War of the Worlds: The Original Broadcast, Aftermath, And Myths
As legend has it, Orson Welles's infamous radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Welles was such a polarizing piece of fiction that it sent listeners into the streets screaming with terror. Supposedly, people were so afraid of the Martian invasion playing out on their radios that panicked gripped the nation, but that's not what really happened. In reality, the fervor was created by the newspaper industry as a way to attack the burgeoning new media format of radio, and Welles, ever the edge lord, used the media's claim to his advantage. The story of The War of the Worlds radio drama, which broadcast on this day in 1938, is one that's steeped in myth.
No one thought a reality-style radio drama would work
During pre-production for The War of the Worlds, Welles and his crew strove to make the show sound as realistic as possible. The cast meticulously researched their roles, and the sound effects team attempted to formulate the actual sounds that a Martian space craft would make. Despite their hard work, no one on the crew thought that anyone listening would believe the drama was a real report, though Welles later claimed that he intentionally leaned into the realism of the piece.
I had conceived the idea of doing a radio broadcast in such a manner that a crisis would actually seem to be happening, and would be broadcast in such a dramatized form as to appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play.
Everyone working on the radio drama thought it was silly
Aside from Welles, who supposedly thought his alien radio drama bled authenticity, no one on the writing staff or in the cast believed that the show would scare anyone. It's clear from the handwritten notes in the margins of an early draft of the script that cast members from the Mercury Theater found the story to be a bit too silly and fantastic. They reworked the dialogue to make it sound real, as opposed to the stilted prose that served Welles in later works like Citizen Kane and The Stranger.
Even with all the work that the cast put into the show, they believed that they were trying to spit shine a garbage can. Radio critic Ben Gross wrote in his autobiography that when he spoke to an actor about the upcoming broadcast, they told him "Just between us, it's lousy" and that it would "probably bore you to death."
Welles made a lot of last-minute changes to the broadcast
The script kept changing right through the final moments before the broadcast on October 30, 1938, and one of the producers believes that one of the most important changes came from Welles's idea to slow down the pace of the first act of the show. If you haven't heard the original program, it starts normally enough with a weather broadcast and some "live" orchestral music. Welles wanted to draw these moments out to make the show feel like a real radio broadcast and enhance the impact of the "invasion."
Welles also added a speech that was cut from an earlier draft of the script at the behest of CBS's lawyers. In the speech, voice actor Kenneth Delmar used a pitch-perfect FDR impression as the Secretary of the Interior, a character that explains how the government is combating the Martian invasion. Welles was firing on all cylinders in the hours leading up to the broadcast, and these decisions made on the razor's edge made the show all the better.
The show was good, but listeners didn't think Earth was being invaded
The myth of The War of the Worlds states that upon hearing the eyewitness account of what happened on Willamette Farm in Grover's Mill, New Jersey, listeners were thrust into a state of panic. The sensational reporting around the event is just that, however: sensational reporting.
By the late 1930s, radio had cut into print media's advertisers, damaging the newspaper industry. Facetious claims about the response to The War of the Worlds were an attempt by newspapers to show advertisers and the FCC that the new medium of radio was irresponsible at best, and at its worse, it could drive people to harm themselves and others. In an editorial titled "Terror by Radio," The New York Times opined:
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.
People were listening, not panicking
It’s hard to know exactly what people were doing at the time of the broadcast of The War of the Worlds, but even though the media, Welles, and historians have claimed that the program made listeners flip their collective wigs, one report from the evening goes directly against a famous story about listeners at the time. One popular myth asserts that New Yorkers ran into the streets to see the military's battle with the Martians, adding to the panic, but according to Ben Gross, radio editor for the New York Daily News, he was in a New York City taxi at the time of the broadcast on his way to work, and the streets were "nearly deserted.” Even so, the very next day, the New York Daily News slathered their front page with news of the chaos caused by the broadcast.
Not as many people heard the broadcast as were reported
If the print media at the time of The War of the Worlds broadcast and even some modern news organizations are to be believed, millions of people listened to the broadcast. Listeners were glued to their radios with an urgent need to know how America was dealing with the Martian invasion.
Welles's program wasn't unpopular, but it was hardly the must-listen show of the day. Slate reports that on the night of the broadcast, the C.E. Hooper ratings service reached out to 5,000 households to calculate the ratings for the evening. Only 2% of everyone contacted said that they listened to a radio "play," "the Orson Welles program," or anything indicating that they were tuned into CBS. That means that 98% of listeners on October 30, 1938 didn't even know that Earth was being attacked by Mars. In fact, many CBS local affiliates ran their own programming that night, so entire metropolitan areas as large as Boston never had a chance to hear The War of the Worlds. Later, CBS's Frank Stanton did his best to dispel rumors about the show:
In the first place, most people didn’t hear it. But those who did hear it, looked at it is as a prank and accepted it that way.
The legend of the broadcast grew over the years
Thanks to the reporting immediately following the broadcast and acceptance of the faux panic that the show caused, its legend grew as the decades rolled on. Not only were reports of the public's response exaggerated by historians, Welles himself added to the stories of the fervor over his work. Why wouldn't he? The more controversy he created, whether it was real or not, the more successful he was. In 1983, he told a story about the night of the show, when he supposedly encountered a crowd so panicked that they were shocked he wasn't "hemorrhaging." He said:
What a night. After the broadcast, as I tried to get back to the St. Regis where we were living, I was blocked by an impassioned crowd of news people looking for blood, and the disappointment when they found I wasn't hemorrhaging. It wasn't long after the initial shock that whatever public panic and outrage there was vanished. But, the newspapers for days continued to feign fury.
Did Welles actually intend to throw the audience into a fervor with his performance, or was he just putting on a show? He seemed to be haunted by this question for the rest of his life, and he never gave a straight answer about the production. Ever the showman, he kept audiences guessing.
Like it? Share with your friends!