramatic programming, was particularly deceptive-a "sort of hoax ... on the listener"-because audiences had been trained to regard radio shows as live events. By this logic, truth and liveness went hand in hand; one could not exist without the other. A recording, even of a real event, seemed less authentic to 1930s listeners than a live performance of a fictional program.

This posed a serious problem for broadcast journalists, since news rarely occurred within easy reach of a live microphone. Broadcasters often had to get creative in bringing news to their listeners with all the drama and immediacy that their medium allowed, without violating the ban on recordings. For example, when Bruno Richard Hauptmann went on trial for the Lindbergh kidnapping in early 1935, NBC re-enacted each day's testimony on air, with one announcer portraying the witness and the other the questioner. The judge had banned all microphones from his courtroom, so this was as close as listeners could get to "the trial of the century."

One news event, more than any other, challenged the networks' stance on prerecorded content. On May 6, 1937, the German zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg completed the first transatlantic trip of its second flying season. It came in for a landing over the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, just after 7:00 p.m., before a small crowd of reporters and photographers, as well as one radio correspondent. Herbert Morrison and the sound engineer Charles Nehlsen had come all the way from Chicago to record the landing for station WLS. Because the program's sponsor, American Airlines, offered connecting flights to the Hindenburg, Morrison did his best to make the event sound exciting. He spoke of how tricky landing in the rain would be, and remarked on how the rays of the setting sun sparkled on the Hindenburg's windows "like glittering jewels on a background of black velvet." But his tone betrayed the banality of the situation. Despite the rain, this was shaping up to be just another routine landing.

Then a small jet of fire, shaped like a mushroom, burst from the top of the aircraft just ahead of its tail. In an instant, the highly flammable hydrogen keeping the ship aloft exploded, and the back half of the Hindenburgwas ablaze. Fire consumed the entire ship in a mere thirty-four seconds. "It's burst into flame!" Morrison shouted into the mike before he was cut off-the shock wave from the explosion had knocked the needle off the recording disc. But Nehlsen replaced it quickly enough to capture Morrison's voice as it went rapidly from calm to panicked to racked with emotion.

"Get this, Charlie!" Morrison screamed, forcing his way through the crowd to keep his eyes on the sinking dirigible. "It's crashing ... it's crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It's burning, bursting into flames and-and it's falling on the mooring mast and all the folks between it. This is terrible, this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world ... It's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It's smoke and it's flames now. And the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity, and all the passengers ... I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest, it's just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage ... I'm going to step inside where I cannot see it. Charlie, that's terrible ... Listen, folks, I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because I've lost my voice. This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed."

After composing himself, Morrison continued to describe the scene and to interview survivors, stopping frequently to help people get away from the burning wreck. All the while, he kept addressing the audience as if he were broadcasting live, even though no one would hear the record for hours. Word of the disaster first reached radio audiences in New York about eight minutes after the explosion, with a news flash over station WHN. NBC interrupted programming nationwide with an announcement about fifteen minutes later.Meanwhile, Morrison and Nehlsen rushed back to Chicago. Their forty-minute recording of the disaster and its aftermath first aired over WLS at 11:45 a.m. on the day after the explosion.

Despite the newsworthiness of Morrison's recording, the major networks hesitated to put it on the air. They still regarded prerecorded content as inauthentic and potentially deceptive, likely to mislead the audience into thinking they were listening to a live event. But NBC eventually aired an edited version, coast to coast, four hours after it had aired over WLS, breaking their own ban on recordings for the first time. Other stations soon followed suit. Each made sure to state carefully that they were about to air a recording and not a live report. But the piece was so vivid that many listeners still believed they were hearing the event as it happened. The networks' concerns about the use of recordings had, in a sense, been validated.

However, many Americans had already listened in on the Hindenburg explosion hours before Morrison's recording first aired. The networks had another way of making past events seem immediate, a technique widely praised and immensely popular-yet, in many respects, infinitely more deceptive than just playing recordings. The historian Erik Barnouw has noted that, in more recent years, this method would probably be considered criminal, an early version of identity theft. But in the 1930s, it was perfectly acceptable for radio stations to restage news events in a studio, complete with actors and sound effects, and broadcast them for later audiences, as long as the re-creation aired live. Broadcasters justified the practice by clearly stating that these were re-enactments, not recordings, and listeners embraced it as an entertaining way of reporting the news without breaking their connection to live events. The show that pioneered this technique was called The March of Time, and by 1937 it was probably the most popular news program on the air.

