6 truths you’ll discover from infamous ‘War of the Worlds’


By DAVID CRUMM, Editor of ReadTheSpirit

“I think suits should be filed against Mr. Welles and the Columbia Broadcasting System for their wrongdoing! Welles’ performance on the radio was a clear demonstration of his inhuman instincts and his fiendish joy in causing distress and suffering all over the country. He is a carbuncle on the rump of degenerate theatrical performers and he should make amends for his consummate act of assininity.”
Judge A. G. Kennedy, Union, South Carolina

AS WE approach Halloween, we also approach the 75th anniversary of the infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast orchestrated by Orson Wells on October 30, 1938. If we recall anything about that incident, we may smile at the panic Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air caused across the U.S. that night and conclude: Oh, that was all about “the stupidity of the masses!” In fact, in 1938, one woman actually drew that conclusion in response to the radio drama.

Well, I’m urging you to tune in for an hour of PBS’s American Experience documentary series on Tuesday night—and you will discover that there’s a lot more we need to know about that celebrated broadcast. (Learn more about the PBS documentary: Here is the American Experience home page for War of the Worlds.)

Among the many lessons we learn in this fascinating hour-long film:

“SURFING” IS NOT NEW: We tend to think of Americans’ split-second attention span for media as something new. In fact, as this new film demonstrates, radio-station surfing in 1938 caused the biggest damage among terrified listeners. Those dial-spinners missed the opening credits that clearly identified the radio drama. Instead, they dropped into the midst of a terrifying broadcast without that crucial information about the fictional nature of the production.

FEAR BUILDS ON FEAR: President Franklin Roosevelt was correct in his judgment that, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” One reason the radio broadcast had such a dramatic impact was that Americans had been conditioned to expect terrifying news: from stories about the 1929 stock market crash, through shocking headlines about banks going out of business, breaking news bulletins about natural disasters and, by 1938, “the drumbeat of war” in Europe. Many listeners who dropped into the middle of the War of the Worlds later reported that they thought it was a news broadcast about German forces attacking in the U.S.

BAD SCIENCE BUILDS ON ITSELF: These days, we understand the power of bad scientific reports—ranging from poorly conducted research to politically motivated scientific claims. These claims can sway millions of Americans and result in either bad policies or delays in taking positive actions. Well, as this documentary shows: Countless Americans had seen scientific and even governmental reports in the 1930s concluding that Mars did, indeed, have a living population. Stories about Martian landings seemed natural to many listeners.

HYSTERIA SPREADS IN A VISCERAL WAY: Panic can become so overwhelming that it tricks our senses. Earlier in the 1930s, researchers found men and women across one region of Virginia reporting—over a year-long period—attacks of toxic gas being pumped into their homes. In fact, researchers documented, this was entirely a case of mass hysteria. Of course, many other incidents of mass panic have been documented over the past century. Welles’ production ranks among the first major examples of a media-driven panic. It was so effective that many Americans experienced it on a visceral level. As in the case of the Virginia “toxic gassings,” many radio listeners swore they could smell the black smoke produced in the Martian attack.

CONGRESS IS SILLY: No, craziness didn’t break out in Congress with the advent of the Tea Party. Congressional leaders have been silly for a long, long time. The Congressional response to the radio broadcast was ridiculous—and, thankfully for Welles and CBS, eventually faded away.

APOLOGY IS POWERFUL: In the end, Orson Welles called it one of his greatest public performances. The documentary shows how masterfully Welles threw himself onto the mercy of the American people after the broadcast. Beyond the art in his public appearance, there also was a sincere apology. And, in the end, that may be the most important lesson in that brush with the War of the Worlds.

(This review is originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Congregational consultant Martin Davis: Your newsletter may shock you—and these possibilites will excite you

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Martin Davis: Growing Your Church through Communication

Read the Spirit is proud to introduce columnist Martin Davis, a well-known congregational consultant. He’s good at answering the nuts-and-bolts questions people are asking nationwide. One of his specialties is helping congregations rethink the way they communicate. Please, click on a blue-“f” Facebook button (top or bottom today) to suggest that friends read this column along with you. And, keep in touch with Read the Spirit for more stories like this one by clicking the green “Subscribe” button in the upper-right and signing up for our free weekly newsletter. Here’s Martin …

Successful Newsletters
Are More than
Artful Designs


When Chancellor Baptist Church decided to launch an e-newsletter, the staff’s excitement was palpable. Everyone would want this, they reasoned, so it would go a long way toward ending communication problems in the church. If events and information are in the e-newsletter and in the printed newsletter, no one will miss them. After all, everyone reads the printed newsletter—and surely everyone would read the e-newsletter. Right?

The reality was shocking to all involved. Over the first three weeks, only about 50 of the congregation’s 250 regular attendees signed up for the e-newsletter. And over the first month, no more than 15 percent of readers actually clicked a link in the newsletter.

Such is the reality of online newsletters. Whether you are pondering launching your first e-newsletter, or looking to improve an existing one, it’s essential to “keep it real” when setting your expectations for success.

According to MailChimp—an e-newsletter service that sends out billions of newsletter emails each month—the average open rate (emails opened in a window), un-open rate (emails never opened), and click rate (emails in which a user clicks at least one link) for e-newsletters within the realm of religious media are as follows: Open rate, 29.6%; un-open rate, 69.0%; click rate, 3.7%.

