Monday, March 31, 2008

A Fine Line

I like to listen to podcasts on my 30-minute walk to work. This morning's selection was one of my favorites, an episode of Radio Lab. This particular episode was about the 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds and why so many people would believe that the fictional story on the radio was really happening.

Before I go on, I want to mention a time when I heard a fictional story and believed it to be true. It was on another walk to work a couple months ago that I was listening to a story by Brian Udall on This American Life. It was a strange tale told by a man whose developmentally disabled brother keeps a pet armadillo. I happened to miss the little sentence at the beginning of the piece explaining that it was fictional, so by the end of the story (and the end of my walk to work) I was holding back tears, completely horrified at a particular scene in which the armadillo is nearly killed.

After the story concluded, Ira Glass closed the show and once again mentioned that the story was a fictional piece originally published in 1999. I suddenly felt tricked and quite stupid, but if anything, the little incident taught me that what the reader/listener brings to the table greatly influences their perception of the story. I was expecting another installment of the nonfiction work that I always hear on This American Life, so I believed everything, no matter how far-fetched.

Which makes me think that I would have been one of those people in 1938 who, after listening to the War of the Worlds radio broadcast, called the police and asked if I would be safer on the roof or in my fallout shelter. The Radio Lab episode does a fantastic job of recreating the world of 1938 and explaining why, given events of the time period, people would believe a story that many of them had read at some point during the previous 40 years. It goes on to address how Orson Wells updated the story for the infamous broadcast and the potential for such panic to occur again from fiction. Listening to the original broadcast is one of those things I've always meant to do but never gotten around to. I'm glad that I was reintroduced to it through Radio Lab, because I appreciate the circumstances much, much more. Take a listen when you have a little time.

For more information:
Radio Lab #403: War of the Worlds
Listen to Brian Udall's story Resurrection

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