Remembering the past... looking toward the future!

WKBW’s – War of the Worlds

by Bob Koshinski

There have been several significant radio broadcasts over the ninety plus years of Buffalo’s radio history, but for pure impact and entertainment it’s tough to top WKBW’s “War of the Worlds”. It was exactly 11am on Halloween night 1968 that WKBW radio aired it’s version of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi story, leaving a legacy that still stands today.

This classic Halloween radio production has grown in stature over the decades since its first broadcast, receiving national and even worldwide attention. KB radio’s “War of The Worlds” has been featured in television documentaries, on web sites, YouTube, in books, national articles and can be heard on numerous online radio collection sites.

It all began in the autumn of 1968 with the approaching 30th anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous radio dramatization of the science fiction novel. WKBW Program Director Jefferson Kaye, a creative genius in his own right, wanted to produce a local version of “War of the Worlds” as a tribute to Welles original 1938 classic.

Orson Welles had made radio history with his Mercury Theatre on the Air broadcast. The program, which aired on October 30th 1938, caused panic among unsuspecting listeners and today remains universally accepted as the most famous radio broadcast of all time.

Jeff Kaye wanted to recreate a similar production with a Buffalo flavor, but later admitted he had no idea what he was getting into or how far reaching the effects of his creation would be.

In 1968, WKBW was a radio giant with a 50,000-watt AM signal that at night could be heard along the Eastern seaboard. KB’ was one of the most powerful Top 40 stations in the country at that time.

WKBW radio was also known for creative promotions and original programming, which included an entire night of spooky and creepy stories on Halloween night. Many of those original stories were written and produced by Jeff Kaye himself along with Danny Neaverth and others. However, Kaye would discover “War of the Worlds” was a much bigger endeavor.

Jeff Kaye wrote a forty page, bound script for the program and recruited KB Engineer Danny Kriegler to direct the production. The story line was very similar to the 1938 Welles broadcast, which had the radio station covering a Martin invasion of the earth, but with a Western New York angle.

The pair quickly discovered however, that unlike the trained stage actors used by Welles, the WKBW on-air staff struggled with a written script. Their performances sounded staged and lacked the realism they were looking for. What Jeff Kaye did to solve this problem became the key ingredient in creating one of the finest productions of this sci-fi story ever produced.

Jeff Kaye supplied his reporters and on-air staff with an outline of the facts needed for each of their scenes and told them to report on them as they would if it were actually happening. So disc jockey Sandy Beach, news reporters Jim Fagan, Joe Downey, Henry Brock, Don Lancer, John Irving, Irv Weinstein and Kaye did just that.

Under Kriegler’s and Kaye’s direction and armed with the key details of events, the on-air personalities created a broadcast that was not only realistic, it scared the hell out of thousands of listeners.

The Broadcast

WKBW was already unique in the market with its’ Halloween programming. Danny Neaverth served as the host of the yearly broadcast of spooky stories and unique radio dramas like “Paul McCartney is Dead”, “The Bed” and others. So in 1968, at the age of fourteen, I lay on my bed in a darkened room listening to the various stories, waiting for the well-publicized “War of the Worlds” to begin.

Exactly at eleven o’clock, Dan Neaverth opened the broadcast with a pre-recorded explanation of what listeners were about to hear. Neaverth’s read was uncharacteristically serious and thus it set the appropriate tone.

The “official” beginning of the production followed Neaverth’s open with an actual live newscast by Joe Downey. The newscast was genuine in every way until its final and seemingly innocent story about mysterious explosions on Mars.

Sandy Beach then took the microphone and for the next twenty-five minutes did his typical music show beginning with a humorous references to those strange explosions on the red planet. It was a throwaway line and yet an ominous hint of what was to follow.

At thirteen minutes and forty seconds after eleven o’clock a “traffic condition red” bulletin broke in the middle of the song “White Room” by the band Cream. The bulletin warned of fires and explosions on Grand Island causing a massive traffic jam and the halting of traffic on the Grand Island bridges.

