From the Archives: Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds and the History of Radio Broadcasting

You’ve probably heard this story before:

On October 30, 1938, a 23-year-old theatrical boy-wonder named Orson Welles caused panic among radio listeners with the Halloween episode of his Mercury Theatre on the Air: an adaptation of H.G. Well’s The War of the Worlds.(1) Actors played the roles of correspondents who broke into an on-going [fake] radio program, seeming to report live as Martians invaded and destroyed the real life town of Grovers’ Mill, New Jersey. As the fictional invaders began to move toward Newark and then New York City, these “correspondents” told their audience that they were reporting from military command posts and from the roof of a broadcasting building in Manhattan.

Some listeners believed the show was a live broadcast and panicked, even though the opening of the show made it clear that the one-hour program was a drama.(2) A Princeton study published in 1940 claimed that six million people heard the program, and 1.7 million believed it was a real news broadcast. (Subsequent scholars question both numbers.)

As for me, I’ve always wondered why anyone would believe the broadcast was real, but as I learn more about radio in the 1930s it makes more sense. Radio was relatively new—the first national broadcast networks in the United States were incorporated in 1926 (NBC) and 1928 (CBS). News broadcasts were even newer, and infrequent. Stopping a program for “breaking” news was almost unheard of.

The growth of Nazi Germany changed the nature of broadcast news The first “news roundup” from multiple locations occurred in March, 1938, in response to the German invasion of Austria. Working on short notice, with serious technical difficulties, Edward Murrow and William Shirer of CBS cobbled together a half-hour of American newspaper correspondents commenting on the invasion from London, Vienna, Berlin, Paris and Rome.  Listeners were enthralled.

When the Munich Crisis broke out that September, both NBC and CBS upped their coverage, broadcasting live from Europe 147 and 151 times respectively over the course of three weeks. Back in the United States, CBS’s primary news reader, H.V. Kaltenborn (3), held the story together for his listeners in 102 broadcasts that ranged from one-minute bulletins to two-hour marathons in which he simultaneously translated speeches from French and German. America stayed glued to the radio throughout the crisis.

The crisis ended, but the role of radio news was changed. Local radio stations increased the time they devoted to broadcasting the news and networks scrambled to expand their overseas coverage.

As a result, when Welles broadcast The War of the Worlds a month after the crisis in Munich, he reached an audience that was newly attuned (literally and metaphorically) to radio news, but was not yet sophisticated enough about the medium to tell fact from fiction.

(1) Am I the only one to just now notice the juxtaposition of Orson Welles and H.G. Wells in this event? Meaningless and yet curious.

(2) One scholar suggests that some people missed the beginning because they were channel surfing. Let this be a warning to you.

(3) I hadn’t heard of him either until I started working on this book.  At the time, he was a Big Deal.


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