War of the Worlds Listening Party

On Halloween Eve, 1938 Orson Welles and his radio troupe “The Mercury Theatre on the Air” were putting the finishing touches on a play to air that night. They had struggled with adapting the book by H.G. Wells, “The War of the Worlds.” Their radio version just wasn’t keeping anyone’s interest. So they spiced it up by including some real names of towns and local institutions.  CBS radio executives quickly squashed those plans and demanded that Welles substitute fake names for those of real places. For instance, “Langley Field” became “Langham Field.” Welles was convinced this would doom the production to be received as a laughable mess. He could not have been more wrong.  Although reports of mass hysteria were exaggerated, the broadcast managed to convince some listeners that an alien invasion of Earth was in progress and that humans all over the world were in peril!

How could this happen? The Mercury Theatre on the Air was not the most popular radio program on Sunday nights. That distinction went to NBC’s Chase and Sanborn show which featured Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charley McCarthy.  So there was speculation that perhaps listeners tuned in late to the War of the Worlds and did not hear the disclaimer at the beginning. Also, it’s important to remember the political events of the time. The U.S. was in a general state of unease and concern over the goings on in Europe in the preceding months and radio was their trusted lifeline to know what Hitler was up to now. When radio presented the public with “information” they believed it. (Fake News was not yet a thing.)

The twenty-three-year-old Welles faced a firestorm of criticism the day after the broadcast when it became clear that some people panicked, especially those in areas near the reported epicenter of the alien landing in New Jersey.  Reports of people committing suicide and dying from heart attacks were never substantiated though, and a single lawsuit that was later filed against CBS was dismissed. The lesson learned for broadcasting was that radio was a powerful medium with tremendous responsibility to the public that should not be taken lightly.

On October 29th from 1:30- 2:30 Russell Memorial Library will host a War of the Worlds Listening Party to hear what all the fuss was about! Participants will take a mini alien home to remember the event and to remind themselves to carefully evaluate the information they receive from media sources in our present time.

Recording Family Memories at the Library

About twenty years ago I took a microphone and cassette recorder and sat down with my mom and grandmother to ask them questions about their lives. My mom talked about when she was a child and witnessed her house burn down in the middle of the night. My grandmother talked about her marriage to my Grandfather, how he was always so fun loving and how she wished she had not been so serious during that time. (He died early, leaving her with a twelve year old still to raise.) It’s on my “To Do” list to convert that analog tape to a digital file so my kids can hear those voices.

It’s easier now than ever to record these precious family memories.  Anyone with a smart phone has a portable recording device with them at all times.  It’s our goal to help patrons take advantage of this technology with the Record Your Life Story program, happening September 7th at Russell Memorial Library.  Patrons will learn how to download and use the free recording software Audacity.  We will also demonstrate the StoryCorps.me app which allows people to record and save their interviews on their own “community” online.  Interviews saved with the StoryCorps.me app are also archived online at the American Folklife Center at the United States Library of Congress.

We will continue the program throughout the fall by offering a series of recording sessions. Library staff will facilitate the recording of a thirty minute interview patrons conduct with a family member.  Patrons will be provided with a set of potential interview questions beforehand and will be given a CD recording of the interview when it is done.  Our goal is to archive these interviews in our own CPL Community on the StoryCorps.me website and to expand the project to include other stories of historical interest to the Hampton Roads area.