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War of the Worlds radio broadcast (1938) part 1

Orson Welles, Mercury Theatre War of the Worlds As I sit to write this article, the television shows an advancing column of tanks speeding through the Iraqi desert toward Baghdad. It is March 2003 and we are just days into the second Gulf War, but like no other conflict, this has become a war of information as much as it is of bullets and bombs. The picture is live, delivered to the comfort of my home via satellite, and if I wish, I can switch to a dozen other channels or connect to the Internet in search of fresh perspectives. In this hi-tech world of twenty-four hour rolling news coverage, we take for granted the speed and immediacy of this information, while at the same time maintaining a well-honed sense of scepticism. We have learnt to distrust the purveyors of news, influenced as they are by spin, propaganda and their own private agendas. We have seen it all, heard it all and the revolution has been televised so many times that we no longer think of it as a new or frightening experience. This is the world we now live in, but it was not always so.

Less than seventy years ago, television was barely at an experimental stage and in the United States, radio was the undisputed king of the airwaves. Three out of four families already owned a set (eight million alone were sold in 1936), but as many were to rudely discover, they were not yet fully attuned to the power of this exciting new medium. The wake up call came on the Halloween night of October 1938 when a brilliant young auteur by the name of Orson Welles tapped into the subconscious fears of a nation and convinced thousands of people (perhaps many more) that Martians were invading the United States.

Incredibly, the cause of this mayhem was a dramatic presentation of The War of the Worlds, a seminal novel written 40 years previously by H. G. Wells. So how and why did this all happen? There are a number of reasons, but it is first worth emphasizing just how new and exciting radio still was in 1938. The big radio networks such as NBC and CBS were only a decade old and engaged in a frenzy of experimentation, filling the airwaves with vast amounts of original material such as comedies, dramas, soaps and a fresh brand of journalism that opened the US public to a new awareness of world conflict and politics.

crash of the hindenburg Americans were now able to connect with events and hear their law and opinion makers as never before. A notable trailblazer in this regard was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose "fireside chats" (beginning in 1933) brought the voice of government and authority into the home as never before. Major news events also gripped the nation. Bulletins on the hunt for the kidnapped baby son of aviator Charles Lindbergh kept listeners in an agony of suspense over several months in 1932 and in 1936 the war correspondent Hans Von Kaltenborn became the first American reporter to broadcast live from a war zone, when he brought the actual sounds of a Spanish civil war battle into ordinary homes. Equally dramatic was the fatal crash of the airship Hindenburg, recorded on May 6th 1937 by Herbert Morrison of Chicago station WLS, an event that reduced the helpless reporter to tears of frustration and horror. Undoubtedly however, it was the troubling broadcasts from Nazi Germany that did most to unsettle America in this period. During the Munich Crisis of September 12-30th 1938, more radios were sold to anxious Americans than in any previous three-week period, as Hitler rallied his forces and the world slid inexorably toward war.

howard koch In this atmosphere of tension, Orson Welles and his staff were preparing their latest Mercury Theater presentation, a show that has previously dramatised such novels as "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "Dracula". On the face of it, The War of the Worlds should have had no greater effect on the listening public than the previous broadcasts, which is to say, none at all, but Welles and his writer Howard Koch were planning something special this particular night, and though it is a matter of considerable debate if they actually intended to create the subsequent uproar and near panic, it was undoubtedly their very novel dramatic device that did much of the damage.

charlie mccarthy and edgar bergen Rather than set the story in Victorian England as written by H.G. Wells, the action was transplanted (not unsurprisingly) to contemporary America, but much more significantly, Koch told the story as a series of newsflashes that intruded without warning into what sounded like a perfectly routine program. This radical departure from established dramatic formats was to prove devastatingly effective, and combined with the use of numerous real place names, added significantly to the depth of the alarm. In yet another contributing factor, it is thought that many people (upwards of 50%) tuned in late to the broadcast. This was largely because a great many listeners switched at an inopportune moment from a rival network, which was broadcasting the wildly popular Charlie McCarthy Show. About 10 minutes into this show, a singer would be introduced, and this was the point a lot of listeners would twiddle their dials while waiting for the star of the show to return. Tuning into the Mercury Theatre a few minutes late (and thus having missed Welles distinctively sonorous introduction) they found themselves listening to the innocent sounds of "Ramon Raquello and his orchestra", only for the music to be interrupted by the first of a series of increasingly alarming news stories.

Part 2 >


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War of the Worlds, 1938. Listen to an audio clip of events at Grover's Mill (MP3, 2.00 mins).


Download documents

Download images from newspapers and other publications relating to the 1938 invasion broadcast.


Grover's Mill
Grover's Mill New Jersey, landing site of Welles' Martians

Grover's Mill. Learn about the real hamlet in New Jersey that Howard Koch chose as the landing site for the 1938 invasion broadcast.


Broadcasting The Barricades, Ronald Knox

Broadcasting The Barricades, Ronald Knox. An amazing precursor to the Orson Welles broadcast from England in which people became convinced the revolution had begun

War of the Worlds, Santiago, Chile

The War of the Worlds. Santiago in Chile suffers a major panic when the Welles broadcast is remade to terrifying effect

War of the Worlds, Quito, Ecuador

The War of the Worlds. A second radio inspired panic was triggered in Quito, Ecuador, but this one was deadly.

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