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Sunday, October 30, 2005

The War of the Worlds Panic, October 30, 1938

Today in 1938, a 23-year old radio producer named Orson Welles broadcast an adaptation of a 19th-century H.G. Wells novel, War of the Worlds. The broadcast would cause a panic in some parts of the United States and, instead of ruining Welles’ career, would launch him to stardom.

To understand the enormity of this event, it is important to understand how big a role radio played in the lives of people during the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. For most working-class Americans during the years of the Great Depression, there were two primary forms of mass media entertainment: movies and radio. Almost every home in the United States had at least one radio by 1938, and the medium produced recognizable names in the same way that television would do a generation later. For most, radio was a window to the outside world. It was a portal to music, drama, comedy and reliable news, both locally and worldwide. It’s also important to remember that the healthy skepticism with which we view media outlets today did not exist at that time. Newsmen were trustworthy figures in Brooks Brothers suits whose words brought information and truth to the masses. The idea of an entertaining broadcast played as fake news was, to many minds, unthinkable. It was this environment wherein Orson Welles sat down in front his microphone.

Welles’ broadcast that Sunday evening presented the story as just that, a work of fiction. However, most of the people listening to the radio at 8PM EST (the time the show started) were listening to Edgar Bergen on NBC and did not turn on the Mercury Theater program until 8:12PM. This twelve minute gap is important because there was an announcement at the beginning of the show making it clear that the story was fiction. Anyone missing the beginning of the show did not hear a similar announcement until almost 40 minutes later, after panic had already ensued.

In case you’ve never heard or seen an adaptation of it, the basic plotline of “War of the Worlds” involves a Martian invasion of the Earth, starting in a little town in New Jersey. The aliens are eventually defeated by the own biology, but not before they kill thousands of soldiers and civilians. Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, it is hard to imagine anyone believing such a story to be true. But space travel is commonplace now, and we have sent probes to examine almost all the planets in our solar system. In 1938, Mars was still a mysterious neighbor to even astronomers, not to mention the average American. On top of this, Welles’ show was enacted so as to make the listener believe that a night of dance music was being interrupted by radio news bulletins. In many peoples’ mind, the deception was total.

It is estimated that perhaps a million listeners believed a Martian invasion was underway in New Jersey. When news of the panic reached CBS while the show was still on the air, Welles reminded the audience that the story was a work of fiction. The panic eventually subsided, leaving many people feeling pretty foolish.

Some newspapermen of the time asserted that there were suicides and murders because of the broadcast. Even though nothing of the kind was ever proven, the FCC did investigate the incident. It was concluded that, although nothing illegal had gone on, that networks should be more careful with what they broadcast. The networks agreed. Orson Welles assumed his career was over, but nothing could be further from the truth.

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