On the 78th anniversary of Orson Welles’ famous “The War of the Worlds” broadcast on the CBS radio network, I will again try to debunk the urban legend that the program sparked a mass panic. Popular history textbooks are wrong. So is the latest retelling, a PBS documentary from 2013.
The broadcast — a play incorporating an account of Martians invading Earth — produced extremely isolated instances of panic, but the New York newspapers ran with them. Why? Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow have the story straight in Slate:
“How did the story of panicked listeners begin? Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted.
“In an editorial titled Terror by Radio, The New York Times reproached ‘radio officials’ for approving the interweaving of ‘blood-curdling fiction’ with news flashes ‘offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given.’ Warned Editor and Publisher, the newspaper industry’s trade journal, ‘The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove … that it is competent to perform the news job.”
“The War of the Worlds” should have been a footnote in radio history, but the legend grew. Pooley and Socolow explain: “As the show receded in time and became more infamous, more and more people claimed to have heard it. As weeks, months and years passed, the audience’s size swelled to such an extent that you might actually believe most of America was tuned to CBS that night. But that was hardly the case.”
Indeed, the ratings for Welles’ “Mercury Theater of the Air” series were rotten. There is evidence that the competition on NBC, ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s “Chase & Sanborn Hour,” probably drew 10 or 15 times more listeners. Furthermore, a number of CBS affiliates pre-empted Welles that Sunday night for local programs, easy to do because Welles’ plays had no sponsor at the time.
As CBS President Frank Stanton remarked years later, “In the first place most people didn’t hear it. But those who did hear it looked at it as a prank and accepted it that way.” That is what Welles (then 23 years old) intended on Halloween Eve. His closing remarks that night summed up his attitude:
“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 Theater’s own 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 next best thing — we annihilated the world before your very ears and utterly destroyed CBS. You will be, I hope, relieved to learn that we didn’t mean it and both institutions are still open for business.
“So goodbye, everybody, and remember the terrible lesson that you learned tonight — the 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 Halloween.”
We close with a tip of the hat to radio historian Jim Ramsburg, who covers the medium’s Golden Age at his website.