Eighty years ago today, Orson Welles broadcast his famous (some might say infamous) radio dramatization of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Prefaced by the Mercury Theater’s theme music and a brief note that the show was an adaptation of Wells’ story, the program proceeded over the next half hour to first interrupt dance music with “news bulletins” that increasingly portray an invasion of the US by Martians, before utterly destroying the Army, Air Force, and the city of New York. By the time of the first intermission, when it was repeated that this was a dramatization being done by the Mercury, people around the country were panicked, convinced aliens were wreaking havoc from NY to LA.
Or so the papers at the time would have had you believe:
Editorialists chastised the radio industry for allowing that to happen. The response may have reflected newspaper publishers’ fears that radio, to which they had lost some of the advertising revenue that was scarce enough during the Great Depression, would render them obsolete. In “The War of the Worlds,” they saw an opportunity to cast aspersions on the newer medium: “The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove that it is competent to perform the news job,” wrote Editor & Publisher, the newspaper industry’s trade journal.
William Randolph Hearst’s papers called on broadcasters to police themselves, lest the government step in, as Iowa Senator Clyde L. Herring proposed a bill that would have required all programming to be reviewed by the FCC prior to broadcast (he never actually introduced it). Others blamed the radio audience for its credulity. Noting that any intelligent listener would have realized the broadcast was fictional, the Chicago Tribune opined, “it would be more tactful to say that some members of the radio audience are a trifle retarded mentally, and that many a program is prepared for their consumption.” Other newspapers took pains to note that anxious listeners had called their offices to learn whether Martians were really attacking.
Cartoonists even got in on the act:
The true extent of the panic was less drastic:
hundreds of thousands were frightened, but calls evidence of people taking action based on their fear “scant” and “anecdotal”. Indeed, contemporary news articles indicate that police were swamped with hundreds of calls in numerous locations, but stories of people doing anything more than calling authorities involved mostly only small groups. Such stories were often reported by people who were panicking themselves.
Later investigations found much of the alleged panicked responses to have been exaggerated or mistaken. Cantril’s researchers found that contrary to what had been claimed, no admissions for shock were made at a Newark hospital during the broadcast; hospitals in New York City similarly reported no spike in admissions that night. A few suicide attempts seem to have been prevented when friends or family intervened, but no record of a successful one exists. A Washington Post claim that a man died of a heart attack brought on by listening to the program could not be verified. One woman filed a lawsuit against CBS, but it was soon dismissed.
The FCC also received letters from the public that advised against taking reprisals. Singer Eddie Cantor urged the commission not to overreact, as “censorship would retard radio immeasurably.” The FCC not only chose not to punish Welles or CBS but also barred complaints about “The War of the Worlds” from being brought up during license renewals. “Janet Jackson’s 2004 ‘wardrobe malfunction’ remains far more significant in the history of broadcast regulation than Orson Welles’ trickery,” wrote media historians Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow.
Still, it’s entirely possible to listen to a recording of the broadcast, and even knowing what it is, get caught up in the spirit of the story. I myself like to listen to it (and/or Jeff Wayne’s musical version) once or twice a year, usually on October 30th.