Shocked now? Think about this: If you have 100 members in your church and everyone signed up for your e-newsletter, you could expect 30 people to open it. (That means that they click to open your newsletter from their email program, or the email appears in their email program’s preview window.) But remember that final statistic, the click rate. About 30 people may “open” and see your newsletter—but that does not mean 30 people will spend time reading it—and only a few will follow those links that you so thoughtfully placed in your e-newsletter.

Keep in mind that these are national averages. My experience shows that congregations can reasonably expect a somewhat higher click rate. I estimate about 10%. And, if effectively trained newsletter editors are at the helm, those numbers can push higher—upwards of 30%-35%.

As you start, consider the shock value of the real-world numbers I have shared here. This is the time for you to contact friends in your congregation who care about the way you communicate. Talk about how surprisingly little impact you may be having through your long-trusted newsletters.

In a minute I will share some good news about how to begin breaking through this wall of missed communication. But, first, I’ll start the process of honestly talking about this problem.

Church Newsletters:
How We Tackled the Challenge

Chancellor Baptist Church is my home congregation in Virgina and we were excited about launching an e-newsletter. Then, we were surprised by the harsh reality of the real-world statistics on e-newsletter readership. But the next insight was an even greater surprise. Many of us had assumed that “everyone” was reading our existing printed newsletter.

The truth is: In congregations nationwide, the majority of men and women are not reading print newsletters—and they probably never have. A simple test of your own reading habits suggests why. If you receive snail-mail newsletters and magazines, how often do you read them cover-to-cover? At all?

Consider a Bureau of Labor Statistics report on how Americans use a typical five hours of leisure time per day. Mainly, Americans watch television (2.7 hours), play games (26 minutes) and socialize online (37 minutes)—far more time than they spend reading (17 minutes). Now think about all the materials that cross a person’s field of vision in the course of a day: Emails, regular mail, magazines, best-selling mysteries, reports from work—the reading list goes on and on long before someone decides to curl up with a church newsletter.

E-newsletter statistics bring that already existing situation into sharp relief. If only 10% of your members actually engage your e-newsletter by clicking something, it’s safe to assume that probably the same percentage are engaging your printed materials.

Why Your Congregation
Should Develop

The reality of your readership may be shocking, but e-newsletters give you something that print newsletters never can—hard data about the people in your congregation and what they look at.

At Chancellor Baptist Church, once the initial shock wore off, people began looking closely at what people were paying attention to within our new e-newsletter—and what they were ignoring. Whatever e-newsletter service you choose, you will find that your newsletter staff can receive easy-to-read reports on what people actually are reading in each issue. We discovered right away that many of our long-standing types of newsletter stories were largely ignored.

On the other hand, write ups about members soared. Think about that for a moment and it makes a lot of sense. If you have a precious few minutes to scan your congregation’s e-newsletter, your eye is likely focused on finding something about your family and friends. A short profile about an active member is likely to catch a lot of eyes.

So, our church began to adjust the balance of newsletter items. Over time, our new mix of stories provided an even more valuable lesson: Member profiles get lots of views the first time they run—and people come back to them again and again! To facilitate this, there’s now a convenient way to access an index of all profiles in every e-newsletter issue.

What else did people enjoy? Videos of baptisms also did very well, as did discussions of new educational materials the church is considering. In short, by paying attention to what people actually accessed in the e-newsletters, the staff learned what members want to read. This began to increase the value of the newsletters, rather than leaving this potentially important communications tool mired in the typical rut of feeding people the same old things they’ve been ignoring for years.

More important, because of the newsletter, the staff is gaining a better understanding of people in our community, including their interests and their daily lives—the first goal of any growing congregation.

Getting Past the Newsletter Jolt

It’s up to you: You can use this data and follow the examples of many congregations that are honestly facing up to the failures of most older newsletters. This week, gather friends and staff in your congregation. Share this column with them. When you meet, ask the tough questions: Is it really worth the postage and printing costs to produce a print newsletter when you receive no feedback about how it’s being used? Could the expense and effort of producing print pieces be put to better use? Is it worth buying Yellow Page ads when studies show people turn to the internet first when looking for a church?

Begin to rethink your existing budget for advertising, printing and mailing—and you may discover you can free up money for new projects. Rethink the hours that staff and volunteers spend on existing media—and think about the new excitement they will feel when you can demonstrate that their “item” or photo or home video was popular in the new e-newsletter.

Finally, think about the excitement your community will feel, when a short story about one of your members winds up shared across Facebook pages and personal email networks—and winds up drawing a friend or relative to walk through your doors. After all, you’re showing what a friendly, welcoming place you’ve become.

Don’t let the initial shock deter you from opening a more powerful window into your community.

Want more on growing your congregation
through better communication?

In 2013, Read the Spirit is responding to readers nationwide who love their congregations and are asking us to include more practical columns about growing healthy communities through media. One way we help is through our Bookstore, which offers dozens of books that are great for re-igniting your small group or congregation.

This summer, we also are adding occasional columns by author and media marketing expert Lynne Meredith Golodner. Her first column explains why we need to rediscover the lost art of storytelling as a way to honestly and effectively connect people—and build diverse communities.