9780809031610The release of Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News is less than a month away, but writers, scholars, and critics are already weighing in. Here are the reviews that have come in so far:

“If you think you know the story of Orson Welles and his Martian-invasion radio show, you’re wrong – and A. Brad Schwartz is the perfect writer to set you straight, in this thoroughly engaging, superbly researched work.” – Max Allan Collins, author of Road to Perdition and The War of the Worlds Murder

“Though the War of the Worlds broadcast has long been regarded as a singular event, it has lacked a historical study scaled to explore its many dimensions. A. Brad Schwartz has at last provided one. With a professional hand and an engaging style, Schwartz marshals unexplored archival evidence and synthesizes contentious debates to offer a fresh account of how the broadcast was conceived, experienced, aggrandized, and debunked, giving us fascinating portraits of everyone from Welles and his troupe to federal regulators, media researchers, and ordinary listeners. Capturing the sheer scope of the radio play and the thrill of its audience in an accessible way, this book will be an essential text for a long time to come.” – Neil Verma, author of Theater of the Mind: Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama

“Beautifully mirroring the ideals that guided Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre, A. Brad Schwartz has taken a well-known story from the past and told it with stunning originality. He excavates a crucial element missing from most previous accounts: the real people who listened in on October 30, 1938, to the news of a Martian invasion. Long derided as naive and gullible, or dismissed as insignificant in number, they emerge here as self-effacing, fearful, outraged, funny, and courageous-in other words, a lot like people today. Welles would be proud.” – Mark Samels, executive producer, American Experience, PBS

“There was no mass panic on the night of October 30, 1938. Yet many still believe a radio drama featuring Martian invaders incited mobs of Americans to flee their homes. In Broadcast Hysteria, A. Brad Schwartz clarifies misconceptions and sets the record straight. In this well-written and meticulously researched work, Schwartz explains how a brilliant radio artist, an irresponsible press, and an overly ambitious social scientist combined to conjure one of the twentieth century’s most enduring fables. The real story told here proves far more interesting than the myth.” – Michael Socolow, associate professor of communication and journalism, University of Maine

“In this analytic tour de force, A. Brad Schwartz has assessed upward of two thousand letters-most available to researchers only recently-expressing every manner of opinion regarding Orson Welles’s ‘panic broadcast.’ The result surpasses in comprehensiveness and insight all previous studies of this notorious media event.” – Paul Heyer, author of The Medium and the Magician: Orson Welles, the Radio Years, 1934-1952

“A revealing and important reassessment of the most myth-encrusted radio program in American history.” – W. Joseph Campbell, author of Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism

“An impeccable account of the most famous radio show in history, a fascinating biography of Orson Welles, and a vital lesson about the responsibility of the media.” – Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Groundbreaking . . . Fascinating as an analysis of both pop-culture and the media.” – Booklist (starred review)

“An entertaining assessment of a watershed moment in American life and its lasting effect on popular culture.” – Kirkus

“A gripping and informative look at the War of the World broadcast, as well as contemporary issues in the early 20th-century industry of radio.” – Robin Chin Roemer, Library Journal (starred review)

Broadcast Hysteria hits bookstores on May 5, 2015 – one day before Orson Welles’s 100th birthday.



The Greatest Radio Show of All Time

By any measure, Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast is the most significant radio show in history. But is it the best?

If you asked Welles, he would tell you that “the greatest single radio script ever written” is Lucille Fletcher‘s Sorry, Wrong Number, produced several times with Agnes Moorehead in the leading role. The play tells of a bedridden woman who can only interact with the outside world via her telephone. After she overhears two criminals plotting to kill her on her phone line, she tries to convince the authorities that she’s in danger. But no one believes her – until it’s too late.


Orson Welles in a 1941 publicity photo for the “Orson Welles Show” (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Although Sorry, Wrong Number is easily among the best radio shows of all time, to my mind the top honors go to another of Fletcher’s radio plays: The Hitch-Hiker. This play first aired in 1941 on CBS’s Orson Welles Show, with Welles in the lead role, and later on Suspense and The Mercury Summer Theatre of the Air, each time starring Welles. Fletcher was married to composer Bernard Herrmann, who wrote and conducted the music for Welles’s Mercury Theatre on the Air series (including the War of the Worlds broadcast), and so she knew Welles’s radio work very well. She wrote the lead in The Hitch-Hiker expressly for Welles, and it shows; the play is easily among his greatest performances in any medium.

