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Chilling Radio Drama Stirs Ghost of Censorship November 1st, 1938

on Oct 31st, 2009
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Broadcast Industry Sees Spook Of Greater Federal Control After Terrifying ‘Martian Attack’
Salt Lake Tribune November 1st, 1938 pg.2
WASHINGTON. Oct. 31- (AP) – The radio industry viewed Monday a hobgoblin more terrifying to it than any Halloween spook. The prospect of increasing federal control of broadcasts was discussed here as an aftermath of a radio presentation of an H. G. Wells imaginative story which caused many listeners to believe that men from Mars had invaded the United States with death rays. When reports of terror that accompanied the fantastic drama reached the communications commission there was a growing feeling that “something should be done about it.”

Commission officials explained that the law conferred upon it no general regulatory power over broadcasts. Certain specific offenses, such as obscenity, are forbidden, and the commission has the right to refuse license renewal to any station which has not been operating “in the public interest.” All station licenses must be renewed every six months.

War of the Worlds
Mercury Theater on the Air
October 30th, 1938

Avoid Censorship
Within the commission there has developed strong opposition to using the public interest clause to impose restrictions upon programs. Commissioner T. A. M. Craven has been particularly outspoken against anything resembling censorship and Monday he repeated his warning that the commission should make no attempt at “censoring what shall or shall not be said over the radio.” “The public does not want a spineless radio,” he said.
Commissioner George Henry Payne recalled that last November he had protested against broadcasts that “produced terrorism and nightmares among children” and said that for two years he had urged that there be a “standard of broadcasts.” Saying that radio is an entirely different medium than the theater or lecture platform Payne added, “People who have material broadcast into their homes without warnings have a right to protection.”

Right to Complain
“Too many broadcasters have insisted that they could broadcast anything they liked, contending that they were protected by the prohibition of censorship. Certainly when people are injured morally, physically, spiritually and psychically, they have just as much right to complain as if the laws against obscenity and indecency were violated.”

The commission called upon Columbia Broadcasting system, which presented the fantasy, to submit a transcript and electrical recording of it. None of the commissioners who could be reached for comment had heard the program. The other commissioners were silent or guarded in their comment, but a number of them indicated privately that some steps should be taken to guard against a repetition of such incidents.

Never Again
The broadcasters themselves were quick to give assurances that the technique used in the program would not be repeated. Orson Welles, who adapted “The War of the Worlds,” expressed his regrets. The Columbia network called attention to the fact that on Sunday night it assured its listeners the story was wholly imaginary, and W. B. Lewis, its vice president in charge of programs, said, “In order that this may not happen again, the program department hereafter will not use the technique of a simulated news broadcast within a dramatization when the circumstances of the broadcast could cause immediate alarm to numbers of listeners.”

The National Association of Broadcasters, through its president, Neville Miller, expressed formal regret for the misinterpretation of the program. “This instance emphasizes the responsibility we assume in the use of radio and renews our determination to fulfill to the highest degree our obligation to the public.” Miller said. 

Young Orson Welles - Actor, Writer, Producer, Director

Young Orson Welles - Actor, Writer, Producer, Director

Profound Regret
“I know that the Columbia Broadcasting system and those of us in radio have only the most profound regret that the composure of many of our fellow citizens was disturbed last night by the vivid Orson Welles broadcast. “The Columbia Broadcasting system has taken immediate steps to insure that such program technique will not be used again.” Chairman Frank R. McNinch of the communications commission, declaring that he would withhold judgment of the program until later, said, “The widespread public reaction to this broadcast, as indicated by the press, is another demonstration of the power and force of radio and points out again the serious public responsibility of those who are licensed to operate stations.”

The commission announced last Saturday that it had instructed its legal staff to make a study of its authority over broadcasts and to confer with the department of justice regarding the matter. Senator Herring (D), Iowa, announced his intention of sponsoring a bill in the next congress “controlling just such abuses as was heard over the radio last night.” Despite the furor the broadcast created in the commission, McNinch’s office reported late Monday that only 15 telegrams of protest had been received. Employes said, however, that they had received no letters yet and in program controversies in the past the protests had arrived by mail days later.

NEW YORK, Oct. 31- (UP) – Urgent demands for federal investigation multiplied Monday night in the wake of the ultra realistic radio drama that spread mass hysteria among listeners across the nation with its “news broadcast” fantasy of octopus like monsters from Mars invading the United States and annihilating cities and populaces with a lethal “heat ray.”
While officials at the Harvard astronomical observatory calmed fears of such a conquest by space-devouring hordes from another planet with the dry comment that there was no evidence of higher life existing on Mars – some 40,000,000 miles distant – local and federal officials acted to prevent a repetition of such a nightmarish episode.

As for the 23-year-old “Man from Mars” himself – Orson Welles, youthful actor, manager and theatrical prodigy, whose vivid dramatization of H. G. Wells’ imaginative “The War of the Worlds” jumped the pulse beat of radio listeners, declared himself “just stunned” by the reaction. “Everything seems like a dream,” he said.

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