Welles vs. Wells

If you haven’t already seen this, you should. It is a conversation between Orson Welles and H.G. Wells on the radio, and will only take a few minutes of your time.

There are quite a few awesome things about this little recorded nugget of history. First of all, it is just cool to hear a radio broadcast from back then. It doesn’t say what year this meeting took place, but it was before Citizen Kane came out, which was in 1941, and they talk about Hitler in the present tense, so I guess in 1940 or early 1941. For one thing, people were much more eloquent back then. Granted, you would expect both Orson and H.G. to be well-spoken, but even the other radio guy in the beginning seems to take much more care with the words he uses. Radio broadcasts were so much more important back then too, so that may explain it.

It is also interesting to note the way in which they talk about Hitler. There seems to be an unspoken assumption between both of them that he is a sinister, but also somewhat ridiculous character. Obviously they both saw him as a bad guy, but the tone was different; they spoke about him as an evil, but one that is known, not the semi-mythical spawn of Satan that Hitler has become today. This, of course, is because much of the worst crimes of the Nazi regime were not yet well known. But they knew enough to know that he was bad news, and in a way their view of him was better – he was seen as a problem, a problem that was current and a part of the world they both lived in, and also a problem that needed to be addressed. We view Hitler as an absolute evil, but as a thing of the past, an aberration. For us he represents the worst that humanity has to offer, but really just a hiccup on the road towards progress that we are continually heading down. He is so far removed from us that all we can really do is look back and say, “wow, that was bad,” and then congratulate ourselves on how far we have come.

This clip also made me realize the difference between listening to people talking on the radio and watching people talking on TV. The radio has an intimacy about it that is hard to convey on the screen. Not impossible of course; many films are filled with a delicacy that can make the spine tingle. But on television it is much more difficult. It is hard to be really engrossed in something when you are constantly interrupted by advertisements. I guess people don’t really watch TV that way anymore because of Soprano-type shows. And I guess the radio is just as filled with advertising these days as television used to be, but still. Radio is different. They whisper, and you lean forward to hear better. I think it has to do with the fact that in order to listen to a conversation on the radio you have to pay more attention than you do if you are just watching television. It requires more of you; you can’t really do it passively.

The thing is, back then people did pay attention to the radio. Now we barely notice it. We might listen to the radio when we are driving, or even plug in our i-whatever and listen to music or downloaded podcasts. But in the 40s, it was the main means of mass communication. It was the source of news and also a source of entertainment. That is why Orson’s War of the Worlds trick worked so well; everyone listened to the radio and the impression was if it was said on the radio it must be true.

That is kind of how it is here in Niger. Everyone listens to the radio all the time in Niger. Before coming here I (randomly) saw a documentary on the radio in Niger, called Magic Radio, and it was really interesting. Since so many people here are illiterate and do not have televisions, the radio is much more important than the newspapers. They even broadcast parliamentary sessions on the radio. Kind of like C-SPAN in the United States. Except here, everyone listens to it! They also have the BBC, which I like listening to, and part of the day it is broadcast in Hausa. I think that will have to become part of my daily ritual, seems like it would be a good learning tool. All that to say, if Welles tried to pull off his War of the Worlds prank here in Niger, I think it would work.

Last thing – how cool is it to hear a “plug” for Citizen Kane before it even came out. Also, H. G. Wells has the cutest voice, and I am not alone in thinking this. I would never usually advise this, but see the comment section on Youtube.

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One Response to Welles vs. Wells

  1. Pingback: A Griot at CURE | joshjulieblog

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