FRED ALLEN: I always pictured you as a man from another planet, a transcendentalist, a genius, a legend in the making — and here you are, joking and laughing with little old egg-laying me.
ORSON WELLES: Fred, I wish somebody would do something about this Superman myth the public has swallowed about me. It’s embarrassing. After all, I’m just an ordinary guy.
— “Les Misérables,” The Fred Allen Show (1942)
“I went into the booth with Homer and listened amazed at Welles’s genius with the microphone; he seemed to climb into it, his word-carving voice winding into one’s brain. No actor had such intimacy and sheer presence in a loudspeaker.”
— Arthur Miller, on working in radio with Orson Welles.
Every Halloween, Orson Welles is commemorated for orchestrating the “biggest radio hoax in broadcast history” even though a Catholic priest beat him to the punch. In 1926, Ronald Knox reported on a Communist coup in London on his BBC show, Broadcasting the Barricades. His impact: it was reported that with just 17 minutes of airtime, he had people panicking all over, calling hotels (asking if they should cancel their reservations) and news outlets (asking what was left of London). Even an act of god prolonged the jig: a snowstorm delayed the delivery of the Sunday paper and so no one could confirm what they had heard on the radio.
According to a distant relative, the broadcasting priest hadn’t anticipated the reaction to his parody. “Being a very clever and witty man himself,” he explained, “I suppose he didn’t estimate how stupid other people can be. He was used to growing up with clever and witty people, and I suppose he just didn’t estimate the kind of audience who were likely to listen to this.” While the ordeal served as a cautionary tale for broadcasters, it inspired Orson Welles to conduct an experiment of his own because he felt that “Radio […] wasn’t just a noise in somebody’s pocket — it was a voice of authority. Too much so. At least, I thought so,” he told the BBC. “It was time for someone to take the starch… out of some of that authority: hence my broadcast.”
I’m not invested in whether his War of the Worlds hoax was effective or not, but rather if it had boosted the show’s ratings. It was no secret that Welles, who had been crowned a “Marvelous Boy” on the cover of Time just months prior, was struggling to live up to the title. The Mercury Theatre on the Radio was only drawing in two to four percent of the nation’s radio audience, and he struggled to keep them interested. Like Knox, he had overestimated his audience, but not to the same effect. “One doesn’t believe in the radio audience much,” he explained during the War of the Worlds press conference, because “You have no idea how many people are listening and what they’re thinking.” He considered his adaptation of Dracula, where a hammer was smashed into a watermelon to mimic the sound of a stake going through a heart, a failure because the audience didn’t “react as they’d do in a movie of that kind.” And according to Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow, the War of the Worlds broadcast failed on those terms too, and that it wasn’t Welles who had incited the panic, but the news media with alarmist headlines and front pages about the broadcast. A good chunk of Welles’ career was foredoomed by his potential — or, in his words, by people simply not getting it. And while his adaptation of the War of the Worlds failed on his terms and as a radio hoax, it did succeed as a publicity stunt. To wit, his overnight notoriety established his reputation as a radio personality and secured a contract with a Hollywood studio.
“I like the idea that a voice can just go somewhere, uninvited, and just kinda hang out like a dirty thought in a nice clean mind. Maybe a thought is like a virus, you know, it can… it can… kill all the healthy thoughts and just take over. That would be serious.”
— Mark Hunter, Pump up the Volume
— Barry Champlain, Talk Radio
Eventually, Orson Welles returned to radio after the success of his first feature film Citizen Kane. Now, he was the main act: his celebrity drew in enough loyal listeners that cosmetics companies, Mobil Oil, and Campbell Soup sponsored shows like the Orson Welles Show (1941), the Orson Welles Almanac (1944), and Orson Meets H.G. Wells. The same man who had bemoaned radio’s authority had unwittingly become one. And a salesman too. Though his past successes had widened his audience and his reach, he could never — like many prodigies — surpass them. As Bruce Bawer put it in his treatise on Welles for Lapham’s Quarterly, “Despite his wide range of formidable gifts, he became a star not by creating some great work but, quite simply, by scaring the hell out of people.”
Films about talk radio hone in on the personalities behind the mic. The disembodied voice is a person with high standards, saying some variation of “I don’t care; this is good radio.” These are people who, like Welles, would rather ride the coattails of past successes than compromise their integrity, which is why they are persona grata in front of the mic and pariahs outside the recording booth. In Pump up the Volume, Mark Hunter channels his angst into his on-air alter ego, “Happy Hard-On Mike,” which resonates with his classmates even though he can’t befriend them. Talk Radio’s Barry Champlain riles up his listeners and his bosses, but stutters in front of a booing audience. And don’t get me started on Frasier Crane. Their definition of success conflicts with that of their bosses, the stations, the FCC, and sponsors.
In Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio, Barry Champlain, a character based on radio shock jock Alan Berg, who was gunned down in his driveway, is so committed to his radio persona and ratings he’d sacrifice himself on the altar. He is a left-leaning Jewish man with a far-right audience, so he is inevitably sent death threats, suspicious packages with dead rats, and other white supremacist paraphernalia. But divided as they are in their politics and social mores, they convene on their lunacy: he matches their extremism with his will to do anything to get ahead, even stringing along his ex-wife just to chew her out on air.