Listeners tuned in to CBS just two hours after the Hindenburg explosion would have heard an in-depth report on the tragedy from The March of Time. After giving a brief history of the zeppelin's development, the show let listeners hear the terrible explosion itself, complete with the sounds of "frenzied cries, crackling flames, and crumpling girders." None of those noises were real. With scant information to work from, The March of Time's writers and technicians had thrown together a re-creation of what they thought the event had sounded like, long before anyone had heard Herbert Morrison's recording. But it would have been difficult for 1930s audiences to tell the difference between the recording and the re-creation. Although broadcasters clearly labeled both for what they were, their incredible realism made at least some listeners think of each as a live event. They seemed more real than reality itself.

* * *

This "new kind of reporting the news," as the first episode of The March of Time proclaimed itself, almost didn't get off the ground. It began in 1931 as an advertising campaign for the young Time magazine, the brainchild of Roy Edward Larsen, general manager of Time, and the Ohio broadcaster Fred Smith. They felt that bringing the stories in a current issue of Time to vivid life on the air, using the techniques of radio drama, would greatly increase the magazine's circulation. But Larsen worried about impersonating real people, because he knew that many listeners would believe the impersonations were real. Smith replied that they would take pains to portray the characters as accurately as any "serious" news show ever could. "How could the newsmakers object," wrote the radio historian John Dunning, "unless they objected to what they themselves had said?"

Larsen pitched the concept to Time Inc. founder Henry Luce as a combination of "journalism and showmanship," but Luce did not care for it. As the film scholar Raymond Fielding has noted, the two men had fundamentally different philosophies about the news business. "To Luce, journalism is a crusade," wrote one colleague in 1937, "to Larsen a game." But Larsen's enthusiasm and cajoling eventually won out. Luce agreed to fund first a pilot episode and then a thirteen-week season on CBS. Because Larsen used only top radio talent-the best announcer, the best director, and the very best actors he could find, not to mention a full orchestra-the show proved exorbitantly expensive, costing about six thousand dollars per episode, equivalent to over ninety-four thousand dollars today. Luce strongly doubted that The March of Time, as it soon came to be known, would be worth it.

The first episode of The March of Time-which brought listeners impressions of such figures as Mahatma Gandhi and Chicago mayor "Big Bill" Thompson, among many others-established the format that the show would follow for almost a decade. Each script was based on the current issue of Time, expanding news items in the magazine into half a dozen dramatic scenes. The writers straddled the line between journalist and dramatist, drawing facts from the magazine as it was being put together. If the outcome of a story was uncertain, they wrote different versions and chose which one to air at the last minute. Although they used actual quotations where available, the format of the show required them to make up most of the dialogue. They wrote lines that fit the facts as they understood them, but which the people portrayed on the show had never actually said. When this technique was later applied to a film series, also called The March of Time, Luce described it as "fakery in allegiance to the truth." Much the same could be said of the radio show. It may not have been fake news, but it was certainly faking the news.

Tying these disparate scenes together was the booming, disembodied voice of a narrator, dubbed "the Voice of Time" and portrayed variously by Ted Husing, Harry Von Zell, and Cornelius Westbrook Van Voorhis. He commented on the action with godlike omniscience, and his shouted catchphrase, "Time ... marches on!," cued the transitions from scene to scene. In effect, the Voice of Time embodied radio's power to transport listeners through space. At his command, the show whisked audiences across great distances as orchestral music blared. This effect lent the fictionalized scenes another layer of credibility. "In annihilating auditory distance," wrote Cantril and Allport of The March of Time, "the radio has to some extent destroyed for the listener his capacity to distinguish between real and imaginary events."

