WKBW and the "War of the Worlds"
by Bob Kosinski - WNSA
Buffalo radio has had many classic moments, but each Halloween is the anniversary of one of it's finest, WKBW's War of the Worlds. In 1968 KB Program Director Jefferson Kaye had planned to re-do a radio version of H.G Wells War of the Worlds as a tribute to the 1938 classic produced by Orson Welles. It was a fitting homage considering it was the 30th anniversary of the now legendary production by Welles and his band of Mercury Theatre on the Air players. Jeff Kaye had no idea at the time however as to what he was getting into nor how far reaching the effects would be.
WKBW was a giant at the time, a 50,000-watt AM powerhouse that could be heard along the Eastern Seaboard at night. KB was already known for it's creative Halloween night specials and the original stories produced by Kaye and Danny Neaverth, but War of the Worlds was a much bigger undertaking.
Jeff Kaye had written a script and together with engineer Danny Kriegler attempted to produce and direct the production. The story line was well known, Martians invade the earth, and like the 38' version by Welles, the radio station would report on that invasion. However, Jeff Kaye soon found out that the KB staff of reporters and disc jockeys was not quite up to the standards of the original Mercury Theatre on the Air actors.
Faced with a collection of hokey readings by his staff Kaye decided to allow the reporters to be themselves and actually report on the invasion as though it was really taking place. Reporters such as Jim Fagan, Don Lancer and Joe Downey along with DJ Sandy Beach and WKBW TV anchor Irv Weinstein were armed with the details of events they were to report on and then told to just be themselves. This new approach not only worked better than following a written script, it scared the hell out of thousands of listeners.
Promptly at eleven o'clock Halloween night I lay there in bed in the dark as Dan Neaverth wrapped up his hosting of various spooky stories. What came next was a pre-recorded introduction to War of the Worlds; complete with an explanation of what KB was about to attempt. Next came an actual news report by Joe Downeywith a seemingly innocent final story about mysterious explosions on Mars. From there Sandy Beach took over and for the next ten minutes did a normal music show with an occasional mention of those strange explosions on the red planet. Then in the middle of White Room by the band Cream a traffic bulletin cuts in warning of a tie-up on Grand Island, the chaos was about to begin.
To thousands of listeners waiting for some kind of Halloween show nothing was happening and they began to call the station. Jeff Kaye and Dan Kriegler were there and Kriegler was actually adding live sound affects while the taped production was airing. Kaye told the callers that the War of the Worlds had indeed begun and just be patient and listen. Well, in the middle of Hey Jude by the Beatles, listeners were hit with a news bulletin proclaiming an explosion on Grand Island. To some this dramatic interruption was so real that they forgot they were listening to a Halloween program and thought an actual disaster had occurred.
The production from there was beautifully crafted with fictitious live reports and coverage of an actual Martian invasion of Buffalo and Western New York. Things were not too chaotic however to prevent KB from airing paid commercials and periodic reminders that this was only a radio play. These promotional reminders went unnoticed by many as if they never aired.
One by one newsmen were killed off and the phones were jammed with callers scared that what they were hearing was real. It was at this point that Jeff Kaye realized things were getting out of hand and he wanted to cut into the show to calm everyone's fears. Director Dan Kriegler would have none of that, fearing it would ruin the program and the two began to argue. Finally Jeff Kaye threatened to yank the large reel-to-reel tape off its spindle and end the program unless Kriegler allowed him to go on the air. Faced with the realization that Kaye would actually do it, Kriegler allowed him to cut in and give a live disclaimer telling everyone that this was only a dramatization. The calls still came and listeners up and down the East Coast began phoning relatives in Buffalo to see if they were ok.
Finally, at about ten minutes after midnight, Irv Weinstein was killed atop City Hall, the victim of a Martian war machines dreaded death ray. Jeff Kaye is now the last man on the air and ends the program by walking out onto Main Street and succumbing to the poison gas that had been wiping out the population of Buffalo all night. What followed was a somber close by Dan Neaverth that stuck to the original H.G Wells novel explaining that the Martins themselves were wiped out by the common germ despite their victory over humanity.
Inside the station Jeff Kaye did not feel a sense of accomplishment, instead he felt he had scared the hell out of too many people and he would certainly lose his job in the morning. Kaye claims he slipped his resignation under General Manager Norm Shrutt's door and went home.
