‘War of the Worlds’ 1938 Panic Broadcast Airs Tonight Over 97.9 WHAV FM

Orson Welles, director and star of the Mercury Theater on the Air. (CBS publicity photograph.)

New York Times reports the panic following the War of the Worlds broadcast.

Radio’s most famous broadcast, Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds,” airs in its entirety at 10 p.m., Monday, Oct. 30 (repeated at 1 a.m.), over 97.9 WHAV.

WHAV’s rebroadcast is made possible thanks to the generosity and permission of Peter Koch, son of Howard E. Koch, author of the play. During the intermission, WHAV presents a brief biography of Koch, including his work on “Casablanca” with Humphrey Bogart, blacklisting by Hollywood in 1951 and his musical satire protesting the Vietnam War.

“In these dangerous times, I know Howard would be thrilled to have something political slipped in,” Peter Koch told WHAV.

The Mercury Theater on the Air presented the play 79 years ago on CBS radio as the then 23-year-old Welles’ loosely based the hour-long drama on the 1898 novel by H. G. Wells. Welles—already well known as the voice of the Shadow—presented the live broadcast from the 20th floor of CBS radio headquarters, 485 Madison Ave., New York City.

Newspapers the next day reported panic across the nation as some listeners believed—thanks to simulated interruptions of music with news bulletins—Martians were attacking the Earth. “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact,” blared a New York Times’ headline the next day.

It aired a little more than eight years before WHAV went on the air, but some Merrimack Valley residents may have caught the program on distant stations. The Boston Globe reported one woman “claimed she could ‘see the fire’ and said she and many others in her neighborhood were ‘getting out of here.’”

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