80 years ago today Radio came of age. In one terrible — beautiful hour the third rated program in a three network universe managed to entertain, terrify, and motivate millions of people by stimulating the imagination. If it happened today it would be called “Fake News.” But in reality it was magic. In one hour Orson Welles and “The Mercury Theater of the Air” proved that Radio was more powerful than anyone could imagine.
I was born 8 years after that broadcast but its echo has filled my life. My first memory as a kid is sitting in a high chair at breakfast in a third floor walk-up in Jersey City listening to a magic voice, my mother told me it was Bing Crosby, coming from a box sitting on the kitchen counter. I wanted to crawl into that box, to be the voice coming out of that box. Other kids wanted to be firemen, doctors or President of the United States. I wanted to be a DJ. Sometimes people thought I was nuts, talking to myself, practicing my delivery. I read everything I could about Radio. I read about Orson Welles, and about the cadre of outstanding correspondents from the same network who assembled two years later to report from Berlin, Paris and, London – the Murrow boys.
My family loved the radio. My grandfather told me about listening in 1941, “This… is London.” Grandpa sat by his Silvertone radio, the same radio he gave to me to pursue my DXing (listening to distant broadcasts) hobby. He told me about listening to Murrow and thinking about his mother, who had settled in England after leaving Ireland during the Irish Civil War.
Pop loved Gabriel Heatter who, at the beginning of the World War II would open his Mutual Broadcasts on WOR with “There’s Good News Tonight.” Twenty five years later, when I was 18, I worked in that same studio. Growing up my world map was “The World at WOR” distributed by WOR during the war. It was covered with mom’s pencil markings trying to trace where she thought Pop might be from listening to reports on the radio.
And, of course, I heard family stories about War of the Worlds. Pop listened and believed. He worked out that the caissons used to build the Pulaski Skyway from Newark to Jersey City would be a safe place to bring his fiancé. The fiancé (my mom) was at home with her parents listening to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on the Chase and Sanborn Hour on NBC. When he showed up on Communipaw Avenue to rescue Mom she had no idea they needed rescuing.
I’ve lived the power of radio. From rural Alaska to rural Asia to rural Africa I’ve seen community radio give voice to grassroots organizations celebrating and building local identity. I’ve seen Community Radio give folks the tools to deal with the larger world. I once asked Senator Ted Stevens why he supported Alaska Public Radio so strongly. He told me it was the difference in the quality of questions people asked once a local station went on-air.
As TV grew radio became the “forgotten medium,” forgotten until it was needed. Slobodan Milosevic thought that if he controlled TV he could ignore radio. He used radio as his “fig leaf” to prove to the international community that he tolerated free and independent media. That didn’t work out so well for him. A low powered student station, B92, became the top rated station in Belgrade by broadcasting independent information. When Milosevic figured it out and shut down B92 hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets.
Today let’s celebrate the medium that delights, inspires and builds community on the 80th anniversary of Orson Well’s “War of the Worlds.”
I hold no particular land as sacred. The whole planet is equally sacred. And while I like to travel to see new things I don’t usually make pilgrimages to a “sacred” place. I made one exception. Four years ago we were in Princeton, NJ. I looked at a map and found we were five miles from Grovers Mill (it’s a real place and they don’t use the apostrophe.) I had to visit.
The thing I really like about the “Martian Landing Site” monument in Grovers Mill, (erected 30 years ago on the 50th anniversary of the Orson Welles “World of the Worlds” broadcast) is that there are no signs directing you to it. You cannot find it on Google Maps. You have to look for it. Once you get to Grovers Mill, the actual mill, drive along the mill pond on Cranberry Road to Van Nest Park. That’s where you’ll find the monument, interpretive sign boards erected as part of an Eagle Scout project, and some picnic tables. Along the way, look for the water tower. Local legend has it that folks listening to the radio in Grovers Mill mistook the tower for a “Martian fighting machine, “and shot at it. In a strip mall a couple of miles away from the mill, the water tower and the monument, you can find The Grover’s Mill Coffee Company (they do use the apostrophe.) It has broadcast memorabilia and sells “Cosmic Cravings,” “Martian Mocha” and “Rocket Fuel Roast.” It’s good coffee.