Don’t Panic!*

A galaxy with stars and space objects
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May 19, 2017

The most notorious broadcast event in US history was Orson Welles’ radio dramatization of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. The 1938 broadcast supposedly left more than a million people traumatized, convinced the Earth was under attack from Martian invaders. In today’s world of 24-hour information, it seems ludicrous that anyone could have believed that a radio drama was anything other than just that, but in 1938, radio was the source of news.

The New York Times, in an article entitled Terror by Radio, noted the interweaving of “blood-curdling fiction” with news flashes “offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given” to heighten the effect. So the fact that the drama even mimicked the tone and style of the news and it’s suddenly not so difficult to imagine horrified families, huddled round the radio convinced that the end was nigh.

Except that they didn’t, not really. Critics since have pointed out that the story of mass hysteria was faked to publicise Orson Welles’ involvement. That and as Slate points out, newspapers had their own agenda: “Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print 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.” Hey-ho, it’s still a good story and a brilliant dramatization.

So why have we mentioned it? In our blog The Magic of Storytelling, we looked at how the popularity of the podcast had laid the foundations for the current popularity of the audiobook, and that both (and radio) capitalize on our primal and deeply emotional connection with oral storytelling. We also discussed the fact that podcasts were for relaying real-life topics such as sport, politics, comedy and documentary while audiobooks allowed people to immerse themselves in a world of imagination. So it is with surprise that we approach Tor Labs announcement that it will release an audio drama this summer called Steal the Stars as a podcast.

The 14-episode, science fiction thriller (the genre is probably no coincidence) deliberately plays with the notion that podcasts are for non-fiction topics in order to heighten the drama. No one will be fooled into thinking that it is really happening, of course, but it is an interesting play on people’s expectations of the medium. “There’s a little mad science in every new publishing experiment,” said editors Marco Palmieri and Jennifer Gunnels. Other publishers will no doubt watch and wait to see if this podcast experiment works and it if gains a foothold on audiobooks’ market dominance.

*The famous cover line of the fictional Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that began life as a radio drama in 1978.

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