(The following was written by Audrey Fischer for the July/August 2016 Library of Congress Magazine, LCM.)
The story is legendary in the annals of broadcasting history.
On the evening of Sunday, Oct. 30, 1938, a young Orson Welles directed and narrated a radio adaption of H.G. Wells’ novel, “The War of the Worlds” for his radio series “The Mercury Theatre on the Air.”
Published in 1898, Wells’ science-fiction work depicts an alien invasion of southern England by Martians. The radio dramatization told a similar tale in a series of news bulletins and eyewitness accounts that added to the story’s realism. Despite repeated warnings about the fictional nature of the broadcast, some listeners believed that a small town in New Jersey was in the midst of an alien invasion. The legend goes that the misunderstanding led to mass panic.
But just how many people were listening? “The Mercury Theatre” series, which aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System, had recently moved from Mondays to the Sunday night time slot and faced stiff competition from NBC’s Chase and Sanborn Hour featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (and his dummy Charlie McCarthy). A telephone survey of 5,000 households conducted that evening showed that only about 2 percent had tuned into the dramatic reading of “The War of the Worlds” and most were aware that it was fictitious.
Nonetheless, the newspapers had a field day with headlines like the one pictured here from the Oct. 31, 1938, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. These sensationalized stories popularized the acceptance in the years that followed the 1938 broadcast that a widespread panic had occured. Some media analysts have theorized that the newspaper industry sought to discredit the new kids on the block—radio— as a medium not to be trusted to provide truth to the masses.