Orson Welles Radio Play “War of the Worlds” at 75

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The New York Times reported “Many Flee Homes to Escape `Gas Raid From Mars’–Phone Calls Swamp Police at Broadcast of Wells Fantasy” and the story of the hoax is firmly embedded in the history books.

But the reports of streets full of panicked citizens don’t hold up to scrutiny.

There’s only one problem: The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast. Despite repeated assertions to the contrary in the PBS and NPR programs, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast.

How did the story of panicked listeners begin? Blame America’s newspapers. Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted. –Slate

Welles himself certainly had little reason to correct exaggerated reports of crowds driven to the streets by his creative efforts. The Slate article criticizes a PBS documentary that uses actors to portray panicked citizens (apparently because there isn’t any historical footage, and people watching at TV documentary about a radio show have to be able to look at SOMETHING).

Ironically, what began as the newspaper industry’s gleeful attempt to demonstrate the untrustworthiness of radio news has created a myth that, according to Slate, is happily perpetuated by members of the broadcast industry who want to establish the power of broadcasting, and by members of the government who want to establish the important role that the government should play in the management of media.

Even today, broadcast networks must convince advertisers that they retain commanding powers over their audiences. As such, CBS has regularly celebrated the War of the Worlds broadcast and its supposed effect on the public. In 1957, Studio One, a CBS anthology series, dramatized the panic as “The Night America Trembled,” and when the network celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2003, War of the Worlds was a noted highlight. On the other side of the coin, federal regulators must still persuade politicians that there exists an important protective role for the guardians of the airwaves. For both broadcasters and regulators, War of the Worlds provides excellent evidence to justify their claims about media power.–Slate