The Voice of Time also supplied the show's only commercials, brief statements at the beginning and end of each broadcast that extolled the virtues of Time. He read them in the same imperious tone as the rest of the narration, so they did not seem like ads. Instead, they helped enhance a false sense of the show's journalistic authority. "A thousand new details, new facts in the world's history, come into being every hour...," said the Voice of Time at the outset of that inaugural broadcast. "From every corner of the world come new facts about politics, and science, people, crime and religion, art and economics. There is one publication which watches, analyzes and every seven days reports the march of human history on all its fronts. It is the weekly newsmagazine-Time."

Audiences responded well to the first episode-the book publisher John Farrar wrote to Time that the show was so powerful it almost brought him to tears-and the series built a following over its first thirteen-week season. Listeners loved the fly-on-the-wall perspective it gave them on current events. Its producers (an advertising agency) built a sense of journalistic objectivity by never editorializing, and maintaining what Radio Guide later called "a positive mania for accuracy." As its first season came to a close, a poll of radio critics found The March of Time to be the third-most-admired drama on the air, behind two different series based on the Sherlock Holmes stories. But, despite all this goodwill, the show was still wildly expensive. All told, the season cost Time Inc. $211,000, the equivalent of over $3.3 million today-much more than Luce thought advertising was worth in those Depression days. And so, in early 1932, Luce announced that The March of Time would not be renewed for a second season.

Over twenty-two thousand listeners wrote to Time in hopes of saving the show. The magazine printed several of their letters in a two-page spread that February. More than one listener pledged to let his or her radio be repossessed if The March of Time did not return. Another threatened simply to throw his out the window. People described the show as a public good, saying that it did much to keep Americans informed. "I realize that TIME, itself, may well dispense with this feature as an advertisement," wrote one listener from Astoria, New York, "but your radio audience can ill afford to lose such a pleasure and such a delightful source of information as to what is going on in the world." Time Inc. replied that they were not about to spend money on advertising that did not work, simply for the sake of educating the public. They asked their readers: "As an army marches on its stomach, so under existing circumstances a radio program can keep marching only on somebody's dollars. Whose?"

Funding for radio programs, Time's editors well knew, was a controversial subject in the early 1930s. Unlike in most European countries, broadcasting in the United States was run as a business, paid for by advertising. Broadcasters carved up the day into the now familiar system of hours and half-hours, creating standard units of time that could be sold to sponsors. Those sponsors, in turn, sought programs that appealed to as broad an audience as possible, in order to get their ads before the maximum number of potential customers. This meant that the prime-time hours, when most people listened to the radio, were dominated by light entertainments: musical programs, variety shows, and stories of drama or comedy, each liberally sprinkled with commercials. Many people at the time saw this as a betrayal of radio's promise, its ability to enlighten and inform the public on a heretofore unimagined scale. The airwaves were held to be public property, licensed to station owners for a limited time. Broadcasters were expected to serve "the public interest," not just sell soap and cigarettes. As late as 1934, Congress seriously considered setting aside a quarter of all broadcast frequencies for noncommercial, educational use, though the proposal failed to make it out of the Senate.

To placate these reformers, American broadcasters aired a considerable amount of unsponsored programming at their own expense. Referred to as "sustaining shows," these included symphonic concerts, lengthy discussions of major national issues, and experimental dramas. As the broadcasting historian David Goodman has noted, the major networks essentially bent over backward to avoid a government cleanup of their industry by airing so much civic, educational, and high cultural programming. In the mid-1930s, stations typically gave between 60 and 90 percent of each broadcast day over to sustaining shows. But these were often the hours that could not be sold to advertisers anyway, such as those in the middle of the day or opposite a particularly popular program on another station, when few people would be listening. Most Americans still found their time with the radio constantly interrupted by ads for products like Jell-O and Pennsylvania Blue Coal.

Officially, The March of Time was just another paid advertisement, the exact opposite of a sustaining show. ButTime's editors cast it as a public service. In an editorial, they echoed the arguments of radio reformers in criticizing what advertising had done to broadcasting. "For all its blatant claim to being a medium of education," they wrote, "[r]adio contributes little of its own beyond the considerable service of bringing good music to millions." They implied that CBS itself should pay for any further episodes of The March of Time, the better to serve the public interest. And, after some behind-the-scenes negotiations, CBS did just that, reviving The March of Time in 1932 as a sustaining show. The network stopped footing the bill after that year's presidential election, but other corporations soon stepped in to fill the void. Electrolux, Wrigley's Chewing Gum, and other advertisers kept The March of Time on the air until 1939 by essentially paying for Time Inc.'s commercials. The show that blurred the line between news and entertainment, between fact and fiction, like none other on the airwaves, also managed to turn advertising into education.

