War of the Worlds Panic

30/10/19

On this day in 1938, American radio listeners tuning into CBS just after 8pm EST heard an announcer say: " From the Meridian Room in the Park Plaza in New York City, we bring you the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra". A few moments later, the music was interrupted by a second announcer with a special bulletin: "At twenty minutes before eight, central time, Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Illinois, reports observing several explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars", before returning to the music once more. The music continued but with further interruptions detailing government warnings and an interview with an astronomer from the Princeton Observatory. The radio broadcast soon abandoned the music and became rolling news coverage of Martian invaders decimating New Jersey and killing thousands of people across New York City, before the reports eventually confirmed that Martians were all dead and life could go on.

Orson Welles' radio adaptation of the HG Wells War of the Worlds classic has gone down in history as the ultimate mass panic. According to newspaper reports, thousands believed that America had been genuinely invaded. "Motorists flee from towns...and churches and cinemas were hurriedly evacuated by terrified audiences; in many villages the inhabitants gathered together praying for deliverance" according to the Falkirk herald in the UK. The Dundee telegraph reported that "Millions of Americans are today still suffering from nervous prostration after the panic that swept across the country...". The UK reporting followed the US newspapers. The NY Times said "A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners...families left their homes, some to flee to nearby parks"; the Boston Daily Globe reported: " Radio Play Terrifies Nation".

But the scale of the 'panic' was hugely exaggerated. What likely happened was that there were a small number of people who tuned in late and missed the introduction by Welles that it was a play and missed too his warning that it was a halloween fiction at the end. His clever take on the text as a 'live event' was certainly innovative, especially in the new medium of radio but that medium was taking large amounts of ad-revenue from the newspapers who were happy to give it a kicking for being irresponsible and transmitting, what we might call now, fake news. As the New York Times put it a day or so later: "Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities, It has not mastered itself or the material it uses."

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