If you know anything about Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast in 1938, it’s probably that the radio tale of an alien invasion caused mass panic in listeners through its narrative format, which began with a series of “breaking news” interruptions of standard radio fare like the weather and a classical music performance. As fantastic as that story is, it’s almost as much of a fiction as the original tale.
In fact, according to research done in the 2010’s, it’s likely that only a handful of people actually thought the broadcast was real. The program was prefaced with a statement about its fictional nature, only a few thousand people were listening to that station, and anyone who kept listening would arrive at the portion of the show when the format changes to a more traditional story of a survivor. The mass-panic myth started in the newspapers and grew over time to become common knowledge.
It seems to me that one of the reasons the myth was so easily spread is that, listening to the broadcast, it feels incredibly realistic (for the time). The breaking news format still commands attention today, causing you to stop what you are doing and pay attention to the screen or the radio. The obvious fiction is delivered within segments that feel like the normal boring background radio noises that listeners in the 30’s would have heard every day. The fiction becomes immediate and engaging because it’s delivered in such a familiar, trustworthy way. Even if people weren’t fooled into thinking it was real (which wasn’t a goal of the broadcast to begin with), they would certainly have been listening attentively, gripped by the fantastic storytelling.
As the title of this post suggests, I think there are critical storytelling lessons here for museums and history organizations, and I promise I’ll get to those soon. But first, we have to address the fact that this storytelling device only works in the right context. In order to explain this, let me share a short (true) story about my brothers and The Blaire Witch Project, a popular 1999 horror film about teens hiking in the woods of Maryland told through “recovered footage” that the main characters had captured on their video recorder.
When my two younger brothers were middle-school-aged, they would spend hours and hours wandering through the woods near our home in rural Maryland. One day, while exploring in the woods, they came across an abandoned house, and being middle-school-aged boys, they decided to break in and see what they could find. Among various nicknacks and random old things they brought home were two unlabeled VHS tapes. One turned out to be porn, but the other one was a bootleg copy of the Blair Witch Project. It started playing partway into the movie, and until they realized it was a movie, my poor little brothers believed they had stumbled on the fate of the abandoned home’s inhabitants and were thoroughly spooked.
Of course, if you had seen the movie in theaters, you wouldn’t have really believed it was real, no matter how scared you were while watching it. Because you had seen it in theaters, which is not a “truthful” context. But my little brothers–who were a little young to have remembered the movie’s heyday and sheltered enough by their homeschooled upbringing that they had never heard of the movie–watched it in probably the most ideal context possible for that story.
So what can we learn from this?
- Provide familiar gateways (through medium or context) for your visitors to approach complicated ideas or “un-relatable” histories.
- Actual historical footage/audio/documents can be extremely compelling and perhaps even as gripping as a fictional story if presented in the right way.
- Reverse the model: Sharing history through a fictional gateway can be used together to make historical events engaging to people who don’t otherwise love history.
What do these lessons look like in practice?
These lesson can be put to work in so many ways, both in-person and through online mediums like podcasting. Here are three examples:
1. The Peale Center:
One incredible application of all these lessons are the immersive experiences being created and staged at The Peale Center in Baltimore Maryland. Here’s the event description for the The Institute of Visionary History: “Discovered in the basement beneath The Peale Center, the Archives of the Deep Now are the records of a centuries-old secret society calling themselves The Institute of Visionary History. The Institute believed the building to be a kind of ‘thin place’ where one can more easily transcend our present reality and contact other planes, places, and times. Their experiments combined scientific inquiry and visionary sight to uncover histories heretofore untold. As Submersive Productions recreates the Archives of the Deep Now, we have come to see the room as a kind of machine designed to evoke a specific state of mind. Each archive box contains an experiment, a set of mysterious instructions devised to expand the present moment to better access other lost moments in time. These experiments, while fascinating, have so far proven unsuccessful. Perhaps you, as our guest researcher, will have better luck.”
2. The Magic Treehouse:
The Magic Treehouse book series uses a fictional framework of children magically traveling back in time to deliver facts about science and nature and history lessons. There’s even a set of companion books that delve deeper into the facts and history in each book for kids who want to learn more. How could we be drawing people into historical learning and engagement and whetting their historical curiosity through fictional gateways?
Audio drama podcasts are where the real innovation in storytelling is right now. Many are finding creative ways to draw you into a story using familiar mediums and formats…just like the 1939 broadcast of “War of the Worlds.” Welcome to Night Vale is the broadcast of a strange local radio station with sponsor segments, local news highlights, and friendly banter from the familiar host. Girl in Space lets you listen in on the audio diary of a girl lost in space, the familiar clicking on and off of the recorder letting you into her private thoughts. The Walk is an audio drama that stars you, the listener. You have a mission and the podcast is simply what you hear as you complete that mission. Adventures in New America is an new Afrofuturism show that uses a mind-bending combination of “your regular radio program” narration and “fly on the wall” dialogue to take you on a wild ride through racism and capitalism.
But non-fiction podcasts are also using familiar formats to draw their listeners in. In Season 3 of Raw Material by the SF MoMA, each episode combines documentary trips to sites of land art alongside fiction that brings the art to life for the listener. In Out of the Blocks, the show creators use the familiar format of oral histories to uncover the living history of Baltimore, one block at a time.
And this applies to us how?
I wish I had more examples of museums and historic sites already doing this, but I don’t, so I’ll just share my vision. I would love to see more institutions being creative with audio to create stories out of their oral histories, using fiction and non-fiction together to bring their objects, primary sources, and historical audio to life for the general public. We know that people want an experience, and the simplicity of sound-only is a perfect opportunity to carry our listeners away to past times, foreign lands, unfamiliar situations, and help them engage with the past and develop a greater capacity for empathy along the way.
If you’d like to learn more about how you can use podcasting to creatively tell intimate stories and engage your audience, check out my book, Your Museum Needs a Podcast: A Step-By-Step Guide to Podcasting on a Budget for Museums, History Organizations, and Cultural Nonprofits. Or schedule a free 15-minute call with me to chat about how podcasting could fit into your strategic plan.