The Myth of the War of the Worlds Broadcast: Newspaper Tried to Kill the Radio Star

By Wesley Fenlon

Turns out, Orson Welles' legendary broadcast didn't scare many people at all.

H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds was first published in 1898, more than a century before Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise adapted it into a weird blockbuster featuring a very crazy Tim Robbins. There was another film adaptation, back in the 1950s. But the most famous version of War of the Worlds--probably even more famous than the book itself--is the radio broadcast directed and narrated by Orson Welles in 1938. That broadcast, which took the form of a fake news bulletin, is infamous for scaring listeners who thought it was actual news, and that aliens really were invading the world.

Wells created a mass panic on the eve of Halloween because his broadcast was so convincing. In the United States, this is a legendary, widely known bit of folklore. It's passed down as a wonderful bit of trivia about Wells, or War of the Worlds, or the now-quaint idea of a populace that couldn't turn on the TV or a laptop to make sure the world wasn't really coming to an end. It's a great story. "There’s only one problem," Slate recently wrote. It's not true at all.

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"The supposed panic was so tiny as to be practically immeasurable on the night of the broadcast," Slate continues. "Despite repeated assertions to the contrary in the PBS and NPR programs, almost nobody was fooled by Welles’ broadcast."

This famous bit of history is, apparently, just an urban legend. Hard to believe, right? How did the story grow to be so exaggerated and so commonly believed? The truth, as Slate lays it out, is almost as interesting as the myth we've been propagating for decades. People were afraid, but not of Welles broadcast, or of aliens invading. It was the newspaper business, scared or wary of radio's increased popularity, that used the broadcast as an opportunity to make radio look unreliable.

Slate writes: "Radio had siphoned off advertising revenue from print during the Depression, badly damaging the newspaper industry. So the papers seized the opportunity presented by Welles’ program to discredit radio as a source of news. The newspaper industry sensationalized the panic to prove to advertisers, and regulators, that radio management was irresponsible and not to be trusted. In an editorial titled 'Terror by Radio,' the New York Times reproached 'radio officials' for approving the interweaving of 'blood-curdling fiction' with news flashes 'offered in exactly the manner that real news would have been given.' "

Slate explains that as multiple newspaper articles lashed out at the program and ran headlines like "Fake Radio 'War' Stirs Terror Through U.S.," more and more people claimed to have seen the broadcast. Today, it's common wisdom that millions of people, perhaps most of the population, was stuck to the radio, listening in terror. But that wasn't the case:

"Far fewer people heard the broadcast—and fewer still panicked—than most people believe today. How do we know? The night the program aired, the C.E. Hooper ratings service telephoned 5,000 households for its national ratings survey. 'To what program are you listening?' the service asked respondents. Only 2 percent answered a radio 'play' or 'the Orson Welles program,' or something similar indicating CBS. None said a “news broadcast,” according to a summary published in Broadcasting. In other words, 98 percent of those surveyed were listening to something else, or nothing at all, on Oct. 30, 1938. This miniscule rating is not surprising. Welles’ program was scheduled against one of the most popular national programs at the time—ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, a comedy-variety show."

The rest of the article is a great read. It details how academic studies and television specials furthered the notion that Welles had scared the entirety of America, then breaks down how all of their proof was, more or less, fabricated. Fear of new technology is what actually created the panic. And the myth has stuck around and grown for 75 years because, well, it makes for a pretty good story.