Welles narrates The Hitch-Hiker in character as Ronald Adams, a 36-year-old man driving from New York to Los Angeles. First on the Brooklyn Bridge, and then on the Pulaski Skyway (crossed by the Martian invaders in War of the Worlds), Adams sees the same hitchhiker by the side of the road: a shabbily-dressed tramp, sprinkled with raindrops, carrying a suitcase. As Adams heads further and further west, he sees the exact same hitchhiker over and over again. He grows increasingly disturbed and unhinged, unable to stop the car for fear of meeting the mysterious tramp.

The Pulaski Skyway, which appeared in two of the greatest shows from radio's golden age: "War of the Worlds" and "The Hitch-Hiker" (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The Pulaski Skyway, which appeared in two of the greatest shows from radio’s golden age: “War of the Worlds” and “The Hitch-Hiker” (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Although it is an original story, The Hitch-Hiker follows the “first person singular” format of Welles’s Mercury Theatre broadcasts. Welles believed that radio was a narrative, and not a dramatic, form, which worked best when a storyteller guides the listener through the action like in a novel or short story. The Hitch-Hiker perfectly demonstrates the power of this technique. Although there’s nothing overtly threatening about the hitchhiker that Adams sees over and over again, Fletcher’s narration beautifully conveys the character’s growing anxiety and desperation, and Welles’s performance keeps the listener on edge. Herrmann’s delightfully creepy musical score adds immeasurably to the effect.

For all these reasons, The Hitch-Hiker marks a pinnacle for the craft of radio drama. The show builds to a shocking twist ending that I won’t spoil here, but the surprise really isn’t essential to the experience. Even when you know where it’s headed, the various elements are woven together so beautifully that you remain thoroughly in suspense, and the foreshadowing and dramatic irony that Fletcher seeded into the story become even more apparent. This makes it a joy to listen to again and again. Whenever I have a long car ride ahead of me, there’s nothing that passes the time like popping in a recording of The Hitch-Hiker.

Inger Stevens, as driver Nan Adams, and Leonard Strong, as the titular hitchhiker, in a still from "The Twilight Zone" episode based on "The Hitch-Hiker" (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Inger Stevens, as driver Nan Adams, and Leonard Strong, as the titular hitchhiker, in a still from “The Twilight Zone” episode based on “The Hitch-Hiker” (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In 1960, Rod Serling adapted The Hitch-Hiker for an episode of The Twilight Zone. The show is a faithful, and at times word-for-word, translation of the play, but Serling made the main character a woman (“Nan Adams”) and about a decade younger than the character Welles played. According to Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion, Fletcher didn’t approve of the change, but it does add an new dynamic to the story. The scene between the driver and a hitchhiker s/he picks up, seeking protection from the mysterious tramp, has added tension in Serling’s version because the hitchhiker is a young man and the driver a young woman. Actress Inger Stevens, playing Nan Adams, turns in a fine performance, but never eclipses Orson Welles.

"Twilight Zone" writer/creator Rod Serling with Inger Stevens in 1960 (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

“Twilight Zone” writer/creator Rod Serling with Inger Stevens (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

At times, Serling’s version of The Hitch-Hiker is brilliant. Leonard Strong, who plays the title character, succeeds in being both unthreatening yet strangely menacing, and he has a startling habit of popping into the frame when least expected. But the translation from radio to television is somewhat uneven, because the story is so dependent on Fletcher’s narration. That narration works well on radio, but feels intrusive on TV. Yet it’s unavoidable, since the main character spends most of the story alone in a car, and there’s no way to convey her thoughts visually. In the end, this doesn’t harm the show too much, and it remains a very good episode of an excellent TV series. But the radio play surpasses it entirely because it’s perfectly suited to its own medium.

Lucille Fletcher’s Hitch-Hiker, then, isn’t just an example of some of radio’s best artists at the top of their game. It’s a story uniquely tied to the medium it sprang from, demonstrating the storytelling powers of radio more effectively than any other show I can name. For that reason, above all, it gets my vote for the greatest radio show of all time.


Broadcasting the Barricades

Today marks the 89th anniversary of what is probably the first fake news broadcast in history: Broadcasting the Barricades, a satirical skit that aired over the BBC on January 16, 1926. The show was the work of a Catholic priest, a satirist, and a writer of detective fiction who all happened to be the same man: Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox. Knox penned the skit to poke fun at the BBC, because he believed his countrymen took what they heard on the radio too seriously. But he copied the style of BBC news bulletins so well that some listeners mistook his satire for the real thing.

