“War of The Worlds” is a phenomenon of a bygone era, and of a medium a hundred years old, yet its lessons resonate to this day. It’s the original “deepfake of 1938.” A radio drama about an alien invasion but presented as “breaking news,” scared the daylights out the nation. On the evening of October 30, 1938, radio listeners across the U.S. heard a startling report of mysterious creatures and terrifying war machines moving toward New York City. But the hair-raising broadcast was not a real news bulletin—it was Orson Welles’ adaptation of the H. G. Wells classic. This episode goes behind the scenes of the making of Welles’ famed radio play and its impact. Welles’s broadcast became a major scandal, prompting a different kind of mass panic as Americans debated the bewitching power of the radio and the country’s vulnerability in a time of crisis. When the debate was over, American broadcasting had changed for good, but not for the better.
Written by Joe Garner and Brian Williams
A.Brad Schwartz, broadcast historian and author of BROADCAST HYSTERIA: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News (Hill & Wang, May 2015)