Binghamton University: Remembering 'The War of the Worlds'

2013-10-28

BINGHAMTON, NY – On Oct. 30, 1938, a radio adaption of H.G. Wells' 'The War of the Worlds' sent many Americans in a panic over a potential Martian invasion.

On Oct. 30, 2013, Binghamton University will be at the national forefront of a day of events designed to not only bring 'The War of the Worlds' back to the public consciousness, but also to discuss the lessons learned from the production and live media, in general.

"Binghamton University is the physical center, but it really has a much larger virtual presence," said Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman, an assistant professor of English who is co-organizing the project.

The three-hour broadcast (from 7-10 p.m.), which will feature the original hour-long version of "The War of the Worlds," can be heard on WHRW-FM (90.5) and whrwfm.org. Besides working with various campus groups, Stoever-Ackerman is partnering on the project with teams from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Rutgers University, the University of Chicago and the online sites Antenna and Sounding Out!.

Directed and narrated by future "Citizen Kane" filmmaker Orson Welles, "The War of the Worlds" aired as an episode of "The Mercury Theatre on the Air" on CBS Radio. The episode, adapted by Howard Koch and produced by John Houseman, sounded like a live newscast that described an invasion of Grover’s Mill, N.J. Although there were occasional mentions that the show was fiction, many listeners heard only parts of the broadcast and believed it was an actual newscast. This led to reactions ranging from calls to CBS Radio to widespread panic.

"This canonized the concept that there could be something on the radio you are being told that may not be factual," said Nick Rubenstein, a Binghamton University graduate student helping to produce the project with Stoever-Ackerman. "There wasn’t a full understanding that what you were hearing may not be true."

The idea to commemorate the 75th anniversary of "The War of the Worlds" came from Neil Verma, a radio historian at the University of Chicago and a radio-studies colleague of Stoever-Ackerman. Verma posted a Facebook message suggesting a commemoration. The project eventually expanded from an online series of scholarly writings to a three-hour presentation on the night of the anniversary of "The War of the Worlds."

The first hour of the commemoration will present a documentary on "The War of the Worlds" produced by Binghamton University alum Aaron Trammell, who is now a doctoral student at Rutgers University, and hosted by Brian Hanrahan of Cornell University. The documentary, which will examine radio in the 1930s, the significance of Orson Welles, and the aftermath of the production, will feature insight from top media and radio scholars, including Binghamton professors Brian Wall (cinema) and John Cheng (Asian and Asian American Studies).

The documentary was needed to give "The War of the Worlds" proper context, Stoever-Ackerman said.

"We thought it would be odd to interrupt (programming) and play ‘The War of the Worlds,’" she said. "So we contacted 15 scholars to help with the documentary intro."

After the second hour is devoted to airing the original "The War of the Worlds," the third hour will broadcast live from the listening party on campus at the Mountainview Common Room. Students and scholars will be interviewed, while undergraduate students from Monteith McCollum’s "Performance Processes" cinema class will share their "Worlds"-related sound projects. The WHRW drama department – led by graduate student Charles Berman – will present a live, original "interruption," and the Binghamton-area band The Short Waves will perform.

"I hope the [three-hour event] gives people food for thought about the potency of the media," Berman said. "It raises questions that are relevant to how we interact with mass media and how we interact today with electronic media."

Other "listening parties" are planned across North America and Europe at colleges and universities such as University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Mississippi, Northwestern University, Bournemouth University, and the University of Waterloo. Listeners are also urged to tweet during the broadcast by using #WOTW75.

The WHRW broadcast will be complemented by a panel discussion at 3 p.m. Oct. 30, in LH-7 on the Binghamton campus. Stoever-Ackerman will host, while Cheng will serve as the moderator. Panelists Damien Keane (University at Buffalo); Tom McEnaney (Cornell); and Shawn VanCour (NYU) will examine "From Mercury to Mars: Welles and War of the Worlds at 75."

Offering an academic panel on the topic is important to Stoever-Ackerman.

"We have several aims with the project and one of them is to really think about the legacy of ‘The War of the Worlds,’" she said. "I wanted to bring in scholars who are doing that kind of work. It is something people can take their classes to. . .We also want people thinking not only about ‘The War of the Worlds,’ but live media in general."

Stoever-Ackerman said she hopes that audience members are still reflecting on this "liveness" when the broadcast ends at 10 p.m. Oct. 30.

"I want people to listen – and reflect on how they listen," she said. "It’s an easy thing to say, but a difficult thing to do. I also hope people think about what it means to experience collectivity. What is the power and potency of ‘liveness’ in the current moment when there seems to be so few opportunities for that kind of collective experience?"

Last Updated: 9/17/13