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When Orson Welles decided to make a radio play of the H.G. Well’s classic, "War of the Worlds," he had no idea what an impact it would have. The audience reaction wasn’t just a testament to Welles’ talent for gripping drama, it was also a reflection of that moment in history. We take a close look at the way that the evolving news media collaborated with the events in Europe to prime the pump.

Comments [25]

D Freiheit

The notion that the broadcast caused mass panic has been debunked by Jefferson Pooley and Michael Socolow. See their article here
or just to a web search on Socolow and "War of the Worlds".

Nov. 10 2013 10:49 AM
CK Hatter from Eugene, OR

I agree with Mr. Hager's input.

My father was a radio announcer in Des Moines, Iowa in 1938. He did the introductions for the original War of the Worlds broadcast in Des Moines at the time. He was was totally taken back and somewhat impatient with the hysterical reaction from the viewers because he always maintained that in the intro and during the regular breaks during the broadcast, he kept repeating that this was a drama and he always wondered why people didn't process that information. Instead, they deluged the switchboard at the station with panicked phone calls.

But it was not a hoax and he played no part in trying to scare his audience. They did that for themselves through mass hysteria.

Mar. 16 2012 12:19 AM

I absolutely love this one. More over, I only recently discovered Radiolab and since, I have been one by one making my way thru every one of the old podcast. This is really the best of the lost art of radio.

May. 21 2010 08:10 PM
Andrew Mooney from St Paul MN

Ok this is directed to the guys who think this episode of radio lab show was not live. I live in the Twin Cities and work very close to the Fitzgerald theatre. I remember the event being advertised and know some people who attended. Yes there are some interviews within the show was played for the audience like Daniel Myrik the co director of the Blair Witch Project. Robert interviews Daniel and then plays the interview on stage for the audience rather than having Daniel there live. So please it was live, and oh ya the Oswald killed Kennedy too.

Mar. 13 2009 03:12 PM
Kathy Lynn Douglass from Upper Susitna Valley, Alaska

My mother, who was 27 years old in 1938, was one of those who thought it was real. I heard the story many times in my childhood. It often came up after she had been telling the story of listening on the radio to the news from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They were the two most terrifying events of her life.

Mar. 04 2009 06:10 PM
Dee from Omaha, Nebraska

I just listened to your War of the Worlds story and found it interesting that we are so easily sucked in by improbable things. I started to think about my reaction to the 9-11 attacks. I left work and went home to watch. After some time watching the live reports on CNN and MSNBC, I started watching the BBC on the Discovery Channel. It seemed too close watching people who were there where the story was happening. It was almost painful and I wanted to know what was happening but not so close. Anyone else?

Aug. 12 2008 02:11 PM
John Givens from Florence

Ok I am a little young to have heard the broadcast, and I missed the Buffalo broadcast by a year. That said I have been a fan of the 1938 boradcast for about twenty years now. I wrote a apper on it for one of my communication classes in colege. There is by the way a great book on that night if I remember the title called "Invadrs from Mars" that examines the hysteria that followed the boradcast. I was unaware untill I heard the Radiolab documentary that there had been the other bordcasts in the 40's and 60's. There have been a couple of other udatings of that you didn't mention. One a 1988 broadcast sponsored by NPR featuring Jason Robards inthe Orson Wells part. The other was a direct to audio tape featuring well know Sci Fi actors. Neither of these ever had the effect as the original.
Thank you for this bordcast. I have since downloaded it and passed it on to two of my former profeessors from UNA that gave me so much background the Orson Wells bradcast originaly.

May. 08 2008 04:22 PM
Joe Montgomery from Austin, TX

I just heard this broadcast (war of the world) and am not convinced it was a real live broadcast. Fess up

Apr. 23 2008 05:08 PM
Edward from Washington DC

I was very disappointed to hear you revive the old "Nelson Eddy Tune-Out" myth. It has been thoroughly debunked (see Eddy was a huge star in 1938, as popular as Bergen & McCarthy. There is no evidence of a massive defection from NBC to CBS that night. Most Americans learned about the broadcast in the newspapers the next day. Welles was a genius, and the show itself was incredibly effective, isn't that enough? Why add in spurious and apocryphal "facts" that have been disproved?

