War of the Worlds Broadcast Panic
The 30th of October 1938 AD
It is consistent with much of the life of Orson Welles that the myth surrounding his legendary 1938 broadcast is greater than the reality, and that it obscures somewhat the intelligence and innovation of the show.
Welles, only 23, already headed his own acting company, The Mercury Theatre, which in its second year he moved from stage to radio work in New York. Competing with an established variety show on another channel Welles needed to find a way of capturing listeners who switched between stations when commercials were airing. His previous theatre work included modern settings of Macbeth and Julius Caesar; for Halloween night 1938 he decided to produce a contemporary version of HG Wells ’ War of the Worlds (he actually went on to meet Wells two years later in Texas).
The show started with an introduction that made it clear this was drama; but then went into a format that used supposed news flashes, ham radio broadcasts, location reports and so on to give the work pace and intensity. It was the first time such a style of show had aired in the USA. Welles either got lucky with most of the audience missing the intro, or according to another theory knew when people would switch to his station and scheduled the script accordingly.
Many like to believe hundreds of thousands swarmed into the streets in panic, believing Martians were truly invading. The true story is that, though many rang the police for example, only a few left their homes to flee the non-existent alien invaders - except in one Washington town, where an exploding sub-station and consequent power failure coincided with the broadcast; many there headed for the hills. Papers hungry for news got hold of the story and multiplied it into mass panic. Welles understandably exploited the interest like the showman – and creative genius – he was.
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