'War of the Worlds' Radio Broadcast Turns 75

Courtesy: Slate

Well tell us something we DON’T know! But, 75 years ago tonight in 1938, 23-year-old “radio terrorist” Orson Welles and some actor buds took to the radio waves and scared the hell out of residents of our big, blue planet. The residents of Grover's Mill, New Jersey were the unfortunate (or fortunate) recipients of some new Martian neighbors.

Radiolab recently devoted their show to one of the most well-known and “controversial moments in broadcasting history.” According to Radiolab, the 1938 broadcast reached approximately 12 million citizens of Earth and sent one million into a major panic. Or did it?

Over at slate.com, they discuss the myth surrounding the infamous stunt, “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.”

Slate also went on to say:
"Far fewer people heard the broadcast — and fewer still panicked — than most people believe today. How do we know? The night the program aired, the C.E. Hooper ratings service telephoned 5,000 households for its national ratings survey. 'To what program are you listening?' the service asked respondents. Only 2 percent answered a radio 'play' or 'the Orson Welles program,' or something similar indicating CBS. None said a 'news broadcast,' according to a summary published in Broadcasting. In other words, 98 percent of those surveyed were listening to something else, or nothing at all, on Oct. 30, 1938. This miniscule rating is not surprising. Welles' program was scheduled against one of the most popular national programs at the time — ventriloquist Edgar Bergen's "Chase and Sanborn Hour," a comedy-variety show."

PBS has a thorough documentary that explores “War of the Worlds” and offers insight into why we were so vulnerable as a nation at this time. For example, “…our longtime fascination with life on Mars; the emergence of radio as a powerful, pervasive medium; the shocking live recording of the Hindenburg explosion of 1937…” You’re able to watch it online and it even offers some bonus video footage.

In honor of this 75th Anniversary, you can read H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel, "The War of the Worlds," in which Martians invade Earth. Also check out Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars-themed pulp novels that contain enough four-armed green Martians to satisfy the staunchest sci-fi nerd.

Do you think a similar radio announcement or even TV or Internet faux message of alien invasion would affect citizens in a similar manner? If done the right way, it would probably be effective. Which is scary.

-Larissa Mrykalo