Apr. 20 2008 04:57 PM
Cindy Henley from St. Louis, MO

Oh, yeah, I forgot what else I was going to say... I think I remember the 1968 version. I would have been 8 at the time. I am guessing that I must have heard it whlie driving around with my older sisters, cruising the streets of Centralia, Illinois and listening to KXOK AM out of St. Louis. I also graduated from High School in 1978 and remember the disco version... which I must add is much more tolerable to my ears than some rap or hip-hop version that might come out now LOL.

The 1968 version felt like a remake of something that I had heard about before. I really don't think that many people bought it. Especially since the broadcasters had such a flamboyant style and sounded like they were making a joke.

Apr. 09 2008 02:04 AM
Cindy Henley from St. Louis, MO

Inspired by many shows on NPR, as well as my attending the 2nd 3rd Coast Audio Conference (which included the pleasure of seeing Robert Krulwich in person), I decided to tape stories of some of my older family members for posterity. My Aunt Opal brought up the War of the Worlds broadcast. She was born in 1923 making her like 15 at the time of the original broadcast. She talked about how terrified she was and how she remembered the panic. She wasn't in the least embarrassed by being fooled by the broadcast. She pretty much thought that the world was being attacked. She talked about my grandfather, a country guy who worked on the railroad and went hunting, etc. all the time. He and my uncles/dad were preparing to defend their families. My dad was probably 17 and would soon be called into to the military for real to defend his country and family in World War II.

In WWII my dad's whole squadron was sent to Europe at one point, but my dad had an infected cyst on his tailbone. He had to stay home for the minor surgery to remove it. There were no survivors. If my dad had not had an infected zit on his butt I probably would never have been born.

The times were scary and it was no joke. Even in the small towns in Southern Illinois, terror was real in a time when the rules of life were being broken so egregiously by the world leaders at the time.

Nice job on telling the story again.

Apr. 09 2008 01:52 AM
Evan Susser from Los Angeles, CA

This show wasn't live. It's a hoax!

Apr. 07 2008 12:09 AM
Speed Reeder

Hey Radiolab, I want to comment on what a terrific show the "War of the Worlds" episode was.
I've been an Orson Wells fan for a long time, and was quite familiar with the War of the Worlds radio show. It was nice to hear a new take on an old subject.

Usually, the WOTW phenomenon is regarded as: a hoax, example of mass-hysteria, people-were-so-stupid-back-then, the power of media to deceive, etc..
However, I have never heard anyone put the story in a broader context, particularly, that radio shows were being interrupted by news about World War 2 (which had essentially just started in Europe.)
I find it telling that many people who panicked thought that the Germans had attacked!

As Kyle K mentioned above, the Aqua Teen Hunger Force panic that happened in Boston is a great example of how a mass panic can happen in our day and age. (Ironically, the ATHF panic also involved an alien invasion!) Despite all of the changes in society, and advanced technology and media, it shows we can still fall victim to mass hysteria and panic. Maybe the people in 1938 weren't as simple or naive as we think, and maybe we're not as smart and advanced as we think we are.

This Radiolab episode examines a well-known and familiar topic and shows us how it can be
relevant to us today. Excellent show!

Apr. 05 2008 09:59 PM
Kyle K from Lincoln,NE

Remember the lite-brite advertisements for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie that appeared overnight in Boston that depicted martian-like creatures flipping you off? Remember the hysteria about that? More or less ridiculous than this original War of the Worlds incident?

Mar. 31 2008 12:31 PM
JFB from State College, PA

Here's the funny thing -- having listened to your show a few times, I was convinced that it was NOT live, that you were faking the live shtick to demonstrate the power of the medium. (How brilliant would that have been!?) It all seemed so contrived -- live from a theater in St. Paul Minn (doesn't live public radio ALWAYS seem to come from Minn -- thanks Garrison, who you even referenced halfway through the show just to make sure we were thinking along the right lines!); swelling of audience applause and laughter that seemed entirely too convenient and engineered. I waiting for the payoff -- and it never came. Yet so convinced was I of your brilliant hoax that I went to the website to find.... a picture of the two of you evidently onstage from the theater in St. Paul, Minn. Yet even now, it still seems to convenient. Doing your first ever live show on the topic of radio's ability to hoodwink us. Maybe I'm the only one you "suckered in" by (evidently) not suckering me in. But this does seem to suggest a shadow side to your story -- why people sometimes DON'T believe what they hear or see, even when they should. Call it ignotology if you like. And if the story of 9/11 and smoking guns that might take the form of mushroom clouds lingers at the back of your story of the war of the worlds, the story of continued doubt and waffling about humanity's impact on global climate might linger at the back of a story on ignotology.

