Journalism's Role in "The Panic Broadcast" of 1938

Monday, November 4, 2013
Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air show scared the bejeezus out of many Americans 75 years ago last week

There aren't many people around today that have a first-hand account of the Halloween Eve radio offering that was dubbed "the panic broadcast" when it first aired in late October 1938.  Orson Wells, the multi-talented actor, director, playwright and prodigy, transformed H.G. Wells' late 19th century novel The War of the Worlds into a live-action radio drama that transfixed portions of his audience in their chairs with a ring-side seat to the destruction of the human race by Martian invaders.

Newspapers across the country documented the hysteria caused by Welles' "panic broadcast" the night before

Presented on a Sunday evening, the Columbia Broadcasting System's ratings-anemic competition to NBC's The Chase and Sanborn Hour that featured ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden partner Charlie McCarthy used a radio journalism technique to create a enhanced sense of realism that tricked many of their listeners who were having difficulty believing what their ears were hearing.  Identifying the show's subject in its earliest minutes, it would not provide another station identification or break from its realistic sounding dramatization for another 40+ minutes, confusing those who tuned in late or "channel twisted" to the program when the Bergan/McCarthy portion ended on the other channel.

The radio provided the most intimate connection with regional, national and global events available to people in the 1930s

As that era's most intimate--and most immediate--medium for informing the public about breaking news and current events (movie newsreels would add the visuals to those activities weeks or sometimes months later), the radio became a trusted partner in the daily lives of those living during the 1930s.  Announcements of dreadful events (the most notable being the description of the fiery crash of the German passenger airship Hindenburg at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey by Herbert Morrison in May of 1937) and pending military conflict (Hitler's Third Reich's expanding movements within Europe, to include the appeasement initiative at the Munich Conference the  month before the broadcast) were constantly discussed via that outlet in the waning years of that decade.

Orson Welles appeared at a hastily arranged news conference to apologize for his the panic his play caused the night before

The use of that "news bulletin" technique was not new (it had been done in both Great Britain and Australia a decade earlier and by Welles himself as a member of the ensemble cast for The March of Time documentary and dramatization series airing on the CBS network since 1931) but the director's desire for authenticity (and the early transition from the spoken narration to the fast-paced, hyped-up staged segment) helped enhance its overall deception over the audience.  Other-worldly sound effects, time compression and dramatic pauses helped to heighten the listeners' anxiety which, unfortunately, led to some calamitous consequences.  Fearing an invading extraterrestrial army, many of the hoodwinked fled their homes and a few tried to end their lives before having them taken from them (there were no confirmed deaths attributed to the panic) before finding out about the fictional nature of the broadcast.  To help alleviate the potential legal ramifications to the network, a hastily arranged news conference was held the following day to allow the director to apologize (somewhat insincerely) for the alarm his program had caused the previous evening. 

As a pre-teenager in the early 1970s, I thought that the special effects-enhanced movie version of the H.G. Wells' novel was far more scarier than the radio broadcast's depiction of the end of the world.

The first time that I remember listening to the audio of this historic broadcast (although it is claimed that the original was not recorded live due to a technical difficulty and had to be recreated in the studio, making the one we have access to today a fake) was on a cheap 8-track tape that I bought from a local unclaimed freight outlet in the early 1970s.  Having a different media paradigm than that of a radio listener 35 years prior, I was not frightened by what I heard (I had already seen the 1953 movie version of the Wells' novel that did give me a few sleepless nights after viewing it on the local "dialing for dollars" matinee telecast).  With my current benefits of both age and wisdom, I can  detect most of the techniques employed by the auditory dominant radio version (the vivid descriptions of events, the magic of the Foley artists mimicking reality and creating the fictional sounds of invading Martians, the escalated pacing) and can empathize with listeners contending with what was then cutting-edge technologies and theatrical techniques.  I have only watched a few scenes of the 2005 Tom Cruise remake and the improvements in special effects (thanks to computer graphics) over that 52-year period made the earlier version look extremely lame in comparison--much like my own reaction to that tape over 40 years ago.

Opening credits for CBS's Studio One's enactment of the 1938 Halloween broadcast.

