October 27, 2008

The Power of Radio: Is Hearing Believing?

Orson Welles (Courtesy The Associated Press)
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Orson Welles (Courtesy The Associated Press)

The Des Moines Register, Oct. 31, 1938. (Newseum collection)
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The Des Moines Register, Oct. 31, 1938. (Newseum collection)

The Knoxville Journal, Oct. 31, 1938. (Newseum collection)
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The Knoxville Journal, Oct. 31, 1938. (Newseum collection)

New York Post, Oct. 31, 1938. (Newseum collection)
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New York Post, Oct. 31, 1938. (Newseum collection)

On Halloween eve in 1938, the power of radio was on full display when a dramatization of the science-fiction novel "The War of the Worlds" scared the daylights out of many of CBS radio’s nighttime listeners.

Portions of the program — produced by Orson Welles and performed by him and other cast members of "The Mercury Theatre on the Air" — were written to sound like news bulletins. And though CBS announced four times during the broadcast that it was a dramatization, the bulletins sounded so authentic that thousands of panicked listeners believed Martians had landed in New Jersey and were invading Earth. Many took to the streets to flee the attack from Mars. Curiosity-seekers in central New Jersey headed for Grovers Mill, the presumed site of the Martian landing.

Ninety-two radio stations aired the drama. When it ended, most of them, as well as newspapers and police departments across the country, were swamped with callers seeking clarification and demanding to know if the world was coming to an end.

"Officials of the electric company received scores of calls urging them to turn off all lights so that the city would be safe from the enemy," The Knoxville Journal reported the next day.

"Women Weep, Men Desert Their Homes," a Des Moines Register headline proclaimed. "Mass hysteria mounted so high in some cases that persons told police and newspapers they ‘saw’ the invasion," the Register reported.

CBS and Welles were roundly criticized. Hundreds of letters and telegrams were sent to the four-year-old Federal Communications Commission.

"Radio ‘War’ Panic Brings Inquiry; U.S. to Scan Broadcast Script," the New York Post said in a banner headline. The Post quoted FCC chairman Frank R. McNinch’s intention to launch an investigation.

"The widespread public reaction to this broadcast as indicated by the press is another demonstration of the power and force of radio, and points out again the serious public responsibility of those who are licensed to operate stations," McNinch said.

In studies and surveys conducted weeks after the broadcast, some listeners cited the authenticity of the news bulletins as the reason for their fear. But the broadcast did not frighten everyone. About 40 percent of the letters sent to the FCC, and 90 percent of those sent to the Mercury Theatre, were positive.

"I was one of the thousands who heard this program and did not jump out of the window, did not attempt suicide … but sat serenely entertained no end by the fine portrayal of a fine play," wrote a listener from South Dakota.

In the months following the broadcast, "The Mercury Theatre on the Air" became "The Campbell Playhouse," thanks to the corporate sponsorship of the Campbell Soup Company. Welles went to RKO Pictures, where he later directed and starred in "Citizen Kane," the critically acclaimed film inspired by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.

The story of the "War of the Worlds" broadcast is told in the News Corporation News History Gallery.

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