October 31, 2013
War Of The Worlds Broadcast Celebrates 75 Years
While H.G. Wells science fiction novel the War of the Worlds was first published in 1898, and thus is 115 years old this year, this week marks the 75th anniversary of the infamous radio broadcast that reportedly was so convincing that many listeners believed it to be true.
Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre presented a radio version – which relocated the story from England to New Jersey – and broadcast it on October 30, 1938. With war looming in Europe and the country still in the throes of the Great Depression there was anything but optimism in the country.
Now 75 years after the original broadcast Sound Stages Radio is celebrating National Audio Drama Day with various versions of the War of the Worlds, as well as Transcontinental Terror, a marathon broadcast of creepy stories.
Much of this is also built around the supposed panic that the radio broadcast by the Mercury Theatre supposedly caused. In this day and age of instant messaging, fact checking websites and 24 hour news it might be hard to believe that there was any panic at all.
There is some reason why it might have – as noted the locations were charged to Grovers Mill in New Jersey, and it was presented much like a news broadcast instead of following the narrative of the book. So when listeners turned in late, they didn’t realize what they were listening to. The show was also broadcast without a sponsor and thus lacked scheduled breaks.
Given that there weren’t a ton of options to get news, people didn’t “flip” around as they would today. Many listeners likely would have listened to what CBS was supposedly reporting.
All this leads creditability to the fact that this presentation caused a panic. A Boston Daily Globe headline from the next day read, “Radio Play Terrifies Nation,” while The New York Times suggested, “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact.”
The truth is a bit more complicated. For one thing many stories claim the broadcast occurred on Halloween, but in fact it took place a day earlier.
A 1975 made-for-TV movie, titled The Night That Panicked America, chronicled the events better than most accounts. While it does suggest there was some concern, there were hardly people dashing out in the streets or running for their lives.
The movie, which unfortunately was never released on home video, does show that CBS did receive calls from concerned listeners but that was really about the extent of it. Most of the characters in the movie sit around the radio with concern, but other than a few who decide to do something – there is hardly “panic.”
Perhaps the title of the movie is thus a bit misleading, but this is just part of the problem with how this radio program is now remembered.
In fact, if anything you can blame the media for the hype. As Gizmodo reported, the mass panic has largely been overhyped. What happened was that newspapers and other radio programs – this was in the days before TV of course – picked up on the panic and it made for good news, especially around Halloween.
“The reason it becomes so big is that the press goes crazy for the story. And then people start thinking they’ve heard it,” Michael Socolow, author of a 2008 article in The Chronicle of Higher Learning, which looked at the supposed panic, told Gizmodo. “Memory and the media have an incredibly complex relationship.”
The other part of this is that the supposed panic was such news that over the years people probably wanted to be a part of it as well.
The final irony is that this event – the radio drama – has been used as a plot device such as in the lackluster War of the Worlds TV series. In the episode “Eye for an Eye,” it turns out that the radio drama was a cover-up of a real invasion at… you guessed it Grovers Mill!
A similar story plays out in the Doctor Who radio drama Invaders from Mars, which finds the 8th Doctor battling invaders on October 30, 1938.
So on this anniversary of the drama, look to the skies. Just don’t believe everything you see.
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