The War Of The Worlds: The Broadcast Scare of 1938

Between my dad, a scary broadcast about invaders from Mars and American Top 40, my desire to get into radio was heightened significantly. My father was the greatest storyteller. For me the first exposure to the story behind the legendary radio broadcast of The War Of The Worlds in 1938 came from his telling my sister and I, in vivid detail, about how people were scared out of their wits believing that a Martian invasion was taking place during the radio dramatization of the H.G. Wells classic. My dad knew it was a radio drama because he was a regular listener (at age 12) of the weekly Mercury Theater On The Air on our local Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS) radio affiliate in Columbus, OH. My dad carried our evening newspaper The Columbus Dispatch and read it, too. He recalled the advertisement about the broadcast, which didn't describe the manner in which the presentation would be performed. But it clearly stated that an adaptation of the Wells classic would be presented for that week's episode. He told us everything he remembered about the event.  

He said there was no panic in Columbus. My dad read that the program's producer Orson Welles thought it would be a great Halloween Eve presentation and at the last minute came up with the idea of doing it as a series of news breaks. Many people were fooled, but luckily they didn't act too quickly and do anything drastic as they heard later announcements during the broadcast that it was a dramatization. What the audience didn't know was that those announcements were forced by CBS executives after calls were made to law enforcement officers by listeners. My father's telling of this story piqued my interest in radio because of its sheer creativity---its theater of the mind. It also showed the power of the medium at the time.

The radio presentation was a whole different story around New York and New Jersey, near where the dramatization was set. Many people were listening to the powerful CBS owned-and-operated station WABC-AM* in New York, where the CBS production was housed and the network was headquartered. People around the country, but especially those in the eastern U.S., called local law enforcement and public safety officials, took shelter in churches and some hid under couches and beds in their homes. There was no television, so radio dramas were listened to in the same manner in which we watch TV presentations today, with the family gathered in one room. My mom and dad told me that they listened regularly to Gunsmoke and Dragnet on radio long before their television adaptations were born. They also enjoyed My Favorite Husband, the radio precursor to television's landmark I Love Lucy that would feature the same star---Lucille Ball.

In 1953 the first movie based on the H.G. Wells novel was released in theaters, and it scared me when I first saw it on TV while in my teens. The film starred Gene Barry and Ann Robinson and was very well done with great special effects and a gripping, imaginative story line. Although the movie stuck to the novel's version it did use some components of the radio broadcast, with shots of people listening to events unfold on their radios. The movie was directed by Byron Haskin, who would later become a director of some of my favorite episodes of the 1963-65 science-fiction ABC television series The Outer Limits. Even Casey Kasem, the host of my favorite radio show American Top 40 from 1970-1988, then again from 1998-2004, had a part in a made-for-television version of the broadcast in 1975 titled The Night That Panicked America. His appearance in this feature film while hosting AT40 was significant to me. 

I got my first chance to hear the original 1938 broadcast when it was presented on WNCI-FM in Columbus, OH, where I now work. The station then was celebrating the broadcast's 30th anniversary in 1968 and aired it as a Halloween special titled The War Of The Worlds---Plus 30. And yep, it scared me to death. I was in grade school at the time. With that listening experience I found that my dad was point-on about everything he told my sister and I regarding the original broadcast. 

The entire broadcast should be easy to find on YouTube. I urge you to look it up and enjoy!

*WABC's call-letters stood for their first owners Atlantic Broadcasting Corporation. Years prior to the 1938 broadcast it was purchased by CBS but they didn't immediately change the call letters to recognize the new CBS ownership. This WABC, now with the call-letters WCBS, is still on the air and has no relationship with the WABC and ABC (American Broadcasting Company) entity that we know today. Neither existed in 1938. So ironically enough, the WABC that aired The War Of The Worlds on October 30, 1938 is the WCBS of today. WCBS is still owned and operated by CBS. ABC and affiliate WABC didn't exist until the 1950s. 

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