Listeners, however, did not think of The March of Time as an advertisement, or even as a radio drama. They considered it a news program and trusted it as such. The show introduced many Americans to the most important figures of their day, from Winston Churchill to Joseph Goebbels, Haile Selassie to William Randolph Hearst-even if the voices were all fake. But the impressions were uncanny, and easily mistaken for the real thing. The son of the King of Spain, for one, could not distinguish his father's voice from his March of Timeimpersonator. The show attracted the best actors in radio-notably Agnes Moorehead, who frequently portrayed Eleanor Roosevelt-and required them to research their subjects extensively until their impressions were exact. When prominent people died, even controversial ones like Bruno Hauptmann or Senator Huey Long, their doppelgängers on The March of Time often felt a unique sense of loss.

The most popular impersonation by far, and perhaps the most exact, was a voice that Americans already knew very well: Franklin Delano Roosevelt's. As with the other impressions, many listeners assumed that the show somehow used the President's real voice. "Why don't you tell us when you are using a record?" one March of Time listener complained in 1932. "Everyone knows that was a gramophone record of Mr. Roosevelt you put on last night." Time's editors always made clear that Roosevelt's voice, recorded or otherwise, never appeared on their show. But many still believed that they regularly heard the President on The March of Time, and this became a matter of concern for the Roosevelt administration. FDR's voice was a powerful instrument, with the proven ability to calm a nation. Roosevelt worried that by constantly counterfeiting it The March of Time would dilute some of its power.

Soon after Roosevelt's inauguration, the White House asked The March of Time to stop impersonating the President. After some hesitation, they complied, announcing that they would remove FDR from their cast of characters in early 1934. More letters from dismayed listeners poured into their offices, asking both The March of Time and the President himself to change their minds. "Much as Mr. Roosevelt uses the radio, we still have little opportunity to hear from his own lips the living drama of the New Deal," wrote one Californian. "'The March of TIME' supplied the missing links. True, the Voice issued from the lips of an actor, but verisimilitude gave life to the conned lines."

The loss of Roosevelt's voice did nothing to hurt The March of Time's popularity. It remained beloved by listeners and critics, and its style of "fakery in allegiance to the truth" was widely influential. Many smaller stations used the March of Time technique to dramatize local news stories. Detroit's WJR, for example, aired aMarch of Time clone called News Comes to Life that restaged news events just like its predecessor. A poll conducted in 1939 found that the vast majority of radio listeners (95 percent) liked The March of Time's style of "dramatized news" better than regular news reportage, and this should not be surprising. Unlike straight news commentary, which was allowed to be dry, The March of Time's primary goal was to entertain. And, of course, to sell magazines.

Throughout its run, The March of Time caused occasional misunderstandings and even serious confusion. The most notable incident occurred in 1937, when a Hawaiian radioman picked up an episode about the search for Amelia Earhart and took it for a transmission from the missing aviator. But more dangerous, perhaps, was the way it turned current events into a kind of theater, by focusing on personalities rather than hard facts. This effect soon found its way into the political sphere. During the presidential election of 1936, the Republican National Committee produced their own March of Time-style program, titled Liberty at the Crossroads, dramatizing what they considered the negative consequences of the New Deal. Like The March of Time, it used an omniscient narrator-not the Voice of Time but "the Voice of Doom"-to warn Americans about the growing national debt. That same year, Michigan senator Arthur Vandenberg produced his own news "dramatization" called A Fireside Mystery Chat. It used clips from Roosevelt's speeches, taken out of context, to stage a mock debate with the President. CBS aired the show with reservations, only to cut Vandenberg off halfway through-because, they claimed, he had violated their ban on the use of recordings. One wonders if he could have stayed on the air by employing an actor, and not the President's actual voice. Both shows foreshadowed the negative campaigning and theatricality that would define elections in the television era, and they show the clear influence of "fakery in allegiance to the truth."

