On Radio Broadcast Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On the night of October 30, 1938, the twenty-three-year-old Orson Welles, a brilliant up-and-coming radio and theater producer, staged a live radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Rewritten by Welles and his team to play as real-time news coverage of a Martian invasion of the United States, the radio play was taken to be true by thousands of Americans. Panic spread throughout the nation as concerned citizens crowded churches, jammed switchboards while seeking help from authorities, or packed up their belongings and raced for safety. Although historians debate the real extent of the panic and the motive of print journalists reporting on it, the incident quickly became one of the biggest news stories of the year and propelled the relatively unknown Orson Welles into the international spotlight.

Summary Overview

On the night of October 30, 1938, the twenty-three-year-old Orson Welles, a brilliant up-and-coming radio and theater producer, staged a live radio adaptation of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Rewritten by Welles and his team to play as real-time news coverage of a Martian invasion of the United States, the radio play was taken to be true by thousands of Americans. Panic spread throughout the nation as concerned citizens crowded churches, jammed switchboards while seeking help from authorities, or packed up their belongings and raced for safety. Although historians debate the real extent of the panic and the motive of print journalists reporting on it, the incident quickly became one of the biggest news stories of the year and propelled the relatively unknown Orson Welles into the international spotlight.

Defining Moment

The 1930s were a traumatic period for the United States. Beginning with the stock market crash of 1929 and followed immediately by the Great Depression, things seemed only to get worse as the decade went on. The country was shocked when the son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped and murdered and shocked again when the great airship Hindenburg exploded in a fireball over New Jersey. As unemployment rose and financial markets bottomed out, the Midwest was ravaged by the Dust Bowl along with a crime spree the likes of which had never been seen. While bad news seemed to prevail on the domestic front, the war machines of Germany and Japan pushed the world ever closer to armed conflict. Americans learned all of this by listening to their radios.

Although radio had been invented decades earlier, it wasn't until the 1930s that it emerged as a relevant medium for news and entertainment. President Franklin Roosevelt used the radio in his famous “fireside chats” to reassure a nervous American public, and serial shows, such as The Shadow, entertained millions. As networks began to adapt the technology to challenge the dominance of print, new innovations were developed to provide listeners with something that newspapers couldn't: immediate, live reporting of events. One of these innovations was the “flash,” in which reporters would interrupt regular programming with breaking news. In September 1938, the use of the flash proved especially effective in coverage of what became known as the Munich Crisis, during which Adolf Hitler threatened war over territorial demands in Czechoslovakia.

Amid all this came Orson Welles. In 1938, Welles was a well-regarded, albeit relatively unknown, theater and radio producer out of New York, most famous for staging a production of Macbeth with an all black cast. Provocative, brilliant, and arrogant, Welles was signed by CBS to take over production of a weekly radio program, “The Mercury Theatre of the Air,” set to adapt famous literary works as hour-long radio dramas. Running opposite the hugely popular “Chase and Sanborn Hour,” the Mercury Theatre program suffered from low ratings and lacked an official commercial sponsor. Welles knew he had to do something big.

It is unclear whose idea it was to adapt H. G. Wells' classic War of the Worlds to radio, but there is little doubt that it was Orson Welles who masterminded the script. The dramatization was created to imitate news coverage, in real time, of a Martian invasion. Actors took on the role of reporters set to interrupt a music program with news flashes, providing field reports and on-air interviews with fictitious experts and government officials, some made to imitate real personalities, including the President of the United States. Welles also masterfully scheduled for the action to start five minutes after the hour, fully aware that an unpopular musical act on the “Chase and Sanborn Hour” might make listeners surf the dial to CBS.

Historians debate the number of listeners tuned in that night or how many of them actually believed the Martian invasion to be true, but it is certain that some portion of the public did believe what they heard–and panicked as a result. The following day, newspapers across the country ran banner headlines about what they called “The Panic Broadcast,” reporting sensational stories of suicides, stress-related heart attacks, and an American public driven to the brink of madness. How much of this coverage was true and how much of it was the result of a concerted campaign against the print media's major new competitor, radio, is uncertain. In any case, the attention resulted in calls for investigations by Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and lawsuits against Orson Welles and CBS. In the end, however, no punitive action was taken against any of those involved. After the brouhaha, Orson Welles went on to become an international celebrity, signing a three-movie deal with RKO and creating one of the greatest films in cinematic history, Citizen Kane.