If Champlain proves anything it’s that there’s a special place in hell for people who can stand their voice enough to broadcast it. But a real destabilizing threat to him is syndication because it makes his entire production less of a one-man show. The flashbacks show the symbiotic relationship between Champlain and his listeners. Unlike Welles, Champlain’s radio requires audience participation, and he knows it well enough to push their buttons. According to Stone, he is the man “making this happen. These callers are almost inside his psyche. He’s chosen this path. He has, in a sense, chosen his doom.” He isn’t the voice of change, but feeds off that dysfunction until he is ultimately killed by it.
But while Champlain doesn’t quite preach to the choir, he can read the room: progress doesn’t only make the world smaller, it leaves people behind and in extreme cases, challenges their fantasies of ethnic and cultural purity. Loneliness and maybe even malaise can be soothed by simply reaching out into the ether and being heard by anyone. But the other side of the coin — isolation combined with alienation (from your work, your life, and now mass culture) — gets you squares, pranksters and bigots. These are Champlain’s people, so to speak. This is a man who so desperately needs his jokes to land that he’ll break bread with the people who call him a “weed-eating Jew, in control of the media,” and then threaten to hang him. “I guess the day that I hang,” he says, “I’ll probably defend the asshole who hung me. Talk radio. Free speech isn’t really free at all. It’s actually a little bit like Russian roulette. A very expensive commodity.” Barry Champlain doesn’t spread fake news, but he does help in disseminating them.
On the other hand, the broader theme of Alan Moyle’s Pump up the Volume is communication, or at least its collapse between generations. Mark Hunter, played by Christian Slater, doesn’t antagonize listeners, but riles them to action and change, and tries to talk them down from suicide. He isn’t the voice of his generation, but articulates their malaise and, true of most pirate DJs, challenges the status quo. Here, connecting with an audience is a means of survival.
According to The Ringer’s Eric Ducker, the final version of Moyle’s script is much more hopeful than the earlier one. Entitled Radio Death, it followed Hunter’s last broadcast, where he entertains different ways to self-immolate, promising his listeners he’ll go through with it. This version of Hunter may be a loner in real life, but he is a sounding board for the lonely, a companion who makes them feel less alone. What is the point of a communication medium, where anyone with the right tools can broadcast themselves, if not to resonate with others, believe them, and even better: give them a language for their pain?
“…the globe is shrinking under the Clarke belt… ‘Communication satellites have made space a place.’”
— from David Owen’s “Satellite Television”
FAY: When you’re on the radio, you always change your voice. Why do you always do that?
EVERETT: Because it’s how radio sounds!”
— from The Vast of Night (2020)
Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night has been billed as an alien movie even though it’s more tangentially a radio show. The aliens are never seen, but they’re intelligent enough to intercept a radio signal to connect with more isolated parts of the country. But before that, we have Fay and Everett walking around town with her new tape recorder trying to get good soundbites from the locals. As they walk around a parking lot before a basketball game — the most exciting event in 1950s Cayuga, New Mexico — she tells him about how the near future will have self-driving cars and smartphones. It’s true because she read it in a magazine.
Fay and Everett seem to be the only ones working while the rest of the town attends the basketball game, which makes them great candidates for an alien abduction. As they part ways to clock in — Fay as a switchboard operator, and Everett as host of a call-in show — a signal interrupts Everett’s radio show and she gets a call about something in the sky before the line abruptly cuts out. When she finally reaches Everett, who didn’t hear the sound at first, he broadcasts it to his listeners. If there was ever a way to disseminate a message and have it repeated, a radio show seems to be the perfect outlet, and the show, by being recorded, becomes a public venue for the people in every small town who are not only ostracized but never believed: Billy, a Black man and former military man, and a spinster with a child out of wedlock. The “people in the sky”, they are told, often target loners, especially when the rest of the town congregates for an event (like a basketball game).
What’s particularly different with this radio film is that both Everett and Fay abandon the broadcast and the phone lines to go out into the field with a tape recorder, trying to make contact. And though they record everything, it never hits the sound waves. It exists as an archive of a weird night, left out in a clearing without Fay and Everett to be found. Here is that sense of fulfillment, with both Fay and Everett disenchanted by their surroundings and eventually the world. And while not a single person on earth seems to speak to them, they become the unwilling audience to outsiders. There’s giving people space, and then there’s giving them a way out of a future where the job won’t get any better, life will get harder, and the machines that will make life easier will simply make them hate it more. The people who seem to embrace technology and the future — as a utopia — don’t see one on this planet.
In 1975, after years of making the films his radio plays couldn’t live up to, Welles narrated a NASA documentary about planetary habitability. Aptly titled Who’s Out There?, which aired four years after NASA’s Mariner 9 successfully orbited Mars, featured Welles recounting his friendship with H.G. Wells and interviewing people who fell for his on-air hoax before launching into a discussion about extraterrestrial life with Carl Sagan. The two were polar opposites: Welles, the worst-case scenario (the end of the world), and Sagan, the realist, the voice of authority who regularly briefed astronauts before takeoff. Welles’ was not only a tongue-in-cheek reference to his own alien hoax, but a way to mark progress since it last aired: the world had come so far it was ready to start exploring the universe.
At a time when we’re not only divided but isolated from each other because of an infectious disease, we’ve turned to newer ways to broadcast ourselves or watch others do so. Not everything has to be profound the way, say, Welles wanted it to be, but it can, on a larger scale, have the ability to resonate with everyone else. Not long ago, we condemned portable devices because they stole us from the present, but now we’ve redefined its role in our lives — to connect to others when we have to be so far apart. Perhaps our ways of distracting ourselves are mere projection, in that we’re always looking for new ways to speak to something more universal, even if we can’t do it in person. But how could we ever befriend other lifeforms light years away if we haven’t quite mastered it at home?