This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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INVASION PANIC THIS WEEK; MARTIANS COMING NEXT
by R.R. King ©2013
(From Radio Recall, April 2013)
Eleven years before Orson Welles and company aired their version of "The War of the Worlds," Australia enjoyed a "panic broadcast" of its own.
"It was purely a stunt, and took the form of a one-act play. We announced that it was only a stunt, and I cannot understand in these days of wireless and cable communication throughout the world, when there are newspapers every day, and when there has not for years been any suspicion of war between the Empire and any foreign countries, how people could be sufficiently upset as to think it was real. ... If we caused distress to anybody, we are sorry, but our action was taken solely with the object of adding to the interest of the programme prepared for the listening-in public. ..."
--William Smallacombe, assistant manager of Station 5CL (quoted in the 2 July 1927 Adelaide Register)
On Thursday, 30 June 1927, according to that day's issue of the Register, Adelaide's Station 5CL scheduled what was listed only as a "Special broadcast" between 8:09 and 8:25 that evening. The following day, the Adelaide Advertiser reported:
"On several nights prior to Thursday the studio announcer had broadcast that something special would be sent out from 5CL last night. The programme started in the usual way with an orchestral number. At the end of this an announcement was made that startling news had been received, but that no official confirmation had come to hand. A woman then began her song, which was the next item on the programme, but before she had completed the number a big drum was sounded to represent the explosion of a bomb. The woman, as part of the play, screamed, and then the electrical effects of the invasion were introduced." (1 July Advertiser)
The "physical and electrical effects," (i. e., sound effects) were "representative of bombing and gun firing, and suggestive of an air raid" by enemy planes attacking Port Adelaide. A listener gave this description:
Listeners-in were keyed up to a high nervous tension by repeated announcements that there was trouble at the Port, but for lack of confirmation of the rumours they were unable to give any definite information. Following that, a soprano singer was unable to finish her song, and the explanation given was that she had become terrified at the news of the happenings at the Port. Still we were left in suspense, and some minutes later the awful news of the enemy invasion in all its sickening detail was given us. So realistic was it that the statement of the speaker, "Be calm, listeners-in, as long as I am spared to stand here I will tell you what is going on" was just the breaking point for many overwrought nerves. (Excerpt from a letter in the 2 July Register)
The Advertiser reported that "within two minutes of the starting of the stunt innumerable telephone enquiries, including trunk calls, were made to the station in Franklin-street, asking what had actually happened. The calls included one from the police at the Outer Harbor, which was first received, and others were from the Police Department and the detective office in Adelaide. ... For two hours the three telephone lines of Central Broadcasters Limited [the station's owner] were employed solely in answering queries, and calls came from Melbourne and Terowie, among other places." (1 July Advertiser) Meanwhile, "Hundreds of people ... telephoned to the newspaper offices, the police, harbours, and telephone departments, and the fire brigades for confirmation" of the invasion. (1 July Register) Police and newspaper offices reported being "inundated" with "countless" phone calls "throughout the evening" even as the station made announcements "frequently" that the broadcast was "merely a play." (1 July Advertiser)
Some idea of the public reaction can be gleaned from letters published in local newspapers in the days following. One writer condemned the broadcast as "a ridiculous, thoughtless joke, deserving severe censure. People in a weak state of health, especially women, would be seriously affected by it. I know of at least two who were unnerved by the event." Another wrote: "I wish to protest against the foolish action of station 5CL on Thursday night in working old women and children into a panic. My wife was frightened so much that she had to knock a neighbor up for company (I was working and was not home). In the street she met a middle-aged woman on the verge of collapse, and goodness knows how many invalids and aged people are suffering through the most indiscreet action of Central Broadcasters." (2 July Advertiser)
Alfred Louis Brown, Central Broadcasters' general manager -- who described the broadcast as "a one-act play entitled 'An Imaginary Invasion,' in which 30 performers had parts" (1 July Register) -- suggested that "the reason for the consternation among listeners was that they had tuned into 5CL after the play had started, and thus did not know the nature of the item." Word-of-mouth to non-listeners seems to have played a role as well: "...a woman who was the only person in possession of a wireless set in her street, immediately rushed out and told all the others in that thoroughfare, causing general alarm." (1 July Advertiser)
A brief "Special Cable" to The New York Times (under the headline "'Air Invasion' by Radio Scares Australians") noted that "many women and children became hysterical and even men were alarmed" and "the fire brigade was called up and at least one family prepared to motor into the hills for refuge." (2 July Times) The Times piece also discussed the similar "panic" inspired by Father Ronald Knox's January 1926 BBC segment "Broadcasting the Barricades" -- as did the same day's Adelaide Register, in a condemnatory editorial entitled "A Stupid Hoax":