The chaos was now just minutes away, yet thousands of radio listeners were still waiting for what they had expected to be a spooky Halloween show. Many of these impatient fans began to call the station’s control room and complained that the advertised “War of the Worlds” program wasn’t on.

An amused Jeff Kaye took the calls and told listeners that the “War of the Worlds” program had begun and just be patient. Meanwhile Dan Kriegler was also in the control room, waiting to add live sound affects to the production. Kriegler didn’t want to affect the quality of the program by creating multiple tape “generations” with the various affects and edits. Kriegler’s “stickler for detail” quality would come into play again shortly.

Then exactly five minutes and twelve seconds later an actual WKBW news bulletin interrupted “Hey Jude” by the Beatles. The jarring and dramatic announcement informed listeners that a massive explosion had occurred on Grand Island.

The news bulletin was so realistic that many forgot they were listening to a Halloween program and believed instead that an actual disaster was taking place. Even several WKBW staffers listening at home, knowing “WOW” was on, admitted they too were taken in by the sudden bulletin.

The production from that point on was beautifully crafted with fictitious live news reports and live on the scene coverage of an actual Martian invasion of Buffalo and Western New York. The realistic reporting by Jim Fagan, Don Lancer, John Irving and Irv Weinstein in the field meshed perfectly with Joe Downey and Henry Brock’s studio interplay. All of course masterfully orchestrated by Jeff Kaye himself, serving as the anchor to the entire performance. The ensemble created a production that far exceeded anything WKBW radio had ever aired on this Eve of all Hallows.

Despite the chaos and carnage, the Martian invasion could be interrupted for regularly scheduled commercial breaks and somber disclaimers that this was only a radio dramatization. However, these announcements were ignored by many of the listeners as if they never aired. As Dan Kriegler would later say, “people assume what they hear on a broadcast is true, even if they do not have all of the information necessary to know if it is true.”

Real Panic

One by one WKBW radio and WKBW-TV newsmen were being killed off on the broadcast. The phones in the control room were jammed with frightened callers believing what they were hearing on their radios was real. So almost a full hour into the production Jeff Kaye realized things had totally gotten out of hand. What happened next would become a famous “WOW” anecdote among WKBW staffers.

Kaye felt he needed to interrupt the program to calm listener’s fears, but Director Dan Kriegler would have none of it. Completely absorbed in the production, Kriegler feared an interruption would harm the integrity of the program. The two began to fiercely argue about whether Kaye should cut-in live to do a disclaimer.

Finally, Kaye was so determined that he threatened Kriegler he would yank the large revolving reel-to-reel audio tape off its spindle. Kaye said “Danny, I’ll run down Main Street with this tape if you don’t let me cut in!” So faced with the realization that Jeff would indeed “kill” the production, Kriegler gave in.

Jeff Kaye stopped the reel to reel tape machine, took the microphone and went live on the air. Kaye used his network quality voice to calmly give a live disclaimer, explaining that the program was just a dramatization, a play and “not happening in any way, shape or form.”

Still, Kaye’s live on-air adlib did nothing to stop the calls to the control room from frightened listeners. The phone lines were jammed and now listeners from up and down the eastern seaboard began calling relatives in Buffalo to see if they were okay?

It was then at almost eleven minutes after midnight, that one of the productions most telling moments would occur. WKBW’s legendary TV anchorman Irv Weinstein, who had placed himself atop Buffalo’s City Hall, was directing Jeff Kaye to call his wife to let her know he was alright. However, Irv spoke too soon as just seconds later, with the screech of a Martin war machine in the background, he became a victim of an alien death ray. Weinstein, who has a background in stage acting, would say in an interview years later that it was one of the most telling performances of his career.

