The Power of Radio – or how Orson Welles fooled a whole nation!
On Sunday, October 30, 1938, millions of radio listeners were shocked when radio news alerts announced the arrival of Martians. They panicked when they learned of the Martians’ ferocious and seemingly unstoppable attack on Earth. Many ran out of their homes screaming while others packed up their cars and fled.
Though what the radio listeners heard was a portion of Orson Welles’ adaptation of the well-known book, War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, many of the listeners believed what they heard on the radio was real.
Before the era of T.V., people sat in front of their radios and listened to music, news reports, plays and various other programs for entertainment. In 1938, the most popular radio program was the “Chase and Sanborn Hour” which aired on Sunday evenings at 8 p.m. The star of the show was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy.
Unfortunately for the Mercury group, headed by dramatist Orson Welles, their show, “Mercury Theatre on the Air,” aired on another station at the very same time as the popular “Chase and Sanborn Hour.” Welles, of course, tried to think of ways to increase his audience, hoping to take away listeners from the “Chase and Sanborn Hour.”
For the Mercury group’s Halloween show that was to air on October 30, 1938, Welles decided to adapt H. G. Wells’s well-known novel, War of the Worlds, to radio. Radio adaptations and plays up to this point had often seemed rudimentary and awkward. Instead of lots of pages as in a book or through visual and auditory presentations as in a play, radio programs could only be heard (not seen) and were limited to a short period of time (often an hour, including commercials).
Thus, Orson Welles had one of his writers, Howard Koch, rewrite the story of War of the Worlds. With multiple revisions by Welles, the script transformed the novel into a radio play. Besides shortening the story, they also updated it by changing the location and time from Victorian England to present day New England. These changes reinvigorated the story, making it more personal for the listeners.
On Sunday, October 30, 1938 at 8 p.m., the broadcast began when an announcer came on the air and said, “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells.”
Orson Welles then went on the air as himself, setting the scene of the play: “We know now that in the early years of the twentieth century this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own…”
As Orson Welles finished his introduction, a weather report faded in, stating that it came from the Government Weather Bureau. The official sounding weather report was quickly followed by “the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra” from the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York. Actually, the broadcast was all done from the studio, but the script led people to believe that there were announcers, orchestras, newscasters and scientists on the air from a variety of locations.
The dance music was soon interrupted by a special bulletin announcing that a professor at the Mount Jennings Observatory in Chicago, Illinois reported seeing explosions on Mars. The dance music resumed until it was interrupted again, this time by a news update in the form of an interview with astronomer, Professor Richard Pierson at the Princeton Observatory in Princeton, New Jersey.
The script specifically attempts to make the interview sound real and occurring right at that moment. Near the beginning of the interview, the newsman, Carl Phillips, tells the listeners that “Professor Pierson may be interrupted by telephone or other communications. During this period he is in constant touch with the astronomical centers of the world . . . Professor, may I begin your questions?”
During the interview, Phillips tells the audience that Professor Pierson had just been handed a note, which was then shared with the audience. The note stated that a huge shock “of almost earthquake intensity” occurred near Princeton. Professor Pierson believes it might be a meteorite.
Another news bulletin announces, “It is reported that at 8:50 p.m. a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, twenty-two miles from Trenton.”Carl Phillips begins reporting from the scene at Grovers Mill. (No one listening to the program questions the very short time that it took Phillips to reach Grovers Mill from the observatory. The music interludes seem longer than they are and confuse the audience as to how much time has passed.) The meteor turns out to be a 30-yard wide metal cylinder that is making a hissing sound. Then the top began to “rotate like a screw.” Then Carl Phillips reported what he witnessed:
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed. . . . Wait a minute! Someone’s crawling. Someone or . . . something. I can see peering out of that black hole two luminous disks . . . are they eyes? It might be a face. It might be . . . good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now it’s another one, and another one, and another one. They look like tentacles to me. There, I can see the thing’s body. It’s large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face, it . . . ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.
Carl Phillips continued to describe what he saw. Then, the invaders took out a weapon.
A humped shape is rising out of the pit. I can make out a small beam of light against a mirror. What’s that? There’s a jet of flame springing from the mirror, and it leaps right at the advancing men. It strikes them head on! Good Lord, they’re turning into flame!
Now the whole field’s caught fire. The woods . . . the barns . . . the gas tanks of automobiles . . it’s spreading everywhere. It’s coming this way. About twenty yards to my right…
Then silence. A few minutes later, an announcer interrupts,
Ladies and gentlemen, I have just been handed a message that came in from Grovers Mill by telephone. Just one moment please. At least forty people, including six state troopers, lie dead in a field east of the village of Grovers Mill, their bodies burned and distorted beyond all possible recognition.
The audience is stunned by this news. But the situation soon gets worse. They are told that the state militia is mobilizing, with seven thousand men, and surrounding the metal object. They, too, are soon obliterated by the “heat ray.” The “Secretary of the Interior,” who sounds like President Franklin Roosevelt (purposely), addresses the nation.
Citizens of the nation: I shall not try to conceal the gravity of the situation that confronts the country, nor the concern of your government in protecting the lives and property of its people. . . . we must continue the performance of our duties each and every one of us, so that we may confront this destructive adversary with a nation united, courageous, and consecrated to the preservation of human supremacy on this earth.
The radio reports that the U.S. Army is engaged. The announcer declared that New York City is being evacuated. The program continues, but many radio listeners are already panicked.
Though the program began with the announcement that it was a story based on a novel and there were several announcements during the program that reiterated that this was just a story, many listeners didn’t tune in long enough to hear them.
However, on this particular evening listeners were shocked to hear another station carrying news alerts warning of an invasion of Martians attacking Earth. Not hearing the introduction of the play and listening to the authoritative and real sounding commentary and interviews, many believed it to be real.
All across the United States, listeners reacted. Thousands of people called radio stations, police and newspapers. Many in the New England area loaded up their cars and fled their homes. In other areas, people went to churches to pray. People improvised gas masks. Miscarriages and early births were reported. Deaths, too, were reported but never confirmed. Many people were hysterical. They thought the end was near.
Hours after the program had ended and listeners had realized that the Martian invasion was not real, the public was outraged that Orson Welles had tried to fool them. Many people sued. Others wondered if Welles had caused the panic on purpose.
The power of radio had fooled the listeners. They had become accustomed to believing everything they heard on the radio, without questioning it. Now they had learned – the hard way.