In the morning things were not as bad as Kaye had feared, although the FCC did slap KB's hands for misleading it's audience. In fact changes were made in the FCC regulations after that broadcast to safe guard against a similar occurrence. Which by the way did not stop Kaye from retooling another airing of the broadcast in 1971 with Jackson Armstrong replacing Beach as the opening disc jockey.
The panic that ensued on that night in 1968 was not nearly as great as the 1938 Orson Welles original, but far more than Jeff Kaye and station management had anticipated or should I say, hoped for. In an interview twenty-one years later Dan Kriegler told me they had never intended to scare anyone, just do good radio. I didn't believe him for a minute.
Jeff Kaye is amazed to this day that people still remember the program and the lasting affect that it had, but he remembers every detail as though it was yesterday. For me as a fourteen year-old at the time it was a turning point, a realization that radio and broadcast was where I wanted to spend my life. It affected many in a similar fashion and is still considered an historic broadcast by many in the Buffalo media community.
Tom Atkins, now with the Entercom station group, has been the keeper of the flame, maintaining a pristine copy of the production and making the 1971 version available on the Internet at the Reelradio site. In 1998 John Hagar had 97 Rock and 103.3 The Edge produce and broadcast an updated version of the production, using several of the original KB staffers including Jeff Kaye and Irv Weinstein.
Now that I am General Manager 107.7 FM, my staffers knowing my affection for KB's classic, can only wonder what I have up my sleeve for October 31 st. However, nothing will ever replace the feel and the magic of Jeff Kaye's original. WKBW's version of H.G Wells War of the Worlds was truly a masterpiece and should be treasured as long as there is radio in Buffalo. Nuff said!
Original program and had the most impact. Dan Neaverth does good job of setting the mood with somber opening read. Vintage Sandy Beach as opening DJ and made a good transition from normal music show to concerned announcer when the invasion begins. This 68' original had such songs as Eleanor by the Turtles, White Room by Cream, Hey Jude by the Beatles and I'm Gonna be A Country Girl Again by Buffy St. Marie. Newsman Henry Brock does bulletins leading up to Jeff Kaye taking it over in the newsroom. Miscues: Locations mentioned on Grand Island during meteor landing do not match up on actual map. Several times reporters react to aircraft and explosions before the audience actually hears them because director Dan Kriegler had to add sound affects live to save tape generations. TV newsman John Irving describes Grand Island Bridge explosion and has survivors being swept away by rapids some half-mile away just seconds later.
Superb acting by most of the participants with Jeff Kaye's close very dramatic. Great Halloween mood complete with Monster Shoe ads adding to the flavor of this 1968 creation.
Runs around 75 minutes.
Opening narration done by Jeff Kaye and he does original read plus updated facts describing panic created by original KB version in 68. Jackson Armstrong replaces Sandy Beach as DJ and adds his own unique flavor. Songs played in 71' include Old Fashion Love Song by the Three-Dog Night, Precious And Few by Climax, Maggie May by Rod Stewart, Gypsies Tramps and Thieves by Cher, Everybody by Santana and Two Divided by Love by the Grass Roots. Interestingly enough original director Dan Kriegler refuses to have anything to do with this second-generation version because Jeff Kaye edited about twelve minutes out for the sake of time.
Jackson Armstrong adds great energy in opening minutes. Kaye's opening narration gives good insight as to what happened on night of the first airing in 68, although he takes dramatic license and fudges some of the facts.
This version done after Jeff Kaye and others had left KB and by far the weakest of the three. Opens with a Ron Baskin newscast and a drawn out report by a Toronto reporter talking about UFO's. Newscast ends with identical explosion on Mars report and then DJ Jim Quinn, ala Mighty Mouth, takes over. The need to edit out references to personnel no longer at station forces a much longer music show with Jim Quinn repeating word for word the adlibs of Sandy Beach and Jackson Armstrong from earlier versions. Songs include Osmonds' Love Me For A Reason, Locomotion by Grand Funk Railroad, When Will I See You Again by Three Degrees, America's Tin Man, Neither One of Us Won't Say Goodbye by Gladys Knight & Pips, and Beach Baby by First Class. This version is one hour long and flawed by the many edits and then abrupt toss to an unnamed Jeff Kaye. The close by Kaye is also sloppily dumped out of before conclusion. Your cheating yourself if this is the only version you have heard.