On the evening of October 30, 1938 listeners to the CBS radio network tuned into the Mercury Theater on the Air Halloween broadcast of H.G. Wells', The War of the Worlds. Mercury began their hour long broadcast with narrator, Orson Welles telling the audience that what they were about to hear was a retelling of Wells' story, set during the next year, in non-existent West Windsor Township, New Jersey. Timing was critical.
As any programmer will tell you, a radio or television show has their audience until the first commercial break. After that, listeners spin the dial hoping for something better or simply fade away. At that time slot CBS had 20% of the audience that the NBC Red broadcast of The Chase and Sanborn Hour had. Orson Welles who was also the producer of Mercury Theater on the Air knew when Chase and Sanborn's commercials ran which gave which gave him liberty to take full advantage of Chase's commercial breaks.
The Mercury Hour was commercial free. The War's broadcast began with what sounded like a typical daily broadcast. First the weather, then the band was introduced, slowly the action built until it was time for Chase and Sanborns first commercial, as C&S listeners spun the dial, newcomers were greeted with "We interrupt this program..... " One bulletin followed another. Sadly, Grover's Mill New Jersey was obliterated by Martians during the broadcast.
The broadcast is memorable today for the stories surrounding the "Panic" caused around the nation. The stories of Panic were likely overblown. I suspect that in 1938 the only Americans to be fooled by such a tale would have been in New York and nearby large cities and college towns. I find it unlikely, farmers, ranchers, small town folk in those sorts of places where UFO's regularly show up would fall for such a tale. Welles couldn't fool all the people, could he?
Tonight on PBS, American Experience features the story of The War of World broadcast in honor of its 75th anniversary on Wednesday.
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