Father Ronald A. Knox, courtesy Wikimedia Commons (

Father Ronald A. Knox, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Broadcasting the Barricades “reported” that a mob of unemployed workers were attacking London and lynching government ministers. A portion of Knox’s audience apparently believed these reports to be true, because newspapers and the BBC soon found themselves overwhelmed with calls about the fictitious uprising. This incident is often cited as a predecessor to the alleged panic surrounding Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. But, as with the later show, there are definite indications that the reports of hysteria surrounding Knox’s broadcast were exaggerated. The BBC, for instance, later reported receiving an influx of mail from listeners who enjoyed the show, as Welles and CBS would in 1938.

Still, the fake news format of Broadcasting the Barricades was remarkably similar to Welles’s War of the Worlds, and evidence suggests that reports of Knox’s broadcast may have served as one of Welles’s inspirations. You’ll find the full history of this forgotten experiment in fake news, and its connection to the infamous Martian invasion of 1938, in my upcoming book Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News, which comes out on May 5.

For now, though, it’s worth reiterating that history’s first fake news broadcast was the work of a talented satirist who was also a man of deep Catholic faith. I’m sure Stephen Colbert, today’s preeminent fake news satirist and “America’s most famous Catholic,” would approve.



It’s Christmas Eve as I write this, and I’m pleased to report that my first gift has already arrived: the cover image for my upcoming book Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News is now up on Macmillan’s website!

Also, check it out on Broadcast Hysteria‘s new Facebook page:


My most profound thanks to the graphic designers at Farrar, Straus & Giroux for putting together this exciting and arresting image, and to everyone at FSG for being such a joy to work with this past year. A lot of hard but very rewarding work went into this project in 2014, and I can’t wait to share the fruits of all that labor with the world in 2015.

I wish you all the best this holiday season, and nothing but good things in the New Year – a.k.a., the “Year of Orson Welles.”


Fake News Day

Today – October 30, 2014 – marks the 76th anniversary of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds broadcast. On this day in 1938, Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air unleashed their radio version of H.G. Wells’s classic novel of a Martian invasion, adapted by writer Howard Koch into a series of fake news bulletins. The show perfectly captured the American zeitgeist in that year before the outbreak of World War II, and it caused a terrific stir – seriously frightening some listeners, prompting calls for government censorship of radio, and catapulting the 23-year-old Welles to stardom.

Seventy-two years later, and four years ago today, fake news made headlines once again. On October 30, 2010, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted a “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” in Washington, D.C. Before a crowd of over two hundred thousand people, they roasted the American news media, satirizing the way pundits play up false fears and conflicts.

Welles’s War of the Worlds and Stewart and Colbert’s rally share an anniversary purely by coincidence; Stewart explained to his Daily Show audience that they chose the date solely for convenience. Yet these events have much more in common than a quirk of the calendar. The myth of Welles’s broadcast, that it proved Americans believed anything they heard on the radio, was a product of the same kind of journalistic haste and fear-mongering that Stewart and Colbert satirized at the Rally to Restore Sanity. The issues they raised in 2010 were just as relevant in 1938 as they are today.

In my upcoming book BROADCAST HYSTERIA: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds & the Art of Fake News, I draw upon hundreds of previously unpublished documents to tell the complete and untold story of the broadcast and its effect on the country. My research sheds new light on the production of War of the Worlds, and reveals the true extent of the “panic” that it allegedly inspired. But above all, it demonstrates that Americans in the 1930s grappled with the new medium of radio in much the same way that we today grapple with the new medium of the Internet. Their fears and hopes about the mass media’s power are very similar to our own, and we have much to learn from their insights and mistakes.

BROADCAST HYSTERIA will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux on May 5, 2015, one day before the hundredth anniversary of Orson Welles’s birth. It is currently available for pre-order from various retailers (, Barnes & Noble, Apple’s iBookstore, Powell’s, IndieBound, and more). I’ll be blogging regularly over the 187 days leading up to publication, and tweeting from @ABradSchwartz, offering new insights into Welles, War of the Worlds, and Old Time Radio, as well as details on events and book signings I’ll be a part of. Please check back frequently for updates. Welles’s centennial promises to be quite a party, and I hope you’ll join me in celebrating it.

And in honor of Welles, Stewart, and Colbert, I think it’s only fitting that from here on out, October 30 be known as “Fake News Day,” devoted to those irreverent souls who make us think by throwing spitballs at our media.

See you on May 5!