How did Orson Welles’ broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ impact audiences of the time?

The USA in the 1930s is renowned for being a bleak, dispiriting era. With the combination of the Wall Street crash in 1929, closely followed by the Great Depression and increasing lack of work whilst still under the strict laws of prohibition until 1933, it is understandable why a cloud of dullness hung over the country for the decade. However, with the relatively recent mass boom of the radio, the general public were opened up to a world of unprecedented knowledge and suddenly had up to date information of current event at their fingertips for the first time. Without access to television or the Internet, by 1938, two thirds of every American household owned a radio.

Due to the demand for entertainment, through the means of radio broadcasting, it meant that presenters and producers were constantly trying to meet the gap in the market for fresh, new, exciting subject matter to engage audiences in the otherwise dismal reality of the country at the time. The top radio broadcast in 1938 was the NBC’s ‘Chase and Sanborn Hour’, which was aired every Sunday night at 8pm. Dramatist Orson Welles had the unfortunate slot presenting ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’ on another station at exactly the same time. This meant that it was a larger task to try to draw viewers away from NBC and get them to listen to his broadcast. Without TV advertising or social networking, radio shows would have to be continuously engaging and charismatic to capture the audience at any given time they might tune in. For the Halloween show airing Sunday October 30, 1938, Welles decided to break the conventions of rudimentary Radio adaptations and completely re-write H.G Wells’ ‘War of the Worlds’ as a radio play, brought forward to the then present day to help personalise the story for the listeners. This was a crucial factor for the success of the broadcast as many failing previous radio plays followed too many conventions, thus making it disinteresting. The public’s fascination with unique techniques, and feeling of inclusion was becoming increasingly important for success as audiences didn’t want to be passive anymore as we enjoy the activeness of sharing and enjoying our media socially, as usually listening to the radio would be a group activity.

Welles’ broadcast began with the introduction into the adaptation, explaining the fictional nature of the play. It then proceeded to tell the stories of dangerous creatures arriving on earth, seeking war, amongst various, convincing news stories and interviews with professionals. Although Welles was clear at the beginning that the events were all purely fictional, widespread panic ensued across America, many running out of their homes screaming or even packing essentials and fleeing. The extreme reaction prompted many questions as to why the listeners of the broadcast thought the event were true. The most commonly accepted explanation is that the public often flicked through the radio stations when a section they disliked played on broadcasts like ‘Chase and Sanborn hour’, therefore most would have missed the disclaimers at the beginning of the airing, and only tuned in to hear the realistic news bulletins, presented in the expected conventional way if it were to actually be fact. Considering the importance of the Great Depression and the approaching fear of another world war, many believe that citizens were already living in fear, which caused an irrational reaction. In the present day, the public would turn to social media to discuss the authenticity of broadcasts of a similar nature and discussion and debate would inform people that it wasn’t true and divert hysteria. At the time, people would have only have been able to talk to the other people listening to the same broadcast they were so wouldn’t have access to the full story like listeners would today. Although Welles insisted he did not intend to cause panic among listeners, choosing specifically ‘War of the Worlds’ is too coincidental to not want to cause a little controversy, though maybe not on the scale that he achieved. The controversy did however, publicise his radio show widely and proved that breaking conventions in unexpected ways can make a massive impact on people, thus making him a success in the media industry.

The Aftermath of the broadcast led to the debate of the underlying question; why do we believe everything we hear on the radio, no matter how bizarre and improbable they may seem? The unexpected hoax impacted audiences of the time massively because it didn’t occur to anyone that the radio platform, which was renowned for its factual reliability, as apart from newspapers, it was one of the only means of a news source. The broadcast made the public question what they heard in the media, rather than relying on the radio to always be 100% fact.

Sources used for research:


3 thoughts on “How did Orson Welles’ broadcast of ‘The War of the Worlds’ impact audiences of the time?

  1. This is a well written and fascinating piece of research, Ellen. You write well and you’ve used your sources successfully–well done for remembering to cite your evidence in a footnote as that makes it very helpful for furhter research. I really like the way you’ve raised the questions at the end for further consideration.

    What I’d like you to think about, however, is the modern-day impact made by War of the Worlds. What films or stories do we see now which echo the themes and ideas of WotW? What examples are there? I will start you off: the post-apocalyptic ideas around films such as I am Legend, where one man has to live in a world after a disaster. Can you think of two more examples and write them below?

  2. I like your choice of topic since there wasn’t nearly as much media as we have in this century, so I think the research you’ve done is good considering there wasn’t much media to explore. Like Ella’s, I like the fact you’ve chosen an event which isn’t as popular as others defined at “significant”.

  3. I really like this I think you have thought about a lot of the effects it has given in the general populous but what about the actual things in the media such as the adaptations on stage tv and film also like jasmine I like the use of an event that has been looked over in recent years

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