The War of the Worlds 1938 Complete Broadcast

It's October and we're closing in on Halloween.  In the spirit of Halloween, we're presenting the original broadcast of The War of the Worlds as it aired on October 30, 1938.

No one panic, the following is merely a dramatization of the H. G. Wells novel.

Radio Drama from The Mercury Theatre on the Air. 

The War of the Worlds is an episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. It was performed as a Halloween episode of the series on October 30, 1938, and aired over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network. Directed and narrated by actor and future filmmaker Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells’s novel The War of the Worlds (1898).

The first two thirds of the 60-minute broadcast were presented as a series of simulated news bulletins, which suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress. Compounding the issue was the fact that the Mercury Theatre on the Air was a sustaining show (it ran without commercial breaks), adding to the program’s realism. Although there were sensationalist accounts in the press about a supposed panic in response to the broadcast, the precise extent of listener response has been debated.

In the days following the adaptation, however, there was widespread outrage and panic by certain listeners, who had believed the events described in the program were real.  The program’s news-bulletin format was described as cruelly deceptive by some newspapers and public figures, leading to an outcry against the perpetrators of the broadcast. Despite these complaints--or perhaps in part because of them--the episode secured Welles’ fame as a dramatist.



H. G. Wells’s original novel relates the story of an alien invasion of Earth. The radio play’s story was adapted by and written primarily by Howard Koch and Anne Froelick with input from Welles and the rest of the Mercury Theatre on the Air staff. The setting was switched from 19th-century England to contemporary Grover’s Mill, an unincorporated village in West Windsor Township, New Jersey in the United States of America. The program’s format was a (simulated) live newscast of developing events. To this end, Welles played recordings of Herbert Morrison’s radio reports of the Hindenburg disaster for actor Frank Readick and the rest of the cast, to demonstrate the mood he wanted.

The broadcast employed techniques similar to those of The March of Time, the CBS news documentary and dramatization radio series. Welles was a member of the program’s regular cast, having first performed on The March of Time in March 1935.  The Mercury Theatre on the Air and The March of Time shared many cast members, as well as sound effects chief Ora D. Nichols.

The first two thirds of the 60 minute play was a contemporary retelling of events of the novel, presented as news bulletins interrupting another program. This approach was similar to Ronald Knox’s satirical newscast of a riot overtaking London broadcast by the BBC in 1926, which may have influenced Welles. Welles had been influenced by the Archibald MacLeish dramas The Fall of the City and Air Raid, the former of which had used Welles himself in the role of a live radio news reporter. 

Though realistic, the play does use timeskips, at one point going from the start of a battle to its final casualty count within a minute.