Orson Welles's War of the Worlds Broadcast Might Not Have Caused Mass Panic

By Acme News Photos, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Acme News Photos, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons / By Acme News Photos, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

It was 80 years ago today that War of the Worlds—an Orson Welles-directed episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air—made history for inciting mass hysteria with its mock news bulletins detailing a Martian invasion. Or at least that has long been the story. But some say that the broadcast's effect on the public has been largely exaggerated—and that few people even heard it at all. So why does it have such an infamous legacy? 

According to Slate, the newspaper industry was competing with radio for advertising dollars, and they wanted to make their rival medium look bad. So reporters exaggerated listeners’ reactions, trying to make it seem as though radio news wasn't a legitimate source of information.

“The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove ... that it is competent to perform the news job,” wrote the industry trade journal Editor and Publisher. Sooner or later, more and more people started reporting that they’d heard the broadcast. The tale eventually swelled into a legend, which still persists today.

National ratings, however, tell a different story. Only two percent of people who were surveyed via telephone said they were listening to anything resembling War of the Worlds; most of them were tuned in to popular ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s variety show at the time.

While some sources, like PBS, say people dial-surfed and stumbled onto War of the Worlds during a musical break, there’s no hard evidence to support this claim. And thanks to local commercial programming, War of the Worlds didn’t air in many places at all.

Learn more about the radio show’s dramatized history over at Slate, or listen to the original broadcast in the video below.

[h/t Slate]