“War of the Worlds” on the radio

"War of the Worlds" on the radio

Long ago, when the TV hadn’t yet been invented or only a small portion of the population had access to it, the majority of news and entertainment programs were broadcast on the radio. It was the main media for many years until TV became popular.

In people’s homes, radios were kept on for most of the day, and due to high audiences the stations had to devise different ways to entertain the listeners. The radio went through phases of broadcasting soap operas, musical program, news radio and other program made to please the listeners.

The great North American radio station, CBS, had hired a young writer named Orson Welles in order to broadcast a weekly series adapted for radio. However , on the seventh week all changed and radio programs were never the same.

Orson Welles wrote an adapted script based on one of the most well-known science fiction novels, “War of the Worlds” for his show. The book became a news broadcast narrating an Alien invasion on Earth.

The writer made more than one million people believe that the United States was being attacked by Martians. Check out the story of the greatest radio show of all times.

Fiction meets reality

In 1897, one of the greatest science fiction workers of all times was launched. It was called War of the Worlds, written by the English novelist H. G. Wells. This story is about Earth’s invasion by beings of advanced intelligence from planet Mars, armed with carbonizing rays and killing machines.

On October 30th 1938, exactly 41 years after the book was released, scriptwriter Orson Welles suggested that the North America radio Station, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), should reproduce the novel’s story as a fake news program.

On the eve of Halloween, celebrated on October 31st, CBS interrupted its musical broadcast to announce an Martian invasion. The ‘breaking news’ was in fact, the beginning of radio theater.

This episode not only made CBS surpass its rival NBC, but it also led to an unique episode in world history. The result was a program that made its mark on the history of world media of the 20th century.

Planning the XX century

The script, re-written by Orson Welles, became dramatization in the form of a breaking news. It had all the main traits of radio news of the time, those which listeners were more used to. All was planed and well-thought so it seemed in fact as if it were being broadcast live.

The broadcast contained external reports, interview with witnesses who supposedly were where the attack was happening, expert opinions, sound effects, ambiance sounds, screams and all the emotion of actors and hosts pretending to be reporters.

The chaos number

CBS estimated that the program was listened to by six million people. The confusion started all because half of the listeners tuned in when the program had already started. Which meant that more than three million people missed the introduction informing that it was all part of a weekly theatrical program.

Thus 1,2 million people, believed that in fact Earth was being attacked by Aliens. It is estimated that half a million people was sure of imminent danger, panicking and overloading telephone lines, gathering in large numbers on the streets causing traffic jam filled with people looking to run away from that false danger.

The influence of the program, which was aired for one hour, was so great that it completely paralyzed three cities. There was panic, people running all over in the areas around Nova Jersey, where CBS broadcast Welles adaptation of a work of fiction.

The broadcast

It seemed like a regular Halloween eve until CBS interrupted its musical programming to broadcast a a Martian invasion in the United States. The fake news program reported the arrival of hundreds of Martians on a spaceship at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

The masses began to run away, as an overreaction of New Jersey and New York listeners.

On the original text, though the invasion took place in London, it still contained a language that portrayed news, modern and technical for that time. These traits intensified the tone of truth of the broadcast, making listeners believe what was being said.

According to the fictitious broadcast, Earth was the target of a meteor as well as the arrival of alien spaceships, all heading for the United States. The broadcast was made as if an actual news report. Orson Welles played an astronomer being interviewed during the show.

In order to impress listeners even more, and get their descriptions as close to reality as possible, sound effects were used. The sound of the space ships nearing Earth, for instance, were made by flushing toilets. All this contributed to the impression of truth that the invasion was live and real.

Welles’ Genius

Even though it was the 17th program in the weekly series of radio adaptations done by Radio-theater Mercury, by Welles himself, he was able to achieve incredible results. Later he was recognized by direction the award-winning “Citizen Kane”, and the scrip-writer was able to create chaos in the United States in one hour.

The Daily News summarized the confusion in a next morning paper’s headline: “False war spreads terror through the United States”. All the merit and credit for this production, adaptation and genius direction went to the young and practically unknown actor, director and writer Orson Welles.

“Panic Radio”, as it was later known after the said episode, was targeted by hundreds of lawsuits, none of them successful. As another repercussion, the American government asked for a copy of the program for analysis.

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About the author

Luiz Silveira

Luiz Silveira is a specialist in digital marketing and a radio, music and technology enthusiast. With a decade of experience, he aims to help radio stations better position thenselves on the internet.

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