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'War of the Worlds' created ultimate radio prank

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    Friday, October 4 2013 3:43 PM EDT2013-10-04 19:43:45 GMT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (FOX13) -

It was 75 years ago on Oct. 30, 1938, that a small group of radio actors gathered in a New York City broadcast studio to do a radio play about a Martian invasion.

What unfolded changed radio forever. The 1938 Halloween radio program did a lot more than scare some listeners.

In 1938 Orson Wells was an up and coming young radio producer, director, and performer. It was his idea to rewrite the original script of "War of the Worlds" and turn it into a series of breaking news reports.

Many listeners tuned in after the opening of the show and had no clue these were fake news reports.

It turned into a huge panic but apparently no one was more surprised about the mass hysteria than Wells, who was amazed that anyone, would take his radio play as a real invasion from Mars.

Jim Harrell said when he first heard "War of the Worlds" he understood why so many people were frightened.

"I remember hearing replays of it, and yeah, it sounded like the real thing," Harrell recalled.

The radio broadcast "War of the Worlds" may have been unintentional when it caused so much panic, but radio has been used to pull off pranks since then.

Radio veteran Alex Ward has been a radio personality since he was 20. He said "War of the Worlds" should have been a warning to up and coming radio broadcasters.

"Well you know we've had pranks pulled before," Ward said "Deejays pulled certain things in the mornings, especially morning shows do all kinds of things people should not do."

Probably the king of radio pranks in Memphis for many years is Ron Olson. He even won $1,000 at a broadcast convention after his evacuate Memphis prank. He simply told people to start leaving Memphis by different routes. First the fire department called, then the police. But they kept up the prank until his boss heard about it.

"About an hour into it we heard doors slamming," Olson recalled. "Here comes the GM (general manager) with a very salty attitude. He was cussing at us. He said, 'get on the air right now and tell people you're just kidding! Do you have any idea the consequences of the stupid thing you're doing?' We're saying, Okay, lighten up.'"

Olson said radio pranks are now pretty much a thing of the past. In fact on April Fools' Day and Halloween he gets special memos to make sure he stays in line. But it all started with the "War of the Worlds" 75 years ago on Halloween Eve.

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