On Halloween Eve, 1938 Orson Welles and his radio troupe “The Mercury Theatre on the Air” were putting the finishing touches on a play to air that night. They had struggled with adapting the book by H.G. Wells, “The War of the Worlds.” Their radio version just wasn’t keeping anyone’s interest. So they spiced it up by including some real names of towns and local institutions. CBS radio executives quickly squashed those plans and demanded that Welles substitute fake names for those of real places. For instance, “Langley Field” became “Langham Field.” Welles was convinced this would doom the production to be received as a laughable mess. He could not have been more wrong. Although reports of mass hysteria were exaggerated, the broadcast managed to convince some listeners that an alien invasion of Earth was in progress and that humans all over the world were in peril!
How could this happen? The Mercury Theatre on the Air was not the most popular radio program on Sunday nights. That distinction went to NBC’s Chase and Sanborn show which featured Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charley McCarthy. So there was speculation that perhaps listeners tuned in late to the War of the Worlds and did not hear the disclaimer at the beginning. Also, it’s important to remember the political events of the time. The U.S. was in a general state of unease and concern over the goings on in Europe in the preceding months and radio was their trusted lifeline to know what Hitler was up to now. When radio presented the public with “information” they believed it. (Fake News was not yet a thing.)
The twenty-three-year-old Welles faced a firestorm of criticism the day after the broadcast when it became clear that some people panicked, especially those in areas near the reported epicenter of the alien landing in New Jersey. Reports of people committing suicide and dying from heart attacks were never substantiated though, and a single lawsuit that was later filed against CBS was dismissed. The lesson learned for broadcasting was that radio was a powerful medium with tremendous responsibility to the public that should not be taken lightly.
On October 29th from 1:30- 2:30 Russell Memorial Library will host a War of the Worlds Listening Party to hear what all the fuss was about! Participants will take a mini alien home to remember the event and to remind themselves to carefully evaluate the information they receive from media sources in our present time.