The War of the Worlds 75th Anniversary

Today is the 75th anniversary of the legendary radio broadcast The War of the Worlds as interpreted by Orson Welles and The Mercury Theatre On The Air. The radio play was based on the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells about an invasion by aliens from outer space. Welles and his team clearly labeled the play as such at the beginning and the end, but as they "interrupted" the music to bring news of the invasion during the play, some people took it seriously.

Media historians have noted that, just as television viewers today tend to channel-hop when boredom kicks in – or ad breaks start – listeners back then would twiddle their radio knobs back and forth between shows. As a result, some listeners joined the broadcast having missed Welles’ intro, and mistook it for a bona fide bulletin.

Since then, ‘The War Of The Worlds’ radio play has taken on an almost mythical status, and the notion that huge swathes of the U.S. public was gripped by fear of Martian intruders has gained a foothold in the popular imagination. A patchy-but-enjoyable 1975 made-for-television movie, ‘The Night That Panicked America’, reinforced newspaper stories at the time suggesting the alarm sizeable: farmers grab their shotguns and fearful families jump into their cars and hit the freeway, while others seek refuge in churches.

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Archive on 4’ series, which last week examined the broadcast’s legacy in ‘Myth or Legend: Orson Welles and The War of The Worlds’ and questioned the extent of the panic, noted that out of an estimated 6 million listeners, around 1.7 million believed the play to be true. Only 1.2 million were said to be “frightened”, according to a study, and just 20 people – a tiny fraction of those who actually heard the show – had to be treated for shock.

However, the media covered the reaction as though it was a nationwide panic. Newspapers at the time wanted to discredit radio, which was cutting into their territory. However, the overblown stories of panic in the streets caused the broadcast to go down in history as one of the earliest lessons in the power of broadcast media. Here is that broadcast in its entirety.




(Internet Archive)

-via Metafilter, where you'll find plenty of links to more information about The War of the Worlds broadcast of October 30, 1938.


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