The March of Time has a complicated legacy. Broadcasting historians often praise its artistry and ingenuity, and justifiably argue that it did much to get Americans interested in current events. But it also mingled fact and fiction in a dangerous way, confusing public service with naked commercialism. Its fusion of news, entertainment, and advertising set the stage for other programs, less interested in accuracy or fair play, that were to follow. Much of twenty-first-century news coverage owes more, perhaps, to Larsen's vision of "journalism and showmanship" than to the hard news coverage of H. V. Kaltenborn and Edward R. Murrow. AndWar of the Worlds owes The March of Time an even greater debt.

* * *

"We take you now to Nuremberg, Germany..." For Americans listening to CBS at 2:15 p.m., Eastern Time, on September 12, 1938, so began eighteen days of anxiety as Europe teetered on the brink of war. Listeners heard Adolf Hitler demand that the Sudetenland, the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia, be ceded to Germany immediately. If the Czechs refused to give it up, Hitler made clear that the Nazis would take it by force. Thanks to a quick translation from CBS, Americans knew that this territorial dispute thousands of miles away could, in the very near future, throw the world into another total war. Suddenly the "jitters" felt in England, France, and Czechoslovakia were felt just as strongly in the United States.

In the following weeks, American radio networks routinely interrupted their regularly scheduled programming to deliver late-breaking news bulletins. By the end of the crisis, rarely an hour went by on CBS without some kind of news report. Listeners got used to hearing these interruptions, and to trusting them implicitly, because events were moving so fast that only the radio could keep up. "In the minds of the masses of American people radio has grown to occupy a supreme place as the disseminator of accurate, unbiased, last minute news...," wrote a Maine woman to the FCC after War of the Worlds. "During the recent war scare especially we came to depend on our radio ... to interrupt regular programs for the most recent news." A few weeks later, when this listener and many others tuned in to what sounded like authentic news reports of an armed invasion of the East Coast, there was little reason to doubt them.

Nine days after Hitler's ultimatum to the Czechs, another event paved the way for War of the Worlds. On September 21, 1938, one of the most devastating hurricanes in recorded history slammed without warning into New England. Whole seaside communities were swept away, and the topography of some areas was virtually rewritten. The "Great Hurricane of 1938," as it came to be called, left about seven hundred people dead and another sixty-three thousand homeless. It remains the deadliest storm ever to strike New England, because it caught the region entirely off guard. Residents were left in a state of shock, reeling at the thought that such destruction could come so completely out of nowhere. Some who tuned in late to War of the Worlds, just over a month later, were ready to believe in yet another unexpected catastrophe. "The people of New England have just gone through a flood and hurricane and were particularly susceptible to this program...," wrote a New Hampshire man to the FCC. "The flood and disaster [were] a fine example of radios [sic] ability to help in an emergency but after last night the people have lost faith, I believe."

Yet so caught up was the rest of the country with developments in Europe that the Great Hurricane was largely ignored outside of New England. On September 29, the four powers reached a deal. In exchange for peace, they gave in to Hitler's demands. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain called the deal "peace with honor ... peace in our time." American broadcasters were also celebrating. Thanks to their coverage of the Czech crisis, radio listenership jumped almost 40 percent, and sales of radio sets increased dramatically. No network benefitted more from the public's sudden taste for news broadcasting than CBS. The insightful commentary of H. V. Kaltenborn and others had turned it into America's most trusted source of news.

On September 30, CBS broadcast a special announcement to acknowledge the work of their news staff, and to thank audiences for tuning in so frequently. The announcer said they had "received thousands and thousands of letters, [and] hundreds and hundreds of telegrams," praising their coverage. The statement closed with CBS's heartfelt promise to "continue to treat news of extreme importance in just this way, or, we hope, an even better way, because of the experience we have gained, and the heartening support you have given us."

Exactly one month later, the work of a twenty-three-year-old actor/director would make many Americans strongly reconsider the faith they placed in CBS. That artist had gotten his big break in radio on The March of Time, and his name, as he so frequently reminded audiences, was Orson Welles.

Copyright © 1940 by Howard E. Koch