That so many people were deceived, and some of them terrified, is a tribute to the realism with which the affair was staged. But the ingenuity thus exhibited was misdirected, and the precautions taken to warn the more emotional section of the public of the fictitious nature of the proceedings described were entirely inadequate. It was not as if the authors of the "stunt" had not had warning of the unfortunate consequences liable to follow a too-realistic representation of so sensational an occurrence. Cable messages some months ago related the alarm which had been raised among nervous listeners-in in Great Britain, by the broadcasting from London [sic] of the description of an enemy [sic] bombardment of the metropolis, a hoax which was widely condemned, though it gave radio enthusiasts a good laugh after they had got over their tremors. (2 July Register)
As in Britain, some Aussies had a good laugh, too. One listener wrote:
It is indeed amusing to read of the consternation caused by the stunt put on the air by 5CL on a recent evening. It makes one wonder what has happened to the perceptive powers of some people. Although the whole thing was staged in the studio, there was no mistaking the fact that the whole thing was only a "stunt." In my opinion 5CL are to be congratulated for the diversion they submitted, especially the announcer, who showed a rare sense of humor in his impromptu utterances. His closing remark that the whole situation was saved owing to the timely arrival of a large body of "Twinklerites" and Boy Scouts should have been sufficient to illustrate to any one that the whole thing was a clever departure from the ordinary style of programme. (15 July Advertiser)
The night after the broadcast, another station, 5DN, aired a skit poking fun at the "Invasion of Adelaide":
Listeners were led in a spirit of fun to the "Island of Timbuctoo," where they heard the details of the invasion of the island by what was described as "a band of untamed Zulus." Much comedy was extracted from the situation, which served to show how ridiculous such "stunts" can be, if looked at from the right angle. (2 July Register)
And then, exactly one week after the "panic," 5CL aired another, even more ridiculous stunt:
Last Thursday evening, listeners throughout Australia who tuned in to broadcasting station 5CL were surprised to hear a remarkable broadcasting stunt, which has caused comment throughout the Commonwealth. This evening 5CL are staging another stunt. It is not likely on this occasion that people will be perturbed, as previous notice has been given. At 8.30 a scientific novelty will be transmitted. It will consist of a description of a remarkable invention. Besides listening to the description, listeners will be able to see a part of the proceedings by watching outside when the signal is given by the broadcasting station. (7 July Advertiser)
Incredible as it may seem, this week's play involved a professor, interplanetary travel, and some attacking Martians:
... The principal characters were "Professor Gravotti," an Italian scientist, and his two assistants, "James Jones" and "William Savage." By means of machinery capable of making use of the power of gravity for motive purposes the professor essayed a trip to Mars. The whole trip was described by radio, including the christening of the car by "Lady Byrd," the sound of the bottle of wine breaking, and of the dynamo giving trouble in the car during its flight. By means of re-broadcasting across an electronic ether beam from the car, a description of the events during the trip was given. The arrival on Mars of the party was described in detail, and signals from the car faded at a critical time when the Martians were attacking the car. 5CL have promised over the air that "Professor Gravotti" will return. A novel feature was the dispatch of a large rocket during the evening from the wireless station at Brooklyn Park. ... (8 July Advertiser)
Yes, the station apparently launched an actual rocket during the broadcast. Here's an account from another newspaper:
... The whole of the details of a trip from the earth to Mars were given in novel fashion. Listeners had been informed beforehand that a certain Professor Gravotti had perfected a piece of apparatus in which he intended to make a trip through space. This consisted of a spherical car made of a new metal capable of withstanding the effects of corrosion and heat. At an advertised time, the departure of the car from the earth was broadcast in every detail. The sound of the whirring dynamos, the escape of surplus air from the car's air producing plant, the testing out of the different apparatus and the words of farewell were heard. Before being despatched the car was christened, and the breaking of a bottle against the metal walls of the car was heard. A small dog, the pet of the travellers, was heard barking his farewell before the airtight portholes were closed with a "crash." Listeners were then told to watch the sky above the city of Adelaide for the departure of the machine. Many saw the large rocket sent up by 5CL to heighten the allusion. [sic] Communication between the car hurtling through space and the broadcasting station was carried on and the noises associated with such an event were faithfully reproduced. All the information given during this broadcast was based on scientific knowledge of the heavenly bodies. (8 July Port Pirie Recorder)
Station 5CL continued to schedule Thursday night "stunts" that summer and its activities apparently earned it some international coverage. The radio column in the 19 August Port Pirie Recorder notes that "reports have been printed in European papers of several [of] 5CL's stunt transmissions. Considerable interest is taken in Europe of events in Australia, but this is the first time that considerable space has been devoted to a description of one station's stunts."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
R. R. King is currently employed as a chauffeur in
Kansas where he enjoys reading up on radio and film
history. He is an occasional contributor to the internet's