We interrupt this broadcast...

October 28, 2008

On October 30th, 1938 Orson Wells and his Mercury Theatre troupe grabbed the nation's attention with a radio broadcast detailing the terror of a "Martian invasion" underway. Of course it was fake, but why did so many people fall for it? Was it because it sounded like news? How could thousands of people actually believe we were being invaded by little green men? Those are some of the questions that Radio Lab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explored on Sunday and Monday night at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre.

The set was simple. Just the hosts, a couple tables, their accompanying musician Zoe Keating (who is amazing by the way) on a small platform in the corner and a recreation of a 1938 living room listening area -- armchair and antique radio. One historical detail I found fascinating was that Orson Wells wasn't the last person to try to pull one over on an unsuspecting population. The 1949 broadcast in Quito, Ecuador caused a riot and the building where the radio studio was located being burnt to the ground resulting in fatalities.

The power of media is something most people don't think about. Perhaps it's somewhat diminished these days by the legions of fact checkers and bloggers and the immediacy of the news cycle. In a later interview, Orson said that the hoax was possible because of radio's relatively new importance: "The radio was believed in America. That was a voice from heaven you see. And I wanted to destroy that as dramatically as possible." You can hear the original Orson Wells broadcast here.

And on a programming note, season five of Radio Lab will be airing on on WBEZ Sundays at 6pm starting November 16th. This time around the guys take a look at topics like race, diagnosing a problem, sperm, making a decision and stochasticity (I had to look that one up too).

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