Radiolab “War of the Worlds” Podcast Review

I decided to listen to and review a podcast distributed by WNYC Studios’ “Radiolab” hosted by Jad Abumrad and co-hosted by Robert Krulwich. They decided to take a closer look into one of the most famous moments in broadcast history which caused mass hysteria among its listeners. The podcast was aired on October 30th, 2018, on the 80th anniversary of Orson Welles’ 1938 realistic dramatization of H.G. Welles’, “War of the Worlds” which took place in New Jersey. The premise was that aliens from the planet Mars had come to Earth and was taking over, killing everything in sight.

Jad and Robert attempt to answer the questions, “why people panicked” and “Could it happen again”.

The podcast was put together by presenting their first ever live hour on “Radiolab” in St. Paul, Minnesota at the Fitzgerald Theater in front of 700 audience members. Host, Jad Abumrad narrated and explained the backdrop while creepy string sounds played behind him. Every moment was explained before excerpts from the original broadcast were played aloud.

He did this narration while selected background period music was being played to bring drama to his words. He would sometimes break in while the excerpt was being played to more detail about what was going on. The audience was strategically mic’ed to include the natural sound from the room. The hosts had a slight reverb with a blend of the audience mics to give the feeling of an auditorium surrounding while the live show was being recorded. The audience reactions could be heard when they clapped or when they laughed which made the podcast feel like a large space.

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I particularly enjoyed how they used humor throughout the podcast, which kept the audience and listeners engaged. To give perspective, Jad explained that there were twelve million people were listening and one out of twelve of them believed it was true. He said that we didn’t know how many people panicked that night but gave perspective stats showing that the Trenton Police Department received over 2000 calls in under 2 hours and the New York Times switchboard received 875 calls from people wanting to know where they would be safer. These kind of statistics show perspective so that the audience and listeners could understand the severity of the effect on the public that night.

To answer the question “why people panicked”, they received transcripts of interviews conducted after the broadcast by a Princeton professor. These transcripts provided insight to the listeners that night. Some of the listeners interviewed felt like they were actually choking from the anxiety of the end of the world. Others reported to police that they saw a thin vail of smoke in the Manhattan skyline from the battle over the city and some said they actually witnessed Martian machines marching up and down the palisades crushing everything in its path. They used these transcripts to have actors reenact the words in prerecorded sessions for realistic value. It turns out that the panic my not have been as much as they made it sound. It was stated that there were 12 million listeners that night which was a state derived from a polling done six weeks after the broadcast aired. Surveys done that night indicate a much smaller number. Those surveys indicate something closer to 5000 listeners and very little thought it was actually a real news broadcast. The co-host, Robert asks why are we bothering with surveys done six weeks after when the have info reported that night of. It is suspected that the panic was trumped up by the newspapers who didn’t like this new medium called radio. Apparently the newspaper industry and the radio industry have been battling for years. Robert feels that the discrepancy of actually witnessing accounts and reading or hearing about the broadcast after the fact can be explained by they complex relationship between memory and media. Surveys done months after would have the amount of listeners grow exponentially.

The show explores the question, “could it be done again”. Jad explains that in 1949, in Quito, Ecuador, there was a “War of the Worlds” reenactment. Locations, government officials and language was changed to fit the geography of this modernization of “War of the Worlds”. They had a reported named, Tony Fields do a couple of interviews. The show brought him in to do an interview so he could give his accounts of the trip to Quito. In this version they did everything they could to actually screw with people. Saturday, February 12th, 1949. Tony narrates the broadcast that was recreated by “Radiolab” because there isn’t any recording off the event that was made. Apparently it worked, people went crazy outside. There where accounts of priest absolving people in large crowds. As some people flew down the road to escape the town where these accounts were being reported there, there were reports of convoys with military and police vehicles filled with real soldiers making a b-line to the city to fight off these Martians. At the end of the show when the truth is reviled that the whole thing was a play, They all stormed the radio station. Tony, the reporter who went to Quito, explains that people start throwing rocks at the station, while SFX audio track of windows shattering and sounds of an angry mob playing in the back ground. The end up torching the station while upwards of 50 people are trying to escape. Six people end up dying because of this. One guy stayed behind to help people escape the building and was the last person on the air. His name was “Luis Beltran”. He was pleading for help from the police but the entire force wasn’t availed because they were away looking for these Martians to fight them off. He ended up jumping from a 3 story building to the 2nd floor and then to the ground. As the mob attacked his fully engulfed body, a good Samaritan took him to the local hospital where he survived with many broken bones and burns. They actually interviewed his daughter, Maria Beltran, live on the show via phone. The credibility of the events was heighted by her accounts of her conversations with her dad when she was a very young girl. Although her father didn’t explain exactly what happened, she later was able to put the “being in a fire” story to what actually happened.

It happened once again in 1968 in Buffalo, New York. Updated for the time, the scenario was set into place again on WKBW. With the same description of Martians attacking, people bought it again. There were reports of over 4000 phone calls to the Buffalo Police as the Canadian military authority’s dispatched Military units to the Peace Bridge to ward off invaders. The story was carried the next by 47 newspapers country wide. Jad, the host, iterviewd a psychology Professor named, Richard Garrett, live on the show. He says that it keeps working because people are suckers for a story and that “there is something very powerful and strong about how we can be amerced we can become in a narrative world”.

War of the Worlds has led to projects to scare the listener of in the case of “The Blair Witch Project”, the viewer. I feel that the subject matter of this Podcast was significant and relevant to todays entertainment value. I think that anyone who is interested in Mass Communication could learn a lot from it. War of the Worlds will continue to be one of the most prolific events in Broadcast history I would defiantly recommend this Podcast to all of my fellow classmates.

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Radiolab “War of the Worlds” Podcast Review. (2021, Dec 07). Retrieved from

Radiolab “War of the Worlds” Podcast Review
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