Radio was a new mass medium in America, and the Orson Welles radio show, Mercury Theatre on the Air, had aired for less than five months.
On 30 October 1938, Welles featured an adaptation of the H.G. Wells* novel, The War of the Worlds (1898). CBS was home to the radio show; the network was only 11 years old.
The novel depicted Martians invading Great Britain.
The original The War of the Worlds story recounts a Martian invasion of Great Britain around the turn of the 20th century. The invaders easily defeat the British army thanks to their advanced weaponry, a “heat-ray” and poisonous “black smoke,” only to be felled by earthly diseases against which they have no immunity. The novel is a powerful satire of British imperialism… [the H.G. Wells] alien invasion story—the first of its kind—and his work inspired an entire genre of science fiction. By 1938, The War of the Worlds had “become familiar to children through the medium of comic strips and many succeeding novels and adventure stories,” as Orson Welles told the press the day after his broadcast.
The radio drama treated the story as a series of breaking news bulletins from New Jersey.
Like the original novel, [the first] draft is divided into two acts of roughly equal length, with the first devoted to fake news bulletins about the Martian invasion. The second act uses a series of lengthy monologues and conventional dramatic scenes to recount the wanderings of a lone survivor, played by Welles.
If you have heard of this broadcast, it was probably as an example of gullibility and mass panic. In 2013, on its 75th anniversary, PBS perpetuated this narrative. It’s one unlikely to be accurate.
The night the program aired, the C.E. Hooper ratings service telephoned 5,000 households for its national ratings survey. “To what program are you listening?” the service asked respondents. Only 2 percent answered a radio “play” or “the Orson Welles program,” or something similar indicating CBS.
How many households had a radio in 1938? Most of them. By 1940, about 83% of US households had a radio according to the US census. In 1930, it had been 40%.
How did mass panic and hysteria become associated with this radio broadcast? Look no further than newspapers like the New York Times, which were fighting radio for advertising dollars.
Notice that there is no source for the “wave of mass hysteria” in the opening paragraph.
The nation was still gripped by the Great Depression in 1938. Advertising dollars had plummeted after the stock market crash in October 1929. And yet the “annual amount spent on radio advertising in 1930 was seven times more than it had been in 1927.” Those dollars were siphoned from newspaper revenue. (It would happen again with TV and then with the Internet.)
From Slate in 2013, a counterpoint to the PBS celebration of the broadcast:
Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression [still ongoing in 1938], badly damaging the newspaper industry… The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted. In an editorial titled “Terror by Radio,” the New York Times reproached “radio officials” for approving the interweaving of “blood-curdling fiction” with news flashes “offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given.” Warned Editor and Publisher, the newspaper industry’s trade journal, “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.”
Newspapers continued to harp long after Halloween. According to Hadley Cantril of Princeton University, within three weeks “newspapers had published at least 12,500 articles about the broadcast and its impact.”
The Federal Communications Commission investigated and found no rules broken. But a myth had been born, one that lives on 84 years later.
Read the transcript or listen to the broadcast:
* Herbert George (H.G.) Wells is well known for his science fiction novels, including the Time Machine (1896) and War of the Worlds (1898).