On this date October 30, 1938, a young 23-year-old Orson Welles caused a real-life panic when he presented the radio program The War of the Worlds.
Originally written as a science fiction novel by author HG Wells that tells the story of a spaceship from Mars landing on Earth that causes panic, death and destruction.
“The War of the Worlds” was the 17th episode of the CBS Radio series The Mercury Theatre on the Air, which was broadcast at 8 pm ET on October 30, 1938. The novel was adapted for radio by Howard Koch, who changed the primary setting to the 20th-century United States, with the landing point of the first Martian spacecraft changed to rural Grover’s Mill, an unincorporated village in West Windsor, New Jersey.
The radio program begins as a simulation of a normal evening radio broadcast featuring a weather report and music by “Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra” live from a local hotel ballroom. After a few minutes, the music is interrupted by several news flashes about strange gas explosions on Mars. An interview is arranged with reporter Carl Phillips and Princeton-based astronomy professor Richard Pierson, who dismisses speculation about life on Mars. The musical program returns temporarily but is interrupted again by news of a strange meteorite landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.
Many listeners missed the announcement at the start of the program that this was just a story told by actors. They thought it was real, especially since Welles had decided to present the story in a newscast format. When it was reported that seven thousand members of the state militia had been obliterated by a Martian “heat ray” and that New York was being evacuated, there was, according to reports at the time, widespread panic. Phone calls to police, newspaper offices, and radio stations convinced many that the show had caused nationwide hysteria. Investigations would later reveal many of the panicked responses to have been exaggerated or mistaken.
Announcements that “The War of the Worlds” was a dramatization of a work of fiction were made on the full CBS network at four points during the broadcast: at the beginning, before the middle break, after the middle break, and at the end.
The FCC received letters from the public that advised against taking reprisals. The FCC decided to not punish Welles or CBS, and barred complaints about “The War of the Worlds” from being brought up during license renewals.
Welles and Mercury Theatre on the Air were inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1988. On January 27, 2003, “The War of the Worlds” was selected as one of the first 50 recordings to be added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. In August 2014, a Retrospective Hugo Award for “Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form – 1938” was bestowed upon the broadcast.