“The original broadcast that panicked the nation!”

War of the Worlds

A copy of the album recording of the original radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds.” (Newseum Collection)

“Going viral” might seem like a modern, Internet-era concept, but Orson Welles and CBS Radio mastered it 76 years ago this week.

Welles adapted the H.G. Wells novel “War of the Worlds” for his “Mercury Theatre on the Air” program, and even told listeners up front that what they were about to hear was a fictional story. However, many tuned in after that announcement, and the expertly crafted script — peppered with bulletin-style “eyewitness” reports of an alien invasion in New Jersey — tricked and terrified thousands.

The FCC received numerous complaints about the broadcast from across the United States, but ultimately handed down no punishment against Welles or CBS. When the hysteria died down, outrage eventually turned to enthusiasm, and an album recording of the broadcast, like this one in the Newseum collection, became a best-seller.

There’s no immediate scare factor to the broadcast now, but it’s still a thrilling drama that makes for a perfect Halloween treat. If you don’t have a copy of the record in your personal collection, never fear — you can listen to the full broadcast on our YouTube channel.

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