Orson Welles’ famed radio drama, The War of the Worlds, aired on Oct. 30, 1938, detailing the (fictional) arrival of Martians to Grovers Mill, New Jersey.

The radio play, based on H.G. Wells novel of the same name, was broadcast as part of the Mercury Theatre on the Air series on the CBS radio network and is famous for causing widespread panic among listeners who didn’t realize the broadcast was a drama and not real. Welles came under criticism for using fake news bulletins to help tell the story; while there was a disclaimer at the beginning of the show, listeners tuning in in the middle of the broadcast mistook the bulletins for real news broadcasts.

The plot involves (SPOILER ALERT) a cylinder crashing on a farm in Grovers Mills (a section of West Windsor) and Martians eventually emerging and killing people with a death ray. The invasion continues and spreads across the country with the Martians releasing poisonous gas as the New Jersey militia and the US Army fail to bring the situation under control. The Martians turn out to be vulnerable to microbes, however, and are defeated. The broadcast is more famous for the reaction of the listening public, with reports of widespread panic with stampedes and traffic jams supposedly taking place around the nation.

But was there really mass hysteria? According to an article by Slate, the answer is “no,” primarily because so few people were actually listening. A national ratings service surveyed 5,000 Americans the night the program aired and asked what they had listened to and “Only 2 percent answered a radio “play” or “the Orson Welles program,” or something similar indicating CBS. None said a “news broadcast,” according to a summary published in Broadcasting. In other words, 98 percent of those surveyed were listening to something else, or nothing at all, on Oct. 30, 1938.”

Most of America was listening to Edgar Bergen who hosted one of the most popular national radio programs. The article in Slate explains the reports of panic as being exaggerated (or outright fabricated) by a newspaper industry that was threatened by the burgeoning competition of the newer medium, radio. The broadcast certainly raised the profile of the 23 year old director/narrator/actor Orson Welles who went on to become one of the nation’s most important filmmakers.

The post above reflects the thoughts and observations of New Jersey 101.5 talk show host Bill Doyle. Any opinions expressed are Bill Doyle's own.

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