Berlin, N. H., Area in Uproar After “Fire” Newscast
Orson Welles was the first to demonstrate the potent power of radio news-casting to get “reverse action” out of people. Since his memorable “Man From Mars” broadcast, which panicked parts of the nation, there have been other examples. The latest of these occurred on a Sunday afternoon in March when in the “North Country”—the eastern half of Coos County, N. H., a realistic newscast had the natives in an uproar.
The seven-minute sponsored program was designed to make the public more careful in preventing forest fires. In the story, Phil Brown, of Station WMOU gave an on-the-spot newscast of a fictitious “raging forest fire” out of control in the vicinity of Errol, N. H.
So well done was his dramatic description of the supposed inferno and the “evacuation orders” that were given for all residents north of Tenth street, Berlin, that near-panic gripped the city; nervous and uninformed mothers gathered their children and started loading their valuables on hastily mustered trucks.
Despite the pre-program announcement that the “fire” was only make-believe, and two later announcements to the same effect, Jock MacKenzie, station program director, was unable to stem the tide of excited telephone calls, more than 100 of which were answered by the radio station as the program ended. The hysteria only ended, it is related, with reassuring announcements by the station after the program was concluded.
Announcer Dick Thompson thought he was being forceful in his assurance of “no fire” but no one believed it for some time, according to published news accounts.
The “fire” was supposed to have started near the Canadian border and despite the recital of the progress of the flames from there to Errol and south to Berlin and Shelburne, a distance of about 90 miles of snow-packed woods, during the seven minute program, the improbability of such a happening never occurred to radio listeners.
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The local fire department remained calm about the whole thing. Chief O. B. Berquist’s only worry was “What am I going to do with all these Boy Scouts who are showing up here for emergency duty?”
The road to Errol, 30 miles north of Berlin, was jammed with traffic. Sheriff Alonzo Labonte reported that “Errol hasn’t seen so much traffic in 20 years.”
Apparently, no great harm was done, according to news accounts, and the program did succeed in making local citizenry decidedly more aware of the danger of fire—but sighs of relief were heard from all sides at the conclusion of the affair.