Online College Courses for Credit

Music as Media 5: The Radio

Music as Media 5: The Radio

Author: Amee Wittbrodt
  • Understand, analyze, evaluate, and use different types of print, digital, and multimodal media.
  • Critically analyze information found in electronic, print, and mass media and use a variety of these sources.
  • Evaluate the radio broadcast of "The War of the Worlds" and draw a conclusion as to why the audio was so convincing.
  • Gain an understanding of the history of the radio.
  • Hypothesize whether or not an irresponsible group of people could create mass panic in the U.S. today.

This packet is 5th in a series about music as media.

This packet gives students a brief history of the radio and explores the dramatic radio broadcast that caused mass panic in 1938: "The War of the Worlds."

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War of the Worlds

We interrupt this broadcast for these important announcements.

“Astronomers have just seen huge flames shoot up from the planet Mars!”

“A meteor has fallen near Grovers Mill, New Jersey.”  “No wait…it’s not a meteor. It’s a spaceship!”

“What appears to be Martians are exiting the space ship.”  “The Martians are attacking! They have killed thousands of people with heat rays and deadly gasses! I can’t believe this is happening!”


On Sunday, October 30, 1938, the night before Halloween, radio stations in the CBS network were supposedly broadcasting live music from a New York City hotel’s ballroom. A news announcer suddenly interrupted the program to tell listeners that astronomers had just seen huge flames shoot up from the planet Mars. The music program continued for a bit, and then there were other news bulletins broadcast. One reported a meteor had fallen near Grovers Mill, New Jersey. A reporter soon came on the air to reveal that the meteor was not a meteor at all, but a spaceship. Martians were then seen leaving the spaceship, and soon were reportedly attacking armed soldiers and civilians, killing thousands of people with heat rays and deadly gasses.

Some of those listening to the broadcast began to panic; later it was estimated that perhaps several thousand of the approximately six million people who heard the broadcast believed that the Martian attack was real.

This incident has been discussed and written about many times over the past sixty years. Many incorrect stories about the incident say that the radio program was a hoax—that it was intended to deceive people into believing it was real. This was not true, because four different times during the broadcast, including the beginning, it was announced that it was simply a play. Many of the listeners had not heard announcements that the broadcast was a radio play loosely based on H.G. Welles’ book War of the Worlds. The play was performed by Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre as part of a regular weekly program. Also incorrect are exaggerated estimates about the number of listeners who thought that the broadcast was real; some said the more than a million people panicked. While this is not true, some people did indeed panic, hiding in their cellars to escape the deadly Martian gasses, or packing up their cars and driving in the opposite direction of New Jersey.

Could this same thing happen today? Would it be easy to create a panic in the United States?

What would you do if you heard that Martians had landed and were killing people in New Jersey?

If this radio program were made today, it would be called a ‘mockumentary’ because it seems so real, yet it is completely contrived. In 2006 the film Death Of A President was released, it was a faux-documentary featuring the assassination of President Bush. If this film was received by an audience who had no other media to reference and limited access to the facts, they might think that the President really had been assassinated. It is easy to see how a well scripted and well performed piece of theatrical radio programming could create such a genuine sense of fear and panic in the hearts and minds of listeners back in 1938.Ask an older adult if they remember what happened when The War of the Worlds was broadcast.

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Today, except for traffic reports, fewer people rely on the radio as their primary source of news than they did in the 1930s. Many rely instead on television, which became available to Americans in the 1950s, and the Internet, which became available to Americans in the 1990s. There are fewer and fewer people alive today who can remember the 1938 broadcast of The War of the Worlds. However, you can still find older adults who remember relying on the radio for news before the spread of television.

Radio Background Info


Source: Media Literacy: Thinking Critically About Music & Media

Discussion Questions

  1. T/F? The War of the Worlds is a book by H.G. Welles where Martians land in New Jersey and kill thousands of people.
  2. T/F? The War of the Worlds was broadcast purposely to create a mass panic. CBS wanted to see how people would handle news of a Martian attack.
  3. T/F? In the beginning, radio stations could increase their signal to drown out lower-powered stations near them on the dial.
  4. T/F? "Top 40" means the radio station limits the number of songs played to forty, and only occasionally playing other songs.
  5. T/F? At first, recording companies were afraid to allow their records to be played on the air, worrying that songs played frequently on radio would lose sales.
  6. What call letter did radio stations east of the Mississippi river begin with?
  7. NBC Blue was sold in the 1940s and became ___________.
  8. In 1934, the U.S. Congress passed the law known as the Radio Act of 1934. What federal agency was created?
  9. What became popular in the 1950s that forever changed radio programming?
  10. What did Tood Storz base his observations on when he created his "Top 40" radio station?
  11. Approximately how many radio stations exist in the United States?
  12. What term means the part of the morning and evening when many people are driving to and from work or school, and therefore, listening to radio the most?
  13. Describe what happened on Sunday, October 30, 1938 that caused several thousand people to panic. Explain.
  14. Why did so many people believe the broadcast of The War of the Worlds? What was so convincing about the audio? Explain.
  15. Suppose that an irresponsible group of people wanted to create a general panic in the United States. This group would create false stories, and sould try to report them as real news on television and/or publish false information on the Internet. Consider the differences and similarities between the media of the past and the media today. Do you think it would be possible today to create a panic among at least several thousand Americans at one time? Why or why not?