Orson Welles presented The War of the Worlds on radio in such a way that the listeners believed that what was being described in the programme was really happening.
We are all eagerly following the journey of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission which would give India the pride of joining an elite group of nations, with the U.S. in the lead, that probed our planetary neighbour in close quarters. But can we believe that around the same time 75 years ago many parts of the U.S. were plunged into turmoil when news spread that alien species from Mars had landed on American soil and launched a deadly offensive on human beings? Yes, a radio drama broadcast on October 30, 1938 created this scare.
The American comedian and television personality Steve Allen described radio as ‘the theatre of the mind’. Radio has the unique power of influencing listeners into visualising events which even the visual media, sometimes, may not be able to portray effectively. Even during the early days of radio broadcasting, when everything was done live, there were highly talented producers who used the full potential of the audio medium and created immortal radio dramas. Our reminiscences now are about one such radio drama based on H.G.Wells’s famous science fiction, The War of the worlds broadcast over Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in the U.S.
It was a Sunday, October 30, 1938. The Halloween-eve show of “Mercury Theatre on Air” headed by the highly resourceful dramatist Orson Welles was to go on air at 8 p.m. over CBS and its network of radio stations. At the same hour, another radio station was broadcasting a popular serial, “Chase and Sanborn Hour,” featuring a celebrated ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
It was quite a task for Orson Welles to attract a good audience for his programme. He let his fertile imagination run amuck and presented the radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds in such a way that the listeners believed that what was being described in the programme was really happening.
It opened with the announcement that the contents of the show were imaginary events based on the fiction of Wells. Most of the listeners were glued to “Chase and Sanborn Hour” initially and by about 8.15 p.m. when there was a music interlude, they switched to Orson’s show. So they missed the opening announcement, helping Orson in his task.
“The War of the Worlds” show was in the form of imaginary news flashes interrupting routine programmes like weather report and live relay of dance music from a New York Hotel. In fact, the routine programmes themselves were fictitious ones simulated by the Mercury Group within the studio. Since Orson knew the usual pattern of the rival programme, he could predict that a large chunk of listeners would switch to his programme at about 8.15 p.m. and accordingly, around that time, he introduced his first news flash which highlighted a report from an observatory at Illinois informing people that there was some sudden explosion in the direction of Mars in space.
Those hapless listeners, having missed the opening announcement of the show, believed that what they heard was actually happening. Orson steadily upped the tempo with skilfully dramatised interviews with astronomers, scientists, and law and order agencies and then came the climax when he mimicked a live report from a place called Grovers Mill in a suburb of New Jersey, where a mysterious object was stated to have landed from space.
Soon reports followed sounding an alarm that some alien creatures, likely from Mars, had emerged out of that celestial object and were attacking people brutally with mysterious weapons and emitting flashes of fire. The American government sent a battalion of 7,000 soldiers who were all massacred in no time by the omnipotent Martian monsters. That was enough to create chaos and turmoil at many places and people ran helter-skelter, many frantically calling police, newspaper offices and radio stations to know about the latest situation.
Only hours after the radio show was over, did the people slowly come to know that the miraculous power of radio misled them into believing fiction as fact. Police rushed to the radio station and confiscated copies of the script for taking legal action. The next day, the newspapers covered this event in great detail and people were highly critical of the way they were taken for a ride. All the same, they realised with astonishment how powerful the influence of radio was over human minds.
Orson later regretted that he should not have gone that far in misleading the unsuspecting listeners. But history salutes him for his mastery over the art of audio production and he is hailed as a hero among broadcasters down the ages.
To immortalise this important event in the history of radio broadcasting, a memorial has been erected at Grovers Mill, where the imaginary landing of Martian invaders took place. In October 1988, the golden jubilee of this event was celebrated in the suburbs of New Jersey on a grand scale. In December 1988, one surviving copy of the script of the drama originally used during the live broadcast was auctioned for a princely sum of $1,43,000.
(The author is a retired Deputy Director-General of AIR and former Station Director of AIR, Chennai. His email: