This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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WAR OF THE WORLDS -
Great Impact on Radio Listeners or Response Greatly Exaggerated?
(From Radio Recall, December 2007)
COMMENT: For years the alleged reaction of the public to “War of the Worlds” has been greatly exaggerated and blown out of proportion. Actually, only a small percentage of the listening public who heard the show were under the erroneous impression that a disaster was occurring, The "reaction" in 1938 has been repeatedly inflated for all these years, so the November 2007 "Cold Case" TV show (which made Orson’s hoax a part of their plot) only served to reiterate that very mistaken, but more interesting, impression.
--Thomas Heathwood, HeritageRadio@msn.com
(This comment was received after we published The Halloween Broadcast that Spooked America in our October issue.)
EDITOR’S REBUTTAL: Well, “facts can be pesky things,” so let’s review some authentic 1938 news reports from the day after the broadcast:
NY Daily News headline: FAKE RADIO 'WAR' STIRS TERROR THOUGH U.S.
NY TIMES headline: RADIO LISTENERS IN PANIC: Many Flee Homes to Escape 'Gas Raid From Mars'
Here's how the Washington Post summarized the event in their 10-31-38 issue: "CBS radio listeners last night gave way to apprehension, then stark terror. So unnerved were Americans at this 'Martian invasion' that two persons suffered heart attacks, hundreds fainted, men and women fled their homes, and would-be fighters volunteered. Local station WJSV received 470 phone calls in one hour. The Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Company said an additional 9,000 calls to the station were unable to be relayed."
The Associated Press reported the following incidents around the country: Pittsburgh: A man returned home in time to save his wife from taking poison in an attempted suicide. San Francisco: Volunteers swamped local fire and police stations to join the fight. Indianapolis: A church evacuated when a woman ran in screaming "New York's destroyed; it's the end of the world." Brevard, NC: College students fainted while phoning their parents to come rescue them. Rhode Island: Local light companies received hundred of calls demanding they cut all the power so the Martians could not find them in the dark.
More AP reports from the day after: Kansas City: A man put his family in his car, filled the tank, and asked police for the safest escape route. Richmond: Hundreds crowded churches to pray. Atlanta: Police and news stations were flooded with calls from terrified citizens. Reno: A woman from NYC, who was in Reno to get a divorce, fainted upon hearing the news. Another man in Reno immediately set off for New York to rescue the woman he had come to Reno to divorce. Boston: Several residents climbed to their rooftops and reported seeing the red glow from New York burning.
Matinee idol John Barrymore dashed from his Hollywood mansion and unlocked the cages that held his expensive dogs so they could outrun the invading Martians.
Ten years after the event, Princeton University commissioned a scholarly study of the incident and its conclusion was that of the estimated six million people who heard the broadcast, nearly two million were convinced the program was authentic.
This is hardly a small percentage......