Quick look: The 76 year-old “War of the World” broadcast rumpus

The infamous CBS radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938 frightened millions….well maybe

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Credit: Reuters

One of the country’s biggest overreactions occurred 76 years ago this week when on Oct. 30, 1938 a radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was mistaken for an actual Mars invasion.

According to many, the radio broadcast read by actor Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air repertory group, fooled millions of Americans into thinking the world was pretty much going to end that night.   The truth about how many citizens actually felt the Martians were invading is up for debate.

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 The History Channel.com wrote of the kerfuffle:

“Perhaps as many as a million radio listeners believed that a real Martian invasion was underway. Panic broke out across the country. In New Jersey, terrified civilians jammed highways seeking to escape the alien marauders. People begged police for gas masks to save them from the toxic gas and asked electric companies to turn off the power so that the Martians wouldn't see their lights. One woman ran into an Indianapolis church where evening services were being held and yelled, "New York has been destroyed! It's the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!"

But the Nation Archives blog, “The Unwritten Record,” which detailed the historical broadcast this week said:

“The “panic” was more likely media hype: while some listeners were tricked, there is little evidence that the few who missed the frequent disclaimers actually took action or injured themselves because of the broadcast.”

National Geographic wrote in revisiting the Welles play in 2005: “But historians also claim that newspaper accounts over the following week greatly exaggerated the hysteria. There are estimates that about 20 percent of those listening believed it was real. That translates to less than a million people. At the time, newspapers considered radio an upstart rival. Some in the print press, resentful of the superior radio coverage during the “Munich crisis,” [ the Munich crisis was a meeting of European powers that became the prelude to World War II—a month before.] may have sought to prove a point about the irresponsibility of the radio broadcast. ‘The exaggeration of the War of the Worlds story can be interpreted as the print media's revenge for being badly scooped during the previous month,’ said Elizabeth McLeod, a journalist and broadcast historian in Rockland, Maine, who specializes in 1930s radio.”

The Nation Archives went on to say of the Welles play: Whatever the extent of the terror The War of the Worlds incited, the broadcast has become legendary. In a press conference the following day, 23-year-old Orson Welles explained why he didn’t expect listeners to think the well-known story, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was published in 1897, was true.

The History Channel.com noted that the Federal Communications Commission investigated the program but found no law was broken. Networks did agree to be more cautious in their programming in the future.

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