Author Biography

The author of the account the “panic broadcast” reprinted here, George Dixon, was born in Toronto, Canada on July 22, 1900, where he worked as a reporter for various newspapers including the Toronto Star and the Toronto Globe. After immigrating to the United States, he went to work for the Philadelphia Inquirer and eventually the New York Daily News. On the day that Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, he was made a Washington correspondent; and in 1944, he began writing a syndicated column called the “Washington Scene.” Throughout his career he reported on some of the biggest news stories of his day, eventually passing away of a heart attack in 1965.

Document Analysis

George Dixon's report on the events of October 30, 1938 is fairly straightforward. He describes in detail the War of the Worlds broadcast and reports on the more shocking reactions to it. He does not hold CBS, “The Mercury Theatre of the Air,” or Orson Welles responsible for the events, but he does repeatedly suggest, through his writing, radio's power to cause undue panic. Is this the fault of the listener or the medium? He does not say, but clearly this is a troubling development as far as the reporter is concerned.

According to Dixon's report, thousands of Americans fled their homes in search of safety. Motorists clogged streets. Hospitals were flooded by those suffering stress-induced ailments or with injuries resulting from panic over Martians invading New Jersey. Telephone lines were jammed at police and fire stations, at radio networks, and newspaper offices. Churches were overrun by the faithful. New York doctors and Princeton University geologists rushed to the scene of the action to offer assistance. College students called their parents to take them home. National Guardsmen reported to barracks for duty. Bar and restaurant owners closed their businesses. Emergency personnel went on high alert. Movie theaters emptied. Some people even committed suicide, or attempted to do so.

People did this because of the power of radio, because Orson Welles and his troupe used news flashes and simulated on-air reporting. Dixon recounts the highlights of the broadcast, the on-location reporting, the interviews with experts and government officials, the minute-by-minute destruction of the world, culminating in Orson Welles' announcement assuring audiences that what they were hearing was a dramatization of H. G. Wells' book. The same type of thing had happened before, Dixon points out. In 1926, a BBC broadcast sent thousands of people into a panic, convinced that the House of Commons had been blown up. Then, just as now, callers jammed phone lines. Orson Welles, reached for comment, said he was shocked by the event. “It's too bad that so many people got excited, but after all, we kept reminding them, that is wasn't really true.” H. G. Wells couldn't understand how people could have reacted so strongly to a dramatization of his book. A Senator from Iowa promised action and the creation of a censorship board. The FCC would launch an investigation. Indictments were being handed down. Not any one person is to blame, according to Dixon: CBS did announce several times that the broadcast was a work of fiction, but, at the same time, radio did stir real terror. There were calls for action, reform, inquiry.

Essential Themes

George Dixon's article is typical of the reporting at the time. A lot of attention is focused on sensational reports of panic and injury. A gullible public went mad because of something fictional they had heard on radio. What is most interesting about Dixon's article is what is missing. There is a lack of investigation or any real analysis. Dixon is simply passing along the most attention-grabbing stories he can find, but at no point does he ask which of them might be true or not. How many people actually took to the streets? How many cases of suicide or injury could be tied to the War of the Worlds broadcast? What were the names of the doctors, academics, or emergency personnel who made their way to the supposed victims of the Martian attack? Dixon presents the reader with a lot of hyperbole, but very little in the way of corroborated facts.

We know today that many of the stories featured in this article and others were either grossly exaggerated or completely made up. In a sense, Dixon is responsible for the same kind of misrepresentation as Orson Welles. Today, historians estimate that only about 2 percent of the American public actually listened to the Mercury Theatre on October 30, and, out of those, only a small fraction actually believed that what they heard was true. It was only in the weeks after the broadcast, after weeks of articles like those by George Dixon, that people started coming forward with their own stories of madness attributed to the “panic broadcast.” It was only months and years later that the entire event came to be mythologized as part of the American experience. Sensationalist reporting helped sell newspapers in a highly competitive market. This, along with a fear of radio by the print industry, may have contributed to the rush to publish astonishing tales. Ironically, the War of the Worlds broadcast and the reported reaction to it served to elevate Orson Welles to stardom and boosted radio to the position of most important medium of the time.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Gosling, John, & Howard Koch. Waging The War of the Worlds: A History of the 1938 Radio Broadcast and Resulting Panic, Including the Original Script. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009.
  • Socolow, Michael J. “The Hyped Panic over ‘War of the Worlds.’” Chronicle of Higher Education. 55.9 (24 October 2008): 35.
  • “War of the Worlds.” American Experience. Dir. Cathleen O'Connell. PBS, 29 Oct. 2013. Web. 17 Sept. 2014.
  • “War of the Worlds.” Radiolab. NPR. WNYC, New York. 7 Mar. 2008. Radio.
Categories: History Content