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Welles never panicked America

On the 78th anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous “The War of the Worlds” broadcast on the CBS radio network, I will again try to debunk the urban legend that the program sparked a mass panic. Popular history textbooks are wrong. So is the latest retelling, a PBS documentary from 2013.

The broadcast — a play incorporating an account of Martians invading Earth — produced extremely isolated instances of panic, but the New York newspapers ran with them. Why? Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow have the story straight in Slate:

“How did the story of panicked listeners begin? Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.

“In an editorial titled Terror by Radio, The New York Times reproached ‘radio officials’ for approving the interweaving of ‘blood-curdling fiction’ with news flashes ‘offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given.’ Warned Editor and Publisher, the newspaper industry’s trade journal, ‘The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove … that it is competent to perform the news job.”

“The War of the Worlds” should have been a footnote in radio history, but the legend grew. Pooley and Socolow explain: “As the show receded in time and became more infamous, more and more people claimed to have heard it. As weeks, months and years passed, the audience’s size swelled to such an extent that you might actually believe most of America was tuned to CBS that night. But that was hardly the case.”

Indeed, the ratings for Welles’ “Mercury Theater of the Air” series were rotten. There is evidence that the competition on NBC, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s “Chase & Sanborn Hour,” probably drew 10 or 15 times more listeners. Furthermore, a number of CBS affiliates pre-empted Welles that Sunday night for local programs, easy to do because Welles’ plays had no sponsor at the time.

As CBS President Frank Stanton remarked years later, “In the first place most people didn’t hear it. But those who did hear it looked at it as a prank and accepted it that way.” That is what Welles (then 23 years old) intended on Halloween Eve. His closing remarks that night summed up his attitude:

“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that ‘The War of The Worlds’ has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be – the Mercury Theater’s own version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!’

“Starting now we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night so we did the next best thing — we annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed CBS. You will be, I hope, relieved to learn that we didn’t mean it and both institutions are still open for business.

“So goodbye, everybody, and remember the terrible lesson that you learned tonight — the grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian, it’s Halloween.”

We close with a tip of the hat to radio historian Jim Ramsburg, who covers the medium’s Golden Age at his website.

Freeze your credit report

[This originally ran last Nov. 12.]

Clark Howard’s syndicated radio show is a snooze, but his website — — is a gem. It’s an outstanding collection of consumer stuff, including tips on fighting identity theft.

Every few days a new story comes along. One of the latest is from Britain, where high-end retailer Marks & Spencer got caught accidentally exposing customer data to other customers. In other words, they screwed up and hacked themselves. Word swept across Facebook, and the TV networks were on it. One shopper told ITV News: “I have just found the name, address, e-mail address, date of birth and mobile and land-line numbers of a lady I have never met. This is appalling.”

M&S acknowledged “technical difficulties” and promised to fix them.

Clark’s #1 tip for fighting identity theft is to freeze your credit report. The three major credit reporting bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – will work with you. Even if the bad guys get personal information through a data hacker or from that pleasant woman in the doctor’s office, a frozen credit report cuts off the low-hanging fruit.

Of course, while your credit report is frozen, you won’t be able to apply for a mortgage or a car loan or a credit card, either. That is handled with a 24- or 36-hour “thaw,” triggered by PIN number. Then the information is automatically frozen again.

So thank you, Clark, and accept this bouquet: You’ll never be able to out-bore Dave Ramsey, the human equivalent of Ambien.

R.I.P. Johnny Olson

[This ran last year on this day. Now it’s been 31 years…]

Thirty-one years ago today, one of the great voices in TV history was stilled. Johnny Olson died at the age of 75.

Of course, TV has pictures, so many never noticed Johnny O announcing a game show. But his voice was so distinctive that if you went to YouTube and heard it, you’d say, “Oh, I’ve heard him.”

Johnny O broke into the big time in 1944, running a game show called “Ladies Be Seated.” He also hosted shows on the Dumont Network, the remnants of which years later would became Fox. Eventually he found his niche as an announcer best remembered for working on “Match Game” and “The Price Is Right” for Goodson-Todman.

There were plenty of deeper voices around (“better pipes,” the radio guys used to say), but game show moguls Mark Goodson and Bill Todman gave Johnny O all the work he could handle because of his ability to warm up audiences. They called him their “audience ambassador,” and he was the best in the business.

Johnny O invented the catchphrases “Come on down” and “Get ready to match the stars.” In the latter stages of his career, he appeared on camera more frequently on “The Price Is Right,” as a sidekick to Bob Barker.

John, R.I.P. As for you, Barker, I haven’t forgotten about that spaying and neutering thing.

True “Match Game” fans know all about the day John had to fill in on the panel when Gary Burghoff was late for a taping. From YouTube, the intro to that show:

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