In 1938, Orson Welles broadcast War of the Worlds on radio.
He broadcast it as live newsflashes across America, and everyone believed it was true.
Millions panicked and ran into the streets screaming, thousands got into their cars and headed for the hills, dozens suffered heart attacks from fear, some even jumped off buildings in sheer terror.
It was the event that made Orson Welles’ reputation as a creative enfant terrible.
Before, he’d only been known in New York, after he was known all across America.
Newspaper headlines like:
“RADIO LISTENERS IN PANIC TAKE WAR DRAMA AS FACT” (New York Times).
“U.S. TERRORISED BY RADIO MEN FROM MARS” (San Francisco Chronicle).
“RADIO FAKE SCARES NATION” (Chicago Herald).
The story is so well known it’s become legend.
Well it may be legend, but it isn’t true.
In actual fact, very few people heard that radio broadcast.
Those that did didn’t treat it seriously.
It was broadcast on CBS radio and Frank Stanton, the President of CBS, said, “Most people didn’t hear the show, and those who did took it as a prank and accepted it that way.”
The C.E.Hooper Company phoned 5,000 households, for its national ratings survey, during the broadcast and found that less than 2% were listening.
A letter from a confused reader to the Washington Post said, “During the broadcast I walked along F Street, in many stores radios were playing but I observed nothing of the supposed “terror of the populace” because there was none.”
Ben Gross, Radio Editor of the Daily News said, “There was no hysteria, in fact the streets were nearly deserted.”
So how did the myth that a radio programme created mass panic come about?
The truth is, it was the newspapers who created it.
Radio was a relatively new medium in 1938 and, in America, radio was commercial.
For several years radio had been siphoning advertising away from print media.
The newspapers were looking for any way to discredit radio.
That’s why they took advantage of Orson Welles’ broadcast which used fake news.
The New York Times wrote, “Radio is new but it has adult responsibilities, and it has not yet mastered itself nor the material it uses: interweaving blood-curdling fiction with news flashes offered in exactly the same way that real news would have been given.”
Editor & Publisher wrote, “The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which has yet to prove it is competent to perform the job.”
So, newspapers attempted to make radio unattractive to advertisers by discrediting it.
But they did the opposite.
Those wild stories acted like a massive advertising campaign for radio.
Advertisers began to believe in the power of radio, they’d never known newspapers to provoke such a response.
Immediately after the stories ran, The Campbell Soup Company struck a deal with Orson Welles to sponsor his Mercury Theatre of the Air, and they changed the name to ‘The Campbell Playhouse’.
The press notoriety helped Orson Welles walk into a job as a director in Hollywood.
He had such a reputation he was given carte blanche to write a script, cast, light, edit, direct, and act in his first film, however he saw fit.
Something unheard of, but he was allowed due to the reputation the papers gave him.
That film was Citizen Kane, usually voted the best film of all time by cinema experts.
And none of it might have happened if the newspapers hadn’t tried to kill off radio.