Home » Operator: The 1938 War of the Worlds Broadcast Recontextualized

Operator: The 1938 War of the Worlds Broadcast Recontextualized

Another self-contained story from Matthew Woerner. This time he tackles the famous 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast which caused mass hysteria according to some sources. Instead of retelling that story from an omniscient perspective, Woerner sidesteps the issues inherent in knowing how the event plays out. The events told through the eyes of an unlikely main character, but one that makes sense in the historical context, gives this old news story a sense of originality in its concept and execution.

The 1938 War of the Worlds Broadcast: Answering the Rumors and Framing the Truth

Let’s assume the hysteria in 1938 was real and as bad as the news outlets portrayed. While a lot of sources agree that this was an example of misinformation run amuck, they disagree about just how out of hand it got. Either way, the “War of the Worlds” broadcast is a case study in the influence of the media on society. Something we see and hear today in the form of the politically-charged term of “fake news.” A more neutral way to describe this belief is through the terms of disinformation and misinformation. The key difference being intent. The former deceives by choice while the latter is accidental and not meant to trick people.

Going back to this new take on an old radio drama classic, having the focal character be a phone operator seems like it wouldn’t yield that much drama or tension. After all, they’re just answering phones and connecting people to each other through the phone line. Never has a job description of answering and connecting people via telephone been portrayed as more tense and heart-warming.

The Power of Human Connection Even with Hindsight

Crafting a story about an event that happened 85 years ago to this day isn’t exactly the best way to create an experience that feels genuine and have personal stakes rather than end of the world scenarios. Especially when one considers that around 6.6-6.7 billion people older than 85 are still alive. They’d be less than a year old at the time and have no memory of the event outside of retellings.

For an audio drama about a well-documented event in US History, the power isn’t in the big picture implications of what could happen if incorrect and verifiably false information spirals out of control. One not need look further than the January 6 insurrection in 2021. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between this audio drama and the moments that shook the country out of apathy. Aside from the attempted coup, one event still holds one of the top spots for most horrific acts of the 21st century—even 22 years after it occurred on September 11, 2001.

An Allegory for the Fight against Terrorism

While listening, images of both January 6 and September 11 flooded my mind. It sounds weird saying it out loud, but “Operator” made feel the fear and hurt among first responders must’ve experienced at both events. One about saving lives, the other being the complete disregard of it. In some ways, the event in 1938 was a precursor to the insurrection in 2021. The backstories are both wildly different and fundamentally the same. But they were caused by two different types of information. At its heart, “Operator” is the story of first responders and the role they play in life-threatening situations. The story has nothing explicit or even implicit about this sense of fear stemming from acts of terror. It did make me wonder if an angry mob were going to show up at the telephone company. Something that could probably happen today.

One aspect of this revisiting of the 1938 “War of the Worlds” broadcast that didn’t work was the frame narrative of a radio news host. Part of the problem was the ambiguity of the interviewers role at the station. He sounds too condescending to be a journalist, but just shy of being an FM radio DJ. There’s a bit of a suspension of disbelief in how the subject can remember the exact words her manager told her on her first day. It’s obviously unrealistic and the only reason it is that way is because—whether intentional or not—there is a single scene that plays twice. One is just a clip taken from a longer segment. It kind of works, but the downside is that the whole break from reality becomes more of an issue than it otherwise would’ve been.

The Positives of the 1938 War of the Worlds Broadcast?

Bringing this review to a close, I’d like to mention one more positive thing about this audio drama. That being the only other male character outside of the boss. The non-business owner character’s name is Richard. While the interviewer’s performance wasn’t enough in either direction to make it believable on both fronts, the humanity and connection between Faye Rogers and Richard was so palpable and honest the only thing that comes close is “Superman and Lois.” Both that show and this audio drama seem built upon moments of wholesomeness and realistic family drama set in an unrealistic world.

9/10 Stars