Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Floyd Gibbons: Early Radio's Answer to Indiana Jones

He was a cross between Edward R. Murrow and Indiana Jones. And he was one of radio's first newsmen. Like most of radio's earliest news reporters and anchors, Floyd Gibbons was originally a newspaper reporter.

My fascination with Gibbons began when I was working as the Radio Curator at the Museum of Television & Radio in NYC. I was going through some boxes in our warehouse when I found some rather interesting items. In addition to books, notes, letters, and other items, there was a small bag filled with what I later discovered were eye-patches. This put me in research mode and I discovered Floyd Gibbons, who would quickly become one of my heroes of early radio.

As a newspaper writer for the Chicago Tribune, Gibbons was known for an amazingly descriptive style...something that would carry over into his radio work.

His life is well documented in other places, but here are a few highlights:

  • As a young newspaper reporter, Gibbons covered 1916 Mexican Expedition (also known as the Pancho Villa Expedition), even though Pancho Villa declared that any "gringos" found on Mexican soil would be killed on sight. As a reporter, he gained Villa's trust and accompanied him on several battles and was able to bring important news back to the states.
  • In 1917, he was a passenger on the armed merchant cruiser (converted from an ocean liner) the RMS Laconia on it's final voyage across the Atlantic. On that voyage on February 25, 1917, the Laconia was torpedoed by the Germans. The boat sank and 12 of the 75 people on board were killed. Gibbons survived the attack and gained fame for his reports about the event. He later wrote a book about WWI called "And They Thought We Wouldn't Fight," which begins with the sinking of the Laconia.
  • Despite that, perhaps his most famous episode came in 1918 as he covered the Battle of Belleau Wood in France. During the battle, Gibbons was right up front as the American troops advanced. Gibbons was shot three times, the third bullet ripping out his left eye. Gibbons even refused treatment until injured soldiