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The Myth and the Marketing Lesson Behind The Infamous War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast
Eighty years ago today, arguably the most famous radio broadcast in history took place. On Oct. 30, 1938, 23-year-old filmmaker Orson Welles aired his reimaging of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel “The War of the Worlds.” Through the medium of radio, Welles came up with an updated way to tell the other Wells’ story. With the War of the Worlds radio broadcast, he reported the details of Martian invasion underway through breaking news bulletins interrupting the “regularly” scheduled music program.
The lore behind the public reaction to the broadcast is well-known today. Most listeners tuned in to “The Mercury Theatre on the Air” late after the popular show starring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy ended. They missed Welles’ dramatic introduction to the radio play and just heard the breaking news updates.
Thousands thought the broadcast was real and believed an alien invasion was underway. Mass hysteria ensued as people took to the streets, abandoned their families, suffered heart attacks and welcomed our new alien overlords.
That’s not what really happened.
The Real Story Behind The War of the Worlds Radio Broadcast
The idea that people thought the show was real was more marketing than reality. Only 2 percent of radio listeners surveyed that night were tuned into Orson Welles’ show. No listeners surveyed confused it for a news broadcast. The station announced that the show was a fictional take on Wells’ story four different times.
If you want to hear what all the hype was about, you can listen to the entire broadcast.
Some people who randomly stumbled on the program may have thought it was real — at least at first. But it certainly wasn’t a national emergency. In fact, reports of mass panic in the streets had more to do with warring media outlets than Martian invaders.
In the week following the broadcast, 12,000 newspaper articles were published sensationalizing the public’s reaction to the show. The front pages noted every account of panic and fear, creating the impression that the public was terrorized on a national scale.
Why the over-the-top reaction? Radio was an exciting new medium that was slowly eating into newspaper ad revenue. Newspapers used the broadcast as a chance to take a pot shot at radio and its irresponsible programming. The New York Times even penned an editorial titled “Terror by Radio.”
The Medium Matters
In truth, Welles’ innovative radio broadcast was a creative and compelling way to use the new medium and one that cemented his reputation as a genius storyteller and marketer.