Listening To THE WAR OF THE WORLDS 1938 Radio Broadcast - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Listening To THE WAR OF THE WORLDS 1938 Radio Broadcast

Alexander Wallace prepares for the Martian invasion.
I’ve written before of how strange it is to watch a silent film in this day and age; I find that I can say much the same about listening to a radio show. By the late 1940s, most Americans had a clear notion that the television was going to replace the radio; after all, why have only one sense engaged when you can have two? As such, audio-only media that isn’t music has a hurdle to jump in the twenty-first century, as it has many things involving visual media to compete with.

But the format isn’t necessarily dead. What was written for radio in the first half of the twentieth century is now written for podcasts. Similarly, many great works of literature are now available as audiobooks (themselves descendants of books on tape). Clearly, there is a part of the human mind that likes hearing other people talk, sometimes accompanied by the sounds of the environment.

There are any number of reasons we still remember Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. In order to approximate the experience of those who first heard it broadcast on that fateful day in 1938, I listened to it without headphones via a portable speaker; I had lain down on my bed and let the fear flow through me.
The entire experience is only about an hour. It takes some adjustment to the old-fashioned medium, but you will get used to it after twenty minutes or so. As you take the effort to envision everything in your mind, you begin to see why some people, even if for a moment (and the extent of this has been exaggerated), thought that tripods were bestriding the Earth.

The 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds really uses the fact that it is a radio show, and intended to be listened to by an audience used to listening to radio shows, to spectacular effect. It starts not with a bang, but rather with a musical performance broadcasted live. This seemingly quotidian musical performance is interrupted more and more by reports that something strange is going on in orbit and later in New Jersey, before the red planet lets slip the dogs of war. That realism of presentation, not unlike certain alternate history works, leads you to understand why so many people, for a moment, thought this was real; the use of a plethora of real institutions heightens the effect.

You’ll spend much of your time wandering about the blasted ruin of New Jersey (the snarky among us will compare it to driving along I-95 in that state), and it is a phenomenally eerie experience. You get the impression that this was inspired in no small part by World War I, which had ended just twenty years before the show was broadcast. It’s a desolate wasteland that feels more accurate to the truth of war than many science fictional depictions of such carnage do.

I came away from listening to The War of the Worlds with an increased appreciation for the audio drama as an art form. It is a great demonstration of what sound and narration can do without the visual element. Listen to it, and you’ll be afraid of tripods lurking outside for at least a few hours.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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