75 years ago this week, a radio drama scared the daylights out of people.
No discussion of the history of broadcasting is complete without mentioning CBS's "Mercury Theater" Halloween broadcast of 1938; a dramatization of H.G. Wells "The War of the Worlds", updated for the then-modern radio audience, depicting an invasion of Earth by Mars. The star of the drama was Orson Welles, who just three years later would become a Hollywood legend with the movie "Citizen Kane", still regarded as one of the greatest movies of all time.
The first half hour is the part that panicked America: it wasn't just a drama about a Martian invasion, but it was presented as a "live" news broadcast, something that was still very new at the time. And while the program wasn't without its disclaimers ("This is only a drama"), not everyone heard them. In particular, people who switched to CBS from other radio programs probably didn't hear them. Some radio station announcers took it upon themselves to interrupt the broadcast to inform listeners it wasn't real; one, in Cleveland, was a staff announcer named Jack Paar who would go on to host The Tonight Show.
The question inevitably comes up: could it happen again? Not only is the answer yes, but it has happened time and time again. In 1983, NBC-TV broadcast a TV movie, Special Bulletin, about an explosion which rocked Charleston, North Carolina. Again, it was presented as a live TV report, something that was much more common by then, and it was videotaped, rather than filmed, adding to the authenticity of the production. Again, NBC aired numerous announcements prior to the broadcast, telling viewers it wasn't real. I remember on the regularly scheduled NBC News Update which aired before the movie, newsman Edwin Newman reminded viewers it was only a movie. Still, the network received numerous phone calls and communications from confused viewers.
Now, we get rumors on social media we accept as true. We have become so suspicious of those in positions of authority that we automatically reject what they say, while beliving in "theories" from people who have no more (and possibly less) credibility than those we reject. In short, we believe what we want to believe.
Even considering the times then were different than they are now, that isn't much of a change from believing a radio drama.