Hear Orson Welles’ Iconic War of the Worlds Broadcast (1938)

orson welles broadcast

Image by Carl Van Vecht­en, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

One night in Octo­ber of 1938, lis­ten­ers tuned into CBS radio to hear a piece of radio the­ater (lis­ten below) so fright­en­ing and, for its time, real­is­tic, that peo­ple across New Eng­land and east­ern Cana­da fled their homes to escape dan­ger. Or so the leg­end goes. With Orson Welles read­ing the part of an astro­naut and pro­fes­sor, the Mer­cury The­atre on the Air’s broad­cast of War of the Worlds hit a frayed nerve in the Amer­i­can pub­lic.

The show aired dur­ing the tense years lead­ing up to World War II, when fas­cism was on the rise in Europe. Many took the “news” of an alien inva­sion for truth.  It would have been easy to be fooled: the sto­ry, adapt­ed from H.G. Wells’ ear­ly sci-fi nov­el, was writ­ten as a sim­u­lat­ed news broad­cast. It opened with an intro­duc­tion from the nov­el and a note that the adap­ta­tion was set a year ahead (1939). For those who missed that dis­claimer, the remain­der of the show was unset­tling to say the least.

A reporter read a weath­er report. Then came dance music played by a fic­ti­tious band (“Ramon Raque­l­lo and his Orches­tra”) that was inter­rupt­ed by news of bizarre explo­sions on the sur­face of Mars. Soon Orson Welles made his appear­ance, inter­viewed as an expert who denied the pos­si­bil­i­ty of any life on the red plan­et. But then came the news of a cylin­dri­cal mete­orite land­ing in north­ern New Jer­sey. A crowd gath­ered and a “reporter” came on the scene to watch the cylin­der unscrew itself and reveal a rock­et­ship inside.

Chaos ensued, fol­lowed by a Mar­t­ian inva­sion of New York City, where peo­ple ran into the East Riv­er “like rats.”

Welles offered anoth­er dis­claimer at the end of the sto­ry (when the aliens suc­cumbed to Earth’s pathogens) to remind lis­ten­ers that the broad­cast was fic­tion.

Too lit­tle, too late? Or just great the­ater?

The next day, Welles held a bril­liant news con­fer­ence where he apol­o­gized for putting a fright into lis­ten­ers. (It’s anoth­er great piece of the­ater.) Mean­while the broad­cast estab­lished the Mer­cury The­atre on the Air—already an acclaimed stage pro­duc­tion company—as one of Amer­i­ca’s top-rat­ed radio pro­grams. Until then the show had lan­guished in rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty. After send­ing thou­sands of peo­ple into a pan­ic, the show earned adver­tis­ing spon­sor­ship from Campbell’s Soup.

Kate Rix writes about dig­i­tal media and edu­ca­tion. Fol­low her on Twit­ter.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Orson Welles Meets H.G. Wells in 1940: The Leg­ends Dis­cuss War of the Worlds, Cit­i­zen Kane, and WWII

Aldous Hux­ley Reads Dra­ma­tized Ver­sion of Brave New World

Free: Isaac Asimov’s Epic Foun­da­tion Tril­o­gy Dra­ma­tized in Clas­sic Audio

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Comments (4)
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  • It remains only to be said that this bril­liant piece of the­ater not only made Welles a renowned name in radio but led to the movie con­tract RKO would offer him not long after. So it was only a few short years between “War of the Worlds” and “Cit­i­zen Kane”, which was released when Welles was all of 25 years old.

  • Lance Billao says:

    I can’t believe peo­ple bought this sto­ry. Espe­cial­ly since it was a com­mon fic­tion sto­ry for a cou­ple decades ear­li­er. It reminds me of the audio books that are fea­tured on Newfiction.com . They have col­lect­ed a lot of true sto­ries as well.

  • Larry says:

    The sto­ry that thou­sands pan­icked dur­ing the broad­cast is a myth that just won’t die. nnhttp://www.slate.com/articles/arts/history/2013/10/orson_welles_war_of_the_worlds_panic_myth_the_infamous_radio_broadcast_did.html

  • Ron says:

    Mem­o­ries of that infa­mous “War of the Worlds” night in 1938 from one child’s POV —


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