October 24, 2013

75 Years Ago in News History: 'War of the Worlds'

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Seventy five years after actor and director Orson Welles scared the daylights out CBS radio's nighttime listeners with his Halloween eve dramatization of the science-fiction novel "War of the Worlds," the power of the realistic-but-phony radio broadcast of an Earth invasion from Mars still endures.

On Oct. 30, 1938, Welles and fellow actors of The Mercury Theatre on the Air performed the dramatization that was written to sound like news bulletins. Though CBS announced several times that the broadcast was a dramatization, the bulletins sounded so authentic — and the actors' performances so convincing — that thousands of panicked listeners believed Martians had landed in New Jersey.

Ninety-two radio stations carried the drama. When it ended, most of them, as well as newspapers and police departments across the country, were swamped with callers seeking clarification and demanding to know if the world was ending.

"Officials of the electric company received scores of calls urging them to turn off all lights so that the city would be safe from the enemy," The Knoxville Journal reported the next day.

After the broadcast, Welles and CBS were roundly criticized. Hundreds of letters and telegrams were sent to the four-year-old Federal Communications Commission. In studies and surveys conducted weeks after the broadcast, some listeners cited the authenticity of the news bulletins as the reason for their fear. But the broadcast did not frighten everyone. About 40 percent of the letters sent to the FCC, and 90 percent of those sent to the Mercury Theatre, were positive.

In the months following "War of the Worlds," Mercury Theatre became "The Campbell Playhouse" through a corporate sponsorship by the Campbell Soup Company. Welles went to RKO Pictures, where he later directed and starred in "Citizen Kane," the critically acclaimed film inspired by newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.

Seventy five years after its debut, "War of the Worlds" remains a testament to the power of radio as a broadcast medium.

The story of the "War of the Worlds" broadcast is told in the Newseum's News Corporation News History Gallery.

"War of the Welles," a new KPCC radio documentary that goes behind the scenes of the radio classic, can be heard on Southern California Public Radio.

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