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On the evening of October 30, 1938, radio listeners across the United States heard a startling report of a meteor strike in the New Jersey countryside. With sirens blaring in the background, announcers in the field described mysterious creatures, terrifying war machines, and thick clouds of poison gas moving toward New York City. As the invading force approached Manhattan, some listeners sat transfixed, while others ran to alert neighbors or to call the police. Some even fled their homes. But the hair-raising broadcast was not a real news bulletin-it was Orson Welles’s adaptation of the H. G. Wells classic The War of the Worlds.
In Broadcast Hysteria, A. Brad Schwartz boldly retells the story of Welles’s famed radio play and its impact. Did it really spawn a “wave of mass hysteria,” as The New York Times reported? Schwartz is the first to examine the hundreds of letters sent to Orson Welles himself in the days after the broadcast, and his findings challenge the conventional wisdom. Few listeners believed an actual attack was under way. But even so, Schwartz shows that Welles’s broadcast became a major scandal, prompting a different kind of mass panic as Americans debated the bewitching power of the radio and the country’s vulnerability in a time of crisis. When the debate was over, American broadcasting had changed for good, but not for the better.
As Schwartz tells this story, we observe how an atmosphere of natural disaster and impending war permitted broadcasters to create shared live national experiences for the first time. We follow Orson Welles’s rise to fame and watch his manic energy and artistic genius at work in the play’s hurried yet innovative production. And we trace the present-day popularity of “fake news” back to its source in Welles’s show and its many imitators. Schwartz’s original research, gifted storytelling, and thoughtful analysis make Broadcast Hysteria a groundbreaking new look at a crucial but little-understood episode in American history.
About the speaker:
A. Brad Schwartz is a doctoral candidate at Princeton University, studying 20th century American history with a special interest in questions of media and journalism, law and policing, and the cultural production of history. His undergraduate thesis at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor explored Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, drawing upon an untapped trove of listener letters to challenge the standard narrative of the so-called “panic broadcast.” This research became the basis for his first book, Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News (Hill and Wang, 2015). In 2013, he co-wrote a documentary about War of the Worlds for the PBS series American Experience, based in part on his thesis research. His second book, Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago, co-written with Max Allan Collins, was published by William Morrow in 2018.