It was on this day in history, 79 years ago, that Orson Welles sent America into panic. On October 30, 1938, he broadcast the radio program, “War of the Worlds.” It was an episode of the American radio drama anthology series “The Mercury Theater on the Air.”
The show was broadcast as a Halloween episode of the series and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. Directed and narrated by Welles, the episode was an adaptation of Welles’ novel “The War of the Worlds,” written in 1898. It became famous for allegedly causing mass panic, although the reality of this mass panic is disputed since the program had relatively few listeners.
The first two-thirds of the one-hour broadcast was presented as a series of simulated bulletins, which suggested an actual alien invasion by Martians. The bulletins said the invasion was currently in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that Mercury Theater on the Air was a sustaining show without commercial interruptions, adding to the program’s realism. Much of the radio audience was listening to Edgar Bergen and only tuned in to “The War of the Worlds” during a musical interlude, thereby missing the introduction that proved the show was a drama.
In the days following the adaptation, there was widespread outrage in the media. The program’s news-bulletin format was described as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers (which were losing advertising revenue to radio) and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast and calls for regulations by the Federal Communications Commission. Despite these complaints – or perhaps in part because of them – this episode secured Welles’ fame as a dramatist.
We haven’t changed much in the past 81 years. We are still prone to believe a lie – if it is well-told. That’s why the Bible says to measure the things we hear, to be sure they are the truth. But in order to know the truth, you need to know the Truth – the Truth that can set you free.