The simple power of sound can be strong enough to transport people’s imaginations anywhere, or convince them of just about anything — even Earth getting overrun by creepy-crawlies from another planet.
Re-Imagined Radio, a sound-art and -storytelling project based at Washington State University Vancouver, has been exploring the way such mischief was, and still is, done for the past decade.
To celebrate its 10th anniversary, Re-Imagined Radio will relaunch an entirely audio Martian invasion of Earth on the night before Halloween as it stages “The War of The Worlds” at Kiggins Theatre.
“It might be harder to spook people than it was in the 1930s,” said John Barber, the founder of Re-Imagined Radio and a faculty member in WSU Vancouver’s creative media and digital culture program. “But it was so effective, in its day, it’s been legendary ever since.”
Eighty-five years ago, showman Orson Welles broadcast a jarringly realistic radio-drama version of “The War of the Worlds.” The script toyed with the newly popular medium of radio in an especially novel and mischievous way for its day, as a seemingly routine Sunday night orchestra performance was repeatedly interrupted by increasingly alarming news bulletins about, of all remote things, mysteries on Mars.
“We interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin,” said a nervous announcer, explaining that observatories on Earth were watching explosions on Mars that looked like blue flame shot from a gun.
“We now return you to the music,” he concluded, slyly leaving the ominous occurrence hanging over listeners’ heads. Subsequent bulletins described spacecraft landing in New Jersey, with more proceeding to New York.
Of course, Welles introduced and concluded the broadcast with disclaimers that his Mercury Theatre on the Air troupe was only celebrating Halloween, radio style, by “jumping out of a bush and saying boo” to listeners. It’s the stuff of legend that mass panic swept the nation because radio listeners missed that intro.
How true are those legends of panic? Not especially true, according to sociologists who studied the event’s aftermath and concluded that actual grassroots freakouts about aliens from Mars were anecdotal and rare.
That didn’t stop The New York Daily News from publishing the front-page headline “Fake radio ‘war’ stirs terror.” Many newspapers climbed aboard that same critical bandwagon, including the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which pointed to an outbreak of panic in the village of Concrete, southeast of Bellingham.
Listeners in Concrete suffered a potent mash-up of fake and real news when, just after the radio Martians had destroyed New York, a thunderstorm and power failure cut off phone lines and plunged the town into darkness. That timing seemed real, and eyewitness reports corroborate that some frightened citizens fled outdoors in the rain to see if an alien invasion was indeed underway.
Newspapers were the event’s severest critics, likely because they didn’t like the rising power of radio as a competing information source, Barber said.
“The voices Welles used sounded like real government officials and scientists and military troops,” he said. “It all sounded very realistic and some people got completely caught up in the sound. That’s the key to its success and its infamy.”
The chief lesson of “The War of the Worlds” broadcast? “You have to pay attention to where your information is coming from,” Barber said. “Today, people would probably not believe they were aliens. But what if people went and switched on their TVs and saw ships hovering over Vancouver?”
Barber said he is one of those children of radio who tuned in after dark when he was supposed to be sleeping. As a college radio DJ at Montana State University, he adopted two personae: a mellow jazz cat for “Jazz Workshop” and a slightly more excited record spinner for “Filet of Soul.”
“I’ve carried my interest in sound all the way to my teaching position,” he said.
Ten years ago, he offered a course in digital storytelling that challenged his students to re-edit, condense and present the original “War of the Worlds” broadcast to a fresh audience.
Students wondered aloud if anyone today would even understand or remember the story, which was already 75 years old.
“I thought it was a really good question,” said Barber, who realized the best answer would be a live performance of the vintage script.
He found a couple of kindred spirits: Sam Mowry, director of Portland’s Willamette Radio Workshop, which is dedicated to keeping the golden age of radio drama alive; and Kiggins owner Dan Wyatt, who was keen to host the event on the 75th anniversary of the original broadcast.
“We had a few people in the audience who heard the original broadcast,” Barber said. “We had certificates prepared for them.”
The sold-out success of that first radio-drama show at Kiggins resulted in many more over the past decade, especially the “Radio Christmas Carol” that’s become an annual downtown Vancouver tradition. (This year’s performance is set for Dec. 20 at Kiggins.)
Re-Imagined Radio enlisted Vancouver’s own Metropolitan Performing Arts to fill in when the Willamette Radio acting company was ready for a break.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the Kiggins and all other theaters, it turned out to be a strangely serendipitous moment for online entertainment, Barber said. Millions of people stayed home and streamed TV, movies, concerts and podcasts.
A slightly smaller number — likely in the hundreds or thousands, Barber said — have found their way to fresh monthly Re-Imagined Radio productions hosted online by KXRW-FM radio, a community station based in Vancouver. Broadcast live on 99.9 FM at 1 p.m. on the first Monday of each month, the program is also available as a simultaneous livestream or as a podcast that can be listened to whenever you like.
In addition to new radio-drama scripts by local and regional writers, recent Re-Imagined Radio shows have included an eavesdrop on real-time recordings of airline officials, air-traffic controllers and federal agents trying to make sense of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; the backstory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech; local journalists’ reporting on the opening of the Interstate 5 Bridge in 1917; and samplers of oral history interviews recorded for the Clark County Historical Museum.
“We have a hyper-local audience but I know it’s been listened to around the world,” Barber said.
The April 2023 show, which revisited journalist Edward R. Murrow’s eyewitness commentary on the Blitz of London during World War II, has been downloaded nearly 600 times, he said.
Now, Willamette Radio is ready to start coming across the river again, Barber said.
“Live radio-drama performance has become a regular thing in Vancouver, and part of the magic is showing how a radio show would be produced live for broadcast,” he said.
Keep your eyes open to watch how the illusion is created by voice actors and by the special sound-effects technicians called Foley artists. Close your eyes and those techniques fade again as your imagination takes over.
“There’s still a sizable audience of people who listen to radio because they’re overstimulated by all the media that hits us in the face every day,” Barber said. “My argument is, these sounds evoke our imagination. We imagine spaces and places and memories, all triggered by sound. When you’re using your own imagination, you are the protagonist.”