October 30, 1938. It was 80 years ago this night that the young, dramatic prodigy Orson Welles unleashed the full power of radio on an unsuspecting audience, proving beyond all doubt its potential as a tool of mass communication, and making himself a household name in the process. Then, as now, audiences sat down in the evening for some entertainment. Radio audiences, like television audiences today, had a habit of channel surfing. CBS’ Mercury Radio Theatre On the Air wasn’t the top program of its day, but it had a small, loyal audience. Radio as a communications medium was still in its infancy, but that night… everything would change. The Golden Age of Radio was about to begin.
When the top programs went to commercial, listeners of those programs ignored the plea to “don’t touch that dial” and stumbled upon “The War of the Worlds” broadcast, already in progress. Because they tuned in late, they did not hear the announcer say that this program was an adaptation of the novel by H. G. Wells. What they heard was a program of dance music, interrupted at interval by increasingly distressing reports of activity on Mars and strange landings outside of Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Then, as now, word of mouth spread. People jammed the phone lines trying to reach loved ones or simply to verify what they were hearing. The dramatization was geared to mimic actual news programs as closely as possible so as to give the performance an air of verisimilitude. By the time it was over, people were too scared to hear Welles offer his closing remarks:
“This is Orson Welles, ladies and gentlemen, out of character to assure you that The War of The Worlds has no further significance than as the holiday offering it was intended to be. The Mercury Theatre’s own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and jumping out of a bush and saying Boo! Starting now, we couldn’t soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night. . . so we did the best next thing. We annihilated the world before your very ears, and utterly destroyed the C. B. S. You will be relieved, I hope, to learn that we didn’t mean it, and that both institutions are still open for business. So goodbye everybody, and remember the terrible lesson you learned tonight. That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian… it’s Hallowe’en.”
Unbeknownst to Welles, there were people already storming the studio outside, ready to tear him to pieces.
To modern ears in a cynical world, it sounds more than a little incredulous, but to this day this hour-long radio play stands as a masterclass in the broadcast arts, the most famous broadcast in all of radio history.
When I was in college, I took journalism classes under an old newshound who had run a newspaper in his career before he switched to teaching. As he told it to us, he was five years old when “The War of the Worlds” aired, and he remembered vividly his father standing on the front porch all night with a shotgun at the ready to protect his home and family. His father wasn’t alone. To hear the legends, mass hysteria ensued, and it resulted many people wanting the head of Orson Welles decorating their wall. That broadcast, and the need to tell real news from fake, prompted my instructor to pursue the career that would define his life. His lessons were passed to us, and I’ve taken them to heed in our own modern era of “fake news.” Since that time, I’ve learned to sift out fact from fiction and truth from hyperbole. Sometimes it just takes a step back to look at something objectively, to find out why people react as they do, and to learn just how far the impact did — or didn’t — really go. Here in the States, PBS did it for us in recent years:
Historical perspective and human understanding is, as always, everything.
For myself, I can only credit Orson Welles with increasing my love affair with radio while I was growing up. He didn’t light that fire, but he dumped rocket fuel on it. From the moment I heard a radio version of The Empire Strikes Back, radio demanded my attention and my affection. I wanted more, but didn’t know where to find it. I began transferring audio from early VHS recorded movies to cassette tape just so I could listen to the sound effects, the music, and the vocal performances. A few years later, we moved out to the country, and there was an AM channel broadcasting not too far from us. It would play pretty much any kind of music in any genre from the 1920s to the present day, and on Sundays, it was all radio dramas, with a three-hour block in the afternoons of The Shadow, the early seasons of which featured Orson Welles. His was a name I had just come to know for his voice-over of the monster planet Unicron in 1986’s Transformers: The Movie, the last such performance before his passing. Every Halloween season, that station would broadcast “The War of the Worlds,” though by the time they did, I was already on my way to wearing out a copy of it on cassette tape that I bought at the Cracker Barrel. It sounds quaint, perhaps, but to this day, audio is king of the media in my world between audiobooks, podcasts, music, and of course, Golden Age radio broadcasts. When I combine my enthusiasm for audio with the notion that this story is one of my all-time favorites across multimedia, be it radio, film, musical stage show, or the original novel… this broadcast sits at the intersection of so many wonderful memories for me. Today of all days, I had to share.