The War of the Worlds
At 8pm on Sunday, October 30, 1938, radio listeners across North America had no idea the horror that was in store for them over the next hour. This was the night Orson Welles brought H.G. Wells' 1898 novel 'The War of the Worlds' to life. The radio play was directed and narrated by Orson Welles and was broadcast live as part of CBS radio's Halloween series. Despite the fictional warnings throughout the episode, many listeners believed the world was ending, causing widespread panic. Welles had changed the location depicted in the 1898 novel by having the story take place in New Jersey, circa 1939. The start of the program simulated a typical radio broadcast with music followed by an abrupt interruption by a number of fake newscasts regarding explosions on Mars. The program continues with music again being interrupted by another fake newscast about a meteorite hitting Grover's Mill, New Jersey. The play continues...Now reporters and police are live on site of the crash to find a crowd in panic, screams about incoming flames are met with a moment of dead air (a Radio Nerd's worst nightmare) which results in an announcer coming on the air to say the remote broadcast was interrupted. Halfway through the broadcast after receiving many panicked calls into the studio, the audience hears (continued below)
"You are listening to a CBS presentation of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre of the Air, in an original dramatization of The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. The performance will continue after a brief intermission." But apparently many people didn't hear this. By the end of the broadcast the calls were coming in at alarming rates. Photographers, reporters and cops were waiting outside the CBS studios and the cast was escorted through the back door for safety. Thousands who heard the broadcast began calling their friends and family to warn them about the end of the world and the police received many panicked calls as well. The next day, Orson Welles had to participate in a CBS press conference explaining the broadcast to the media.
An excerpt from the press conference...
Reporter: Were you aware of the terror such a broadcast would stir up?
Welles: Definitely not. The technique I used was not original with me. It was not even new. I anticipated nothing unusual.
Reporter: Should you have toned down the language of the drama?
Welles: No, you don't play murder in soft words.
Reporter: Why was the story changed to put in names of American cities and government officers?
Welles: H. G. Wells used real cities in Europe, and to make the play more acceptable to American listeners we used real cities in America. Of course, I'm terribly sorry now
Within a few weeks the radio play was written about nearly 12,000 times in newspapers around the world and became the most infamous radio broadcast in history.
Today, on the War of the Worlds 81st anniversary, make sure you listen by candlelight for full effect.