Mar. 29 2008 11:10 AM
Beatrice from East Lansing, MI

I was only able to listen to the end of your show aired on 8/19, so I apologize if this doesn't make sense...

I was very pleased to hear someone on the radio actually having a real discussion regarding the distortion of information in the media. woo hoo!

However, (who?) and what was up with the guy who declared Wells a huge failure if his intention was to (I don't know what he said but basically) wake people up about the garbage they are digesting? My response to that is that Wells was not the failure, people in general are. He made a bold attempt and it is ridiculous to try to burden him with the fault of current newscasters using tone and propaganda similar to what he used to mock them and try to blame him for the failure of humans to evolve beyond being mindless puppets.

And yes, please make a podcast available if you can!

Mar. 20 2008 11:10 PM

How come this show isn't avail. online?

Mar. 20 2008 09:55 PM
Pt from Barcelona, Spain

All of the shows, including 2 future shows, are already posted on Public Radio Exchange ( You can listen on there or download the flash file (flv). In cas you need to put on your mp3 player, just convert it. There are a few good free flv --> mp3 converters out there.

Mar. 19 2008 08:51 PM
LKS from Harlem

Guys seriously don't make me beg. OK OK Please pretty pretty PLEASE podcast podcast podcast this show.

Cheers & thank you!


Mar. 17 2008 03:46 PM
Patricia Fernández de Castro from Ithaca, NY

I'm also waiting for this program to be available to e-mail the link to my father and several other friends. My dad told me the story of Wells' original broadcast when I was a kid. He heard about it as an 8 year old in Orizaba, Veracruz (Mexico). My husband, on the other hand, is an astronomer. Imagine how interested we both were when we picked up your program on our way home! It was excellent. Thank you.

Mar. 14 2008 04:44 PM

I too am hoping the podcast for this show will be made available. It's the first one I've missed since the series started, and there's a gaping void in my life because of it. HELP ME, RADIOLAB! YOU'RE MY ONLY HOPE!

(only 21.33185% kidding)

Mar. 13 2008 10:04 PM
lindsay from portland OR

hey, I love you shows! I can't always catch them on the air so i listen to them while I sort mail at work, online. when is the March 7th episode going to be up loaded so i can listen?

Mar. 11 2008 11:49 AM
Bob McBride from Rochester Hills, MI

I picked up your show on Michigan Public Radio last night. A fascinating show with an entirely new twist to the Welles/Houseman program. This was the first of your broadcasts that I've was great radio in the tradition of Monitor, and that's pretty high praise. The way radio is supposed to be---and most often isn't. Best wishes to all for continued success.

Mar. 03 2008 11:24 PM
Seth Hager

I just listened to your story about the "War of the Worlds" radio hoax. I remember when I first heard about it (back in the 70s) I was stunned that such a thing could happen.

I mentioned it to my mother, who was 15 years old at the time. She just looked at me with this puzzled expression. She had heard the original broadcast back in 1938. Of course she had heard about the panic, it was huge news, even in the mid-west. She said it wasn't a prank. Not only did it have the usual introduction for the Mercury Theater, but it had regular commercial breaks, just like any other radio play.

It wasn't a prank, in wasn't a joke, there was no hoax. Just a truly amazing case of mass hysteria and self-deception.

Feb. 29 2008 10:38 PM
Mauro Rivero from San Ramon, CA

I wanted to let you guys know that I listened to your show last night on KQED in San Francisco and that was one of the best damm shows I have heard in a long time.

I am 48 years old and I grew up in the 60's when our elementary school teachers would read stories to us and that is when I learned to appreciate good story telling skills. You guys where right on the mark in this show. Your host told and excellent story, they where witty, and tied everything in to the audiences need to be scared or more of how easily we are manipulated into being scared.

This is the first time I have ever heard of radio lab but you guys rank right up there with This American Life, Fresh Air, and Latino USA.

Keep up the great work.

Mauro Rivero

Feb. 21 2008 01:34 PM

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