With Irv Weinstein and the rest of the on-air staff now “gone”, Jeff Kaye is the last man left on the broadcast. Telling listeners he is alone in the building, Kaye ends the program by taking the microphone out onto Buffalo’s Main Street. It is there that Kaye paints a descriptive picture of destruction, carnage and isolation.

With the sound of the Martin machine now getting louder and louder, Kaye finally succumbs to the poison gas we had been told was wiping out the region’s population. Kaye’s coughing and choking fades away, leaving only the haunting sound of the Martin machines.

The program then comes to a close at sixteen minutes after midnight with another somber reading by Dan Neaverth. Sticking to the original H.G. Wells novel, Neaverth explains that despite the Martin’s victory over mankind, they too are eradicated by the common germs that also make Earth their home.

Aftermath

At twenty minutes after midnight the program has ended and Jeff Kaye does not feel a sense of accomplishment or “job well done.” Instead, Kaye fears he has caused a local panic and would certainly lose his job in the morning. Jeff later claimed that he slipped his resignation under the General Manager’s door and went home to bed.

In the morning however things were not nearly as bad as Kaye had feared. There indeed was concern on the part of station management that Kaye’s “War of the Worlds” had gone too far. Yet, the broadcast was the talk of the town and this was the type of publicity that WKBW radio thrived on.

Jeff Kaye, Dan Kriegler and company had unknowingly succeeded in creating a radio masterpiece. They had no idea at the time, but their “War of the Worlds” broadcast would take its place in radio history as one of the finest ever created.

Certainly the panic that occurred in Buffalo in 1968 was nowhere the scale caused by the 1938 Orson Welles original, but it was far more than Jeff Kaye anticipated or 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.

There are also reports that the FCC “slapped” KB’s hands for misleading its audience. It is a fact that changes in FCC regulations were made since that broadcast to safe guard against a similar occurrence. However, that did not stop Jeff Kaye from retooling and updating another airing of “WOW” in 1971 with rapid fire disc jockey Jackson Armstrong and again in 1973 with “The Cosmic Cowboy” Shane Gibson. After Kaye left the station WKBW aired a final, poorly edited “version” in 1975 with Jim Quinn, aka “Mighty Mouth”.

The original 1968 WKBW production has held up well over the years, despite the changing technology. “WOW” continues to be enjoyed and discovered by today’s generation who continue to discover it at the numerous online locations. What Jeff Kaye, Dan Kriegler and the staff at WKBW radio created then, can still be appreciated for the excellent piece of radio magic that it truly is.

Creating the Legend of KB’s “War of the Worlds”

The 1970’s brought many changes to local radio and WKBW was no exception. Tweaking the top 40 format and with on-air staff changes, the station stopped airing “WOW” after 1975.

WKBW was sold in 1986 by Capital Cities to Price Communications and the call letters changed to WWKB. By then “War of the Worlds” had not been a part of the station’s Halloween programming for over eleven years.

Then in 1988 on the 50th anniversary of the original Orson Welles broadcast, WWKB decided to resurrect the stations 1971 version of “WOW”. The 1971 production was aired because it featured Jackson Armstrong and not Sandy Beach who was then working for a competing radio station in Buffalo.

In 88’ I was a sports anchor and reporter at WKBW TV. Five years earlier I had “scored” my own cassette tape of “War of the Worlds” from KB radio Engineer Tom Atkins. Every October I would wear that tape out by playing it in my car on drives to and from work.

So being a huge fan of the production and with the 20th anniversary of the 1968 version coming up, I pitched the Ch 7 news department to do a feature on the KB radio program. Few in the newsroom even knew what I was referring to so I brought in my cassette tape to play for the producers.

After a week of me prodding and pitching the idea to News Director Jerry Fedell, he assigned Linda Pellegrino do a feature story on the broadcast. Linda did a great 90 second story which included interviews with Sandy Beach and Dan Neaverth. It aired at the conclusion of the six o’clock news anchored by “WOW” participant Irv Weinstein.

