'War of the Worlds' Radio Broadcast Question

I’m not sure where this question goes, but since it has to do with a radio show I thought I would start here.

In 1938, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater Company scared the nation with his adaptation of H.G. Wells ‘War of the Worlds’ radio broadcast. While the scare itself may have been exaggerated in its retelling, apparently quite a few people believed that Martians had landed the US. When I learned about it as a kid I was told the scare was mostly limited to the east coast, but reading about it was apparently more widespread than that, which brings me to my question.

I assume that east coast radio broadcasts in 1938 were delayed much like TV broadcasts are delayed today. This infamous broadcast started at 8 pm on Sunday night east coast time, which would have been 6 pm on the west coast. Did they delay the broadcast 3 hours and run on the west coast at 8 pm local time, or did CBS realizing the ‘problem’ it was causing stop the broadcast from going out?

It’s unlikely there was much panic at all. People were pretty used to radio drama, and it was a regularly scheduled program. Most of the panic was just hype to sell papers and bad reporting.

I believe that’s all true… but were east coast radio broadcasts time delayed on the west coast or was everything done live in 1938? And if it was delayed how did they do it without magnetic recording tape, which I don’t think was available in the US until after WWII. Wax records/cylinders?

We’ve had many threads on the “panic” that didn’t happen.

What’s new about this question is, “Did the West Coast play a tape of 8 pm East coast radio programs, at all?” I don’t know what was done at the time – most people were listening to Edgar Bergan, in those days – did people in California have to tune in at 6 pm? That could interfere with dinner, and if W. C. Fields was guesting on the show, he’d be threatening “little Charlie” with violence, whereas Charlie McCarthy would be making veiled references to Field’s drinking – not really dinnertime audio theater. But was the technology in place for tape delay?

And then of course, the OP’s question, did the West cost just shelve the tape that day. If not, then that’s more evidence for the “didn’t really fool anyone” fact.

Google: “On October 30, 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre On The Air broadcast a radio dramatization of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds on the Columbia Broadcasting System coast-to-coast network.”

It was broadcast to everyone at once. It may have been 8 PM in New York and 5 PM in L.A., but it was heard simultaneously because it was one broadcast coast to coast.

To those who question whether people would actually fall for a false radio broadcast, it’s worth pointing out that:

a.) People certainly did believe a false BBC radio report of rioting in Britain in 1926. It was intended as a humorous skit:

b.) Another War of the Worlds broadcast, played the same way, as new reports, was broadcast in Quito, Ecuador in 1949, and provoked panic


c.) In 1983 a television broadcast resembling news reports about terrorists with anatomic bomb in Charleston, South Carolina entitled Special Bulletin had frequent announcements that this was only a drama, yet still managed to spook a lot of viewers into believing it was for real. No wide-scale panic, though.

There have been a few other similar shows, like 1994’s Without Warning
So, yeah, it’s not at all unbelievable that people could be taken in by this. Science Fiction author William Tenn said in one of his lectures that when HE heard the original Orson Welles broadcast, ity was not preceded by a warning that it was fiction – possibly it was cut off in his market area. As others have noted, many people possibly missed it because they listed to the opening monologue at the Charlie McCarthy show before switching stations. And, as Nicholas Meyer pointed out in his TV drama based on the incident, although they later in the broadcast had an announcement from the Secretary of the Interior (Kenny Delmar), the original script had the address from Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Delmar delivered the lines in an imitation of FDR. I could easily see it working iuts magic on impressionable minds, already preparted for stories of invasion in the politically tense European situation.

It was broadcast live nationwide. Ignorance fought.

I don’t know if plastic tape was available in 1938 (probably not), but they did have the technology for recording on wire. They could also cut phonograph records in the radio studios for transmitting at a later date. Before vinyl was available, I believe these were made of shellac or Bakelite.

In the 1960’s, people wrote to the US Coast Guard asking them to rescue the castaways on Gilligan’s Island, and dropped in to LAPD headquarters at Parker Center to talk to Sgt. Joe Friday. Is it so hard to believe that people in 1938 might get sucked into a well-made dramatic broadcast done with painstaking verisimilitude?

Didn’t the entire Mars-to-Earth invasion take place before the first commercial break? That should have been a tipoff.

All anyone would have had to do to determine it was a drama presentation was to switch channels and see if any other network besides CBS was covering the event.

But they had already put the kid to bed and tuning in another station in Grover Mills was a pain in the neck. You know they had the kid do that.

Believable? Maybe.
Did it really happen? No.

The live broadcast was recorded and survives. It’s all on YouTube.

But I think that the West Coast did indeed receive the live broadcast, simultaneously with the East Coast. While various accounts differ, it does appear that all hell broke loose at Columbia as it was being broadcast. Given that it was only a hour long, at that point any delayed broadcast on the West Coast would surely have been abandoned. As it was, Welles has to do the unscripted impromptu apology at the end of the hour.
And it was broadcast on the West Coast. Cantril’s (much argued about) survey-based follow-up study The Invasion from Mars actually concluded that the relative listening rate was greater in the West. Which may just have been a reflection of greater radio listenership in general there: a sparser population meant fewer competing entertainment options.

I’m 99% sure that it played without commercial breaks. It was all meant to be “quality” stuff and unsullied by such.

No – there was a break partway through the broadcast; I’ve got one of the recordings.

I’ve listened to the broadcast; it was in two parts. Part One was Welles’ “updating” of the original story to bring it from Old Britain to the present-day US. Part Two was more or less faithful to the book and dealt with the main character surviving in the aftermath of the invasion.

heres more on it …… the riots it caused in south America is bit over the top 6 people died …


That’s the Quito broadcast I referred to above.

There was also a 1944 Vaparaiso Chile War of the Worlds broadcast that caused a panic, and was credited with one death:

I also direct your attention to this book, published two years after the broadcast:

I’ve got a copy. The panic, despite what people might think in these latter days, was real. (The book also reprints Howard Koch’s original radio script). Koch himself later wrote a book about the panic. You could argue that he was writing from memory, well after the event. But Cantril wrote his book in the immediate aftermath of the event, and was a University psychologist, not given to hype.

In fact, have a look at this page. The event made headlines. Big ones.

Certainly not everyone was fooled (I love the contemporary editorial cartoon showing a gullible radio listener calling the police to help the people in popular radio shows), but enough of them were to make a difference.

Yes, the event made headlines…because newspapers were in direct competition with radio and making it look as if radio broadcasts presented a danger to the community could only help the advertising budget and newspaper sales.

I read somewhere that the majority of people who “believed” it was real weren’t actually listening to the broadcast - they were hearing about it in passing from people who were listening in their cars or mentioned what they’d just heard in a bar or diner or whatever. That makes it slightly more believable that some people were convinced it could be real, I guess.