In preparation for this post, I watched a few television programs that specifically focused on the 1938 broadcast.  PBS ran an episode of The American Experience last week entitled "War of the Worlds" to commemorate its dodranscentennial and did a rather good job of providing a well-rounded overview (although their "interviews" of people who supposedly wrote in after the broadcast pushed the limits of hokiness).  The last two shows were not technically broadcast (both were found on YouTube) but they provided a unique perspective from the times when they were originally shown to the public.  "The Night America Trembled", a recreation of the broadcast by CBS's Studio One anthology series back in September 1957, was hosted by venerated journalist Edward R. Murrow and mixed a very liberal interpretation of what actually transpired in the studio that evening (no mention of Welles' name was provided and the "director" of the show played two different roles--Professor Pierson and the unfortunate on-scene reporter Carl Phillips) as well as campy vignettes that represented some of the reactions by the listeners in response to the broadcast (hysterical teenaged girl babysitter, eloping couple changing their minds when they heard the events play out on the car radio during a make-out session).  I'm guessing that there might have been some copyright issues still in place just 19 years after the original event to explain such an obvious oversight of the night's star.  Several big name actors (James Coburn, Warren Beatty, Vincent Gardenia, Ed Asner, and an uncredited John Astin as a newspaper reporter) were cast into those forgettable roles.

Opening credit for ABC's made-for-TV movie about the Welles' broadcast.

The second video, The Night That Panicked America, was a VHS tape dub of a 1975 made-for-television movie made by the ABC network that was billed as being "based on fact" but  had "certain names, characters, and incidents...changed in the interest of dramatization".  Paul Shenar, in one of his first major movie roles, played Welles but all of the other actual Mercury Theater actors were given other names or just listed as "player".  Shenar's supporting cast included Vic Morrow, Tom Bosley, Eileen Brennan, Meredith Baxter-Birney, Will Geer, John Ritter and Casey Kasem as one of those unnamed studio actors (although that was not much of a stretch for the nationally recognized Top 40 disk jockey and voice of Scooby Doo and his owner, Shaggy Rogers).  This movie, like the CBS offering, also did vignettes but one scene (where Morrow is about to kill one of his children rather than have them killed by the invading Martians) was a little too rough for my tastes (not sure what the statute of limitation is on movie spoilers but the child lives because the approaching "machine" turned out to be a police car).  I did run across one odd bit of trivia that I could not find in my online research. Art Hannes, who is more well known as a variety and game show announcer, has roles in both of these "panic broadcast"-related shows.  In the 1957 one, he was the announcer for the Westinghouse-sponsored show where he introduced the spots for pitchpeople John Cameron Swayze and Betty Furness.  In the ABC movie, he has an on-camera role as one of the Mercury Theater members.

Just a small sampling of the hundreds of media outlets available to 21st century information consumers (graphic courtesy of

A question that has been asked with this most recent observance involving the possibility of another similar "panic" happening in our current media environment.  In 1938, a radio listener made their choice between two national networks and a few regional groupings, depending upon where they lived in the country.  In today's never-ending news cycle, there are hundreds of places a person can acquire up-to-the-minute updates on breaking stories (and that number extends into the thousands with  international ties).  Consumers are no longer tied to their radios and televisions at set times of the day to be "spoon fed" information that others believe to be of importance to them so deliberate information "choke points" are averted.  Much like today's prime-time television offerings, news is segmented by individual preferences and points of view which would preclude unitary consumption patterns.

The shooting of suspected JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the Challenger space shuttle explosion and a hijacked plane crashing into the south tower of the World Trade Center were events telecast live and uncensored into American homes.

Because of this overabundance of information outlets, we are sometimes fortunate enough to see news as it is happening instead of relying upon recaps that may provide a particular "spin" on the event.  Since television's supplantation of radio as our primary media source back in the 1950s, it has captured at least three major historical events with raw and uncensored perspectives.  The shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man suspected of killing President Kennedy, in front of television cameras and news reporters furthered the shock America was already in by the murder of their elected leader.  Although not carried live on network television channels, CNN's coverage of the space shuttle Challenger explosion in January 1986 harkened to the same levels of immediacy and intimacy experienced by radio listeners nearly four decades earlier (albeit the visuals to the sounds were now available).  In September 2001, all three US broadcast networks and two of the three cable news outlets showed the hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 slam into the south tower of the World Trade Center between the 75th and 85th floors at 9:03AM on live television (at that time, they were all focusing their on-air resources on the earlier crash of American Airlines Flight 11 into the north tower 17 minutes earlier).  While a fringe element exists that is skeptical of anything and everything that is observed, it would be extremely hard with today's level of technological complexity and the sheer volume of competing media platforms to successfully carry out the type of hoax that Welles and his players did on that long ago October evening

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