The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast



The First Episode of “Wag the Dog” 

Hysteria – “any outbreak of wild, uncontrolled excited behavior.” So says Webster’s New World Dictionary. On October 30, 1938, actor Orson Wells inadvertently set in motion one of the greatest experiments in mass public manipulation ever witnessed.

The Halloween presentation of the Mercury Theatre on the Air, a new radio program fighting for ratings against Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, was writer Howard Koch’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. The story had been updated to then-present day East Coast and Wells delivered an introduction setting up the scenes the actors in-studio were about to present.

After the introduction, an “official” report from the Government Weather Bureau was heard. Followed by, a supposed live broadcast of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra from the Hotel Park Plaza, in New York City. This “broadcast” was interrupted by new bulletins regarding explosions observed on Mars. Newsman, Carl Phillips (actually an actor) interviewed Professor Richard Pierson (also an actor) from the Princeton Observatory who then tells the audience of a huge earthquake-like shock wave occurring near Princeton. The newsman and the professor supposedly travel to the site from Princeton and no one in the audience appears to notice how little time it took them to make the trip.

Just a brief musical interlude later, then Carl Phillips proceeded to report to the audience on the cylindrical object that has just landed and how an alien with tentacles appeared from its depths. The Martian then supposedly opened fire on military personnel, which were on scene, as well as the curious crowd that had gathered in this field in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

People were being burned alive by death rays as the radio audience listened in horror. While all of these sounds and “live interviews” were created on a radio studio sound stage, somehow the public, many of whom switched over to the show during a break in their other program “The Chase and Sanborn Hour”, on another station, missed the introduction by Wells. By the time, the announcer reminded the public that they were listening to a radio show (some 40 minutes later) panic had already struck.

People believed that the United States had been invaded and they had to escape! Phone calls flooded police stations, newspapers and radio stations. People threw what they could into their cars and started driving to the safety in the mountains. Women went into early labor or miscarried and there were many reports of suicides and deaths related to the incident, though most were unsubstantiated.

Once the program had ended and people began to realize that they had reacted a bit hastily, Orson Wells was on the hot seat. He had duped the American people! Was his experiment so inadvertent after all? Whatever his motivation, the stunt catapulted him to stardom once the public got over their outrage or embarrassment. Was Wells the first Spin Doctor? Alternatively, just the first to be noticed?

The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast

The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast

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