However, it was a year later when I had the opportunity to produce a six minute feature on “War of the Worlds” for AM Buffalo’s Halloween show that the legend grew.

I was the WKBW-TV Sports Director at the time, but having been given the green light to do an in-depth feature on “WOW” I made the most of it. I was able to secure lengthy interviews with the creators of the broadcast Jeff Kaye and Dan Kriegler. Irv Weinstein also sat down with me and for the first time shared his memories of the unique production.

Interviewing Kaye himself about the “War of the Worlds” broadcast was memorable and a personal thrill. Jeff was amazed that over twenty years later people still remembered the program and the lasting affect that it had on them. Yet, Jeff could repeat every detail and added critical details to the “legend” by describing the chronological order of events as they took place on October 31st, 1968.

The interviews and audio clips from the actual radio broadcast were edited into a six minute feature which ran on AM Buffalo October 31st, 1989. The feature story was very well received and in fact, News Director Linda Levy asked if I could re-edit a shorter version to air that night on the six o’clock newscast.

Those original interviews with Jeff Kaye, Irv Weinstein and others were then packed away in a box for nine years. In 1998 I re-used them to create a half-hour television documentary special for WNED-TV. That program can be viewed here.

The “War of the Worlds” Legacy

The radio rights to the WKBW production passed from Capital Cities to the various owners over the years and are now held by the Entercom station group. WWKB has re-aired the 1971 version several times on Halloween night and the original 1968 version in 2009.

In 2001 a coffee table book was written by Alex Lubertozzi entitled “The Complete War of The Worlds Book”. Lubertozzi contacted me while writing the book and was fascinated by the WKBW version of the “WOW” story. His publication not only includes the original script of Orson Welles production but a detailed account of the WKBW version, including a CD with excerpts from the 1971 Buffalo broadcast.

On November 21st, 2005 the History Channel aired “Beyond the War of the Worlds”. The program took a look at the fascination with the original story by Wells and the radio broadcast by Orson Welles. More importantly, for the sake of this piece, the show also dedicated several minutes to WKBW’s 1968 radio version.

The producers contacted me in the spring of 2005 looking for any information I may have on Jeff Kaye’s masterpiece. I shipped them a CD of the broadcast as well as video of the WNED-TV documentary on the broadcast. Unfortunately due to a scheduling conflict I had to decline a trip to New York City to be interviewed about Buffalo’s masterpiece for the program.

A “New” Buffalo Version of “War of the Worlds”

In 1998, on the 30th anniversary of the WKBW production, 97 Rock Program Director John Hager produced a new Buffalo version of the famous story. The production aired on both 97 Rock and 103.3 The Edge on Halloween night.

Hagar is also a big fan of KB’ radio and the work of Jeff Kaye. John recruited James Gillan and myself to recreate an updated Buffalo version. Some of the other participants included Larry Norton, Rob Lederman, Chris Klein, Lauri Githens, Carl Russo, Anita West, “Slick” Tom Tiberi, Ted Shredd, Tom Regan, Kevin O’Connell, Don Postles, Carol Jasen, Erie County Executive Dennis Gorski and Mayor Tony Masiello.

Hager also had several of the original WKBW staffers involved with Kaye’s version, including Irv Weinstein, who reprised his role as the last newsman alive out in the field.

The biggest thrill however was when Jeff Kaye agreed to participate in the production as a WHAMradio employee out of Rochester, called to report on the invasion in that city. Kaye was a great sport and I had the honor of recording the scene over the phone with him in the 97 Rock studio. Kaye graciously repeated several of his classic lines from his KB original, all except for one.

In the final moments of his original 1968 broadcast Kaye demonstrated some dark humor when he asked Irv Weinstein if he had a light for a cigarette he had been carrying around. In the 1998 97 Rockversion Kaye changed the line to “I could go for a steak and some fries”. Kaye told us he dropped the cigarette reference because of his long running battle against throat cancer.

