It happened 75 years ago tonight. A simple radio drama that caused panic across the country. The Mercury Theatre on the Air produced, “War of The Worlds” a radio drama directed by Orson Welles on October 30th, 1938. The drama was part of a Halloween Series that was aired on CBS radio across the United States. Orson had been working on the project for some time but was out of town when the studio first recorded the rehearsal on a wax disk. They sent it to Orson for review. Two days before the show was to air, Orson realized the production was flat and boring. He decided to use a technique that had been used in other radio dramas. The technique required news flashes during the radio broadcast with,”we interrupt this program”, simulating real time events. This technique required a full rewrite of the radio play. The actor who played the part of the journalist reporting the ‘real time ‘ events had studied before going live, Herb Morrison’s ‘real time’ reporting of the Hindenburg Disaster. The idea was to capture the sense of panic and horror in the voice of Herb Morrison and to translate that into the newly written Welles drama. It worked. The night that the broadcast aired, listeners who tuned in late and missed the repeated ‘fictional’ disclosures, heard the panicked voice of the journalist reporting a Martian invasion. Adding to that stress, Orson decided not to run any commercial breaks, giving the sense of the radio station, ‘staying with the story’. Police precincts around the country were flooded with panic callers. Historians estimated 6 million listen to the radio drama, approximately 1.5 million believed it to be true.
The fall out from the drama has been much debated over the years. Orson Welles became an instant celebrity world wide. No penalties were ever levied, but CBS did vow to make one change, they would never again use, ‘”we interrupt this program” in a radio drama.
Tonight gather around your computer and play for your family the most famous radio drama in the history of the world.