When Orson Welles
began adapting various famous works for CBS Radio in 1938, he decided to adapt The War of the Worlds
to a contemporary American setting, and, rather than a regular radio play, aired what seemed like a regular night of music, until reports of strange phenomena on the surface of Mars and what seem to be meteorites landing in locations across America...
By the time large alien tripods emerged from the cylindrical meteorite and began destroying the American countryside, many listeners believed that the events taking place were really happening, and panic ensued. Welles himself ended the program by saying that the program was little more than "dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush, and saying 'Boo!'" and suggesting that the audience shouldn't be taken in by make-believe stories on the radio.
The show made Welles and the show broadcasting it (The Mercury Theatre on the Air
) famous internationally overnight. For instance, the Campbell Soup Company jumped at the chance of becoming the sponsorless show's underwriter to become The Campbell Playhouse
. Whether or not he used the format to intentionally troll radio listeners
is still up for debate. The broadcast was actually recreated in 1949 in Quito, Ecuador
by director Leonardo Páez, definitely
as an intentional prank, although not on the diabolical level that's been attributed to him. A huge riot erupted when listeners were finally told it was a gag. An angry mob with Torches and Pitchforks
set fire to the station, with 100 workers trapped inside. Seven people died.
The incident was dramatized in the 1975 TV movie, The Night That Panicked America
co-starring John Ritter
and touched upon in feature films like Radio Days
by Woody Allen
. It was analyzed in a hysterically funny episode of NPR's Radio Lab
in 2008, talking about the power of mass media and humanity's need for storytelling.
The radio version contains examples of:
- After the End: The last ten minutes or so of the story involves Professor Pierson writing a journal of the lifeless, half-destroyed cities that are left.
- And Now For Something Completely Different: About forty minutes in, the narrative changes completely to the aforementioned professor writing in his journal, and then briefly follows the professor and a stranger discussing Martian theories before returnign to the journal again.
- Commercial Break Cliffhanger: Averted. As The Mercury Theatre of the Air didn't have a sponsor, there didn't need to be a break in the program for advertisements; this helped keep up the Kayfabe of the broadcast. The only break acts as a transition between the faux-radio program and Pierson's After the End narration.
- Emergency Presidential Address: Averted by Executive Meddling. It was originally intended for the unnamed Secretary of the Interior to be President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but CBS objected to this detail. That didn't stop Welles from having the actor imitate Roosevelt's voice.
- Deadline News: Eventually, the report gets cut off completely with one, lone reporter repeatedly asking if anyone is out there.
- Found Footage: A Ur Example and perhaps the only radio version of this trope.
- Killed Mid-Sentence: The at-the-scene radio reporter, Carl Phillips. Or, at least, the on-site radio equipment is destroyed while he's in mid sentence. His charred remains are later identified.
- Mockumentary: If you consider a fake news broadcast to be a Mockumentary, then this program is the Trope Maker. (If you don't, then the Trope Maker is probably This Is Spinal Tap).
- New Media Are Evil: Some suggest that most people weren't taken in by the faux-news format (or at least did little more than ring police to ask what was happening) and that newspapers embellished the facts to make radio look bad.
- Switching P.O.V.: The first part is comprised of various reports and interviews from different people. The last part follows a lone professor.
- This Is a Work of Fiction: If you missed the start of the show (most did), the only sign that the show was fictional was a message 40 minutes in.
- This Just In: The studio begins to overflow with reports of the Martian walkers arriving and destroying power lines and transport routes.
- We Interrupt This Program: The first ten minutes of the show involves "Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra" playing Thirties dance music, with the plot occasionally interrupting to provide breaking news.