Buffalo Declared “War of the Worlds” Radio Capital

On Halloween night in 1998 three unique radio versions of the “War of the Worlds” story aired on four different Buffalo radio stations. 97 Rock and 103.3 FM aired their new, updated version, WWKB radio aired their 1971 version and WNUC-FM 107.7 FM aired the original Orson Welles classic.

In 2001 the three versions were again aired on 97 Rock, WWKB and WNSA-FM 107.7.

In 2009, because of the multiple airings and various original versions of the “WOW” story in this market since 1968, the New York State Senate proclaimed Buffalo New York as the “War of the Worlds” radio capital of the world.

The proclamation was presented to Buffalo Broadcasters Association Chairman Don Angelo and President Dave Gillen at a ceremony at DiPaolo’s Restaurant on October 16th, 2009 by New York Senator William Stachowski.

 

Comparing Versions of WKBW’s “War of the Worlds”

1968:
Original program and had the most impact on the community. Dan Neaverth does a great job of setting the mood with somber and dramatic open read. Vintage Sandy Beach as opening jock and makes a great gradual transition from program host to concerned announcer once events begin to escalate.

Songs played in the 1968 original are “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.

Observations: The locations given on Grand Island by reporters during meteor crash do not actually match up on map.

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 exploding and claims survivors being swept away by the Niagara rapids, a half-mile away, just seconds later.

Strengths: Superb acting by most of the on-air staff. Jeff Kaye’s closing moments very dramatic and authentic.

Great Halloween mood created, complete with Monster Shoe commercials adding to the flavor of this 1968 creation.

Total Run Time: 1:16:38.

1971:
Open narration and close are done by Jeff Kaye, not Dan Neaverth. Kaye updates the information and describes the impact of the 1968 original broadcast.

Jackson Armstrong, who at that time was the night jock, replaces Sandy Beach as the DJ and adds his own original dialogue.

Songs played in the 1971 version 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.

Dan Kriegler, the Director of the 1968 original, refused to have anything to do with this second airing, citing Jeff Kaye’s numerous edits. Kriegler claimed Kaye’s edits hurt the flow of the broadcast.

Strengths: Jackson Armstrong adds great energy in opening minutes. Kaye’s opening narration gives good insight as to what happened in 1968 when the program was first broadcast. Jeff Kaye does however create several urban myths about the broadcast by taking dramatic license and fudging some of the facts involving police and military response to the “Martian attack”.

Total Run Time: 1:23:21.

1973:
This version features the legendary Shane Brother Shane as the opening DJ. Shane brings his own “cosmic cowboy” style to the broadcast while attempting to deal with the growing crisis around him.

Songs played in the 1973 version include “Keep On Truckin” by Eddie Kendricks, “Half Breed” by Cher, “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder, “Knockin On Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan, “Painted Ladies” by Ian Thomas and “In Outer Space” by Billy Preston.

The remainder of the broadcast is identical to the 1971 version, complete with Jeff Kaye’s close.

1975:
This version was aired by WKBW after Jeff Kaye had already left the station. As a result it is by far the weakest of the four versions.

The program opens with a Ron Baskin newscast, which includes a long drawn out report on UFOs by an unknown Toronto reporter. The newscast does end with the explosion on Mars report.

Disc Jockey is Jim Quinn, aka Mighty Mouth who repeats several of the lines used by both Sandy Beach and Jackson Armstrong from earlier versions.

The need to edit out references to station personnel from earlier versions who no longer worked at WKBW creates a need to fill with longer music segment.

Songs include Osmond’s’ “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 only one hour in length and flawed by the many edits and abrupt toss to Jeff Kaye who is unidentified. The close done by Kaye also abruptly dumps out before conclusion. You are cheating yourself if this is the only version of WKBW’s “War of the Worlds” you have heard.