Today in Literary History – October 30, 1938 – Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast

On October 30, 1938, one day before Halloween, Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre of the Air actors broadcast an adaptation of War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel about aliens invading the Earth.

Welles’ adaptation was played as a real time radio broadcast of increasingly frightening news bulletins interrupting a program of dance music.

A story quickly developed that the broadcast caused widespread panic among radio listeners who took the drama to be a real news story of a Martian spaceship landing in New Jersey.

The story became exaggerated over the next few days, fuelled partly by CBS, the radio network that broadcast the show, and partly by Welles himself, not exactly someone averse to publicity, duplicity and controversy.

They got publicity by denying the panic and keeping the story alive. The story of the “panic” only grew larger over the years.

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The truth is that very few people were fooled by the broadcast, as historians and sociologists have long ago proved.

First of all, the Mercury Theatre’s audience was tiny, only about 2% of the listening audience.

It was up against two very popular Sunday night shows including Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy’s hugely popular variety show.

Secondly, most radio listeners in those days were not “channel surfers” so the stories of people tuning in to the middle of the show and hearing the panicked newscasters describing the mayhem of the aliens in New Jersey is unlikely.

Also, Welles’ show wasn’t carried on the full network, so couldn’t have been heard in many ares.

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One reason for the initial stories about panic came from the tabloid press. Newspapers had been losing ad revenue to their new radio competition and were happy to show radio as irresponsible and dangerous.

Plus, they loved a good story back then as much as they do now. (I hesitate to call it “fake news” since that phrase has become a bit tarnished, but..)

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Orson Welles and H.G. Wells actually got the chance to meet two years after the broadcast. My guess is that Orson thanked H.G. for boosting his career and H.G. thanked Orson for boosting book sales of War of the Worlds.

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