19. Orson Welles and the War of the Worlds broadcast induced widespread panic in 1938
According to a popular story, when Orson Welles broadcast an episode of The Mercury Theatre of the Air based on H.G. Wells popular science fiction story The War of the Worlds, the live presentation caused a nationwide panic, as listeners were unable to ascertain that the broadcast was entertainment and not a live news broadcast. No doubt some listeners were fooled, and since commercial breaks were infrequent (that the story was fiction was aired during the first break, about thirty minutes into the broadcast) the tale presented as evolving news of a Martian invasion was frightening. The broadcast creating a widespread panic is a myth, however. For one thing, there just weren’t that many people tuned in. Four different times during the broadcast listeners were reminded that the show was a play.
The newspapers of the time exaggerated the level of the panic, far beyond the phone calls into CBS stations of listeners demanding more information. Radio was an emerging competitor for newspaper advertising markets, and the papers stressed first the irresponsibility of the airwaves inducing panic among the people for commercial gain. According to polls taken at the time, only about 2% of the radio audience listened to the CBS broadcast, and in many markets, CBS affiliates substituted local programming that Halloween night. The War of the Worlds broadcast did happen, and it did frighten some listeners, but the extent of the panic it created was wildly exaggerated, to the point it became another American myth, one which Orson Welles exploited for years.