“The Story of the Century”
Listeners who tuned into the radio Sunday, October 30, 1938, shortly after 8:00 p.m. heard an announcer interrupt the music of Ramon Raquello’s orchestra for a special news bulletin. Several astronomers, the announcer declared, had observed inexplicable and fiery explosions on the surface of the planet Mars. The announcer quickly returned listeners to the orchestra, but promised to cut away again to take listeners to an interview with a noted astronomer as soon as possible. A few moments later, the announcer introduced a reporter and professor Richard Pierson. “Please tell our radio audience exactly what you see as you observe the planet Mars,” the reporter asked. The voice of Orson Welles answered. And with the actor’s reply, the Mercury Theater on the Air’s broadcast of War of the Worlds sprang out of its windup.
Over the next hour, Welles and his troupe dramatized the near destruction of the world as attacking Martians overran humanity. Welles’s account of an event that never took place—the invasion from Mars—would become one of the most renowned single radio broadcasts ever. Listeners who tuned to CBS that Halloween eve heard Martians land spacecraft in New Jersey and around the country. Those listeners heard the Martians annihilate the populace with heat rays and lay waste to the military with poison gas. They heard warning bells toll and radio communications falter as the invaders overcame New York City. And in the end, listeners heard the mighty Martians vanquished by bacteria for which their alien immune systems had no defenses. By that point, however, a sizable minority of listeners had long since stopped listening. They were too busy panicking.
Over one-million listeners, about one-fifth of the program’s audience, believed the broadcast invasion to be both real and terrifying. The program’s enduring fame, of course, comes from the fear it spawned. Listeners fled, clogged phone lines seeking information, prayed, went into shock, and contemplated suicide rather than die at the Martians’ hands. The crowds that flocked New York City’s streets, said one observer, outdid even the chaotic scene that had accompanied the end of World War I. A New York man wished for a gun so that he and his family could take their own lives; lacking a weapon, he instead packed hurriedly and called friends warning them to flee as well. A Tennessee woman spent the evening praying on her kitchen floor, and the host of a California party reported two of his guests suffered heart attacks when they heard of the invasion. In Trenton, New Jersey, the broadcast crippled city communications as two thousand callers phoned the police department in two hours; fortunately there was no real emergency, the city manager said, because with all municipal lines tied up, there would have been no way to dispatch firefighters and the like. How widespread would such hysteria have been had Mercury Theater on the Air drawn more than a tiny share of the radio audience that Sunday night?
Only a scattering of Americans, however, even heard the drama that would become so well remembered as an example of radio during its heyday. Welles’s program was not a popular one. CBS broadcast Mercury Theater on the Air opposite the most widely listened-to program on radio in 1938, the Edgar BergenûCharlie McCarthy Show. No advertiser saw fit to sponsor the Mercury Theater’s radio offerings. In a nation of roughly 130 million people, only approximately 6 million even heard Welles’s broadcast; far fewer, of course, found it scary. We might be tempted, then, to dismiss the program’s resonance as an ironic twist of memory: we often recall the unusual and rare, not the commonplace and typical.
But there is more to the story of the War of the Worlds broadcast than a tale of space invaders and ensuing panic. Welles’s program might not have been widely heard and it might have provoked an unusually dramatic reaction in only a few, but the broadcast and surrounding events reveal Americans integrating the new medium of radio into their lives in the decade of the Great Depression. In the 1930s a new system of mass communications took hold in the United States and helped to spawn a new mass culture. As radio brought an expanding, impersonal public sphere home to Americans, they encountered a world in which even culture and communication might be centralized and standardized. The modern culture that radio represented threatened to overpower individuals, leaving them with little control either in their own lives or in the wider world. As public intellectuals of the day lamented, that culture might be as menacing as Welles’s Martians.
But mass culture did not quite prove entirely all-powerful. Within very constrained space, Americans found some room to interpret radio’s meanings for themselves. As they did so, Americans used those meanings to help them address the very challenges posed by radio and mass culture more generally. The story of Welles’s unusual broadcast resonated with these more typical experiences and understandings of Americans seeking to come to terms with radio and the rising culture it represented. Many found radio could enable them to gain a sense of autonomy in their own lives by helping them understand an encroaching mass world in familiar, personal terms. To some, radio also offered the prospect of speaking meaningfully in that world, through a newly viable hope of communication with a mass audience. As Americans determined what radio meant to them, they used the mass medium itself to gain a measure of control and perhaps a voice within the disempowering mass world that radio helped to create. And this process, in turn, helped to shape that modern world.