Schwartz, PBS examine cultural weight of famed 'War of the Worlds' broadcast

By Natalie Gadbois, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 29, 2013

According to Twitter, the world ended 10 months ago, there is a 60-foot prehistoric shark roaming the Pacific Ocean and human traffickers have taken over a grocery store in Grand Rapids, Mich. We have a history of buying into these sort of “panic stories,” which are only exacerbated by the Internet’s facilitation of instantaneous communication (and miscommunication). This phenomenon is not new, not another black mark specific to the ledger of our generation’s faults. This culture of panic was present on Oct. 30, 1938, when Orson Welles performed his notorious “The War of the Worlds” broadcast, which convinced nearly one million people in the United States that Martians were taking over the Earth.

The War of the Worlds



October 29th, 9 p.m.
PBS American Experience
AMC


On Oct. 29, PBS “American Experience” is releasing a documentary about the event and, because of his extensive research into the aftermath of the event, University alum A. Brad Schwartz contributed as a screenwriter for the film.

Schwartz sat down with the Daily to discuss his involvement in the project and his roots at the University.

In part because of his childhood insomnia, Schwartz grew up listening to old-time radio including Orson Welles’s famous shows, so he has been familiar with the broadcast for a long time.

“It wasn’t something I was particularly interested in until I came to the University,” he said, “And a librarian from the (Screen Arts and Culture) department, Phil Hallman, came in and gave a presentation about all the library resources available to students. He had recently in the past few years gotten two big collections of Orson Welles’s personal papers.”

Many people are unaware of the vast amount of Welles material the University currently holds, including letters sent to Welles in the aftermath of the event, which Schwartz discovered while searching for a thesis topic. Schwartz recognizes both the Screen Arts and Culture department and the History department for giving him the tools to tackle this exhaustive project.

“The two majors — history and SAC — it’s not a combination many people consider, but the two feed into each other really well. My thesis got me the interest of PBS, and then the screenwriting got me contacts in L.A., connected me with a book agent to write my book. They are two fantastic departments that provided me with opportunities I really couldn’t have had otherwise.”

Schwartz, who graduated in December 2012, was contacted by PBS while still a student, as he was the only person to have catalogued the more than 1,400 letters sent to Welles. These letters demonstrate the anger felt by those who really believed that their lives were at stake during the “alien invasion,” and they show the pervasive presence of radio during this time. More than just a tale of the gullibility of humans, “War of the Worlds” illustrates the power of the media, even 75 years ago, in swaying the outcome of a story.

“I think it’s become this archetypal — almost mythological — story about the power of media,” Schwartz said. “Any time something happens in the news when a Tweet or something has a particularly profound affect on people, people say it’s another ‘War of the Worlds.’ ”

The way we communicate has evolved so drastically since 1938 that it seems impossible that a radio broadcast could be absorbed with either such fear or, as print journalists responded, with such vindictive derision.

“The development of the radio and the birth of broadcast radio was so very similar to how the Internet is taking over the news business today,” Schwartz said.

Radio was the newest technology, able to emotionally connect with millions in a way single newspapers couldn’t — an issue Schwartz found as a recurring element in the letters.

“The press would try to ignore radio, attack radio. That’s a lot of what ‘The War of the Worlds’ fear was about, newspapers attacking the radio.”

How often do we hear the lamentation of the loss of books, the complaints of older generations over the newfangled technology to which our generation seems so attached?

“Even back then, they were saying that newspapers were dying, that print media was dying,” Schwartz said. “People were going to listen to the radio and weren’t going to read books or newspapers anymore.”

While the social landscape has changed rapidly over the past few years, “The War of the Worlds” is a prescient reminder that these concerns aren’t necessarily new. Progress may not mean the death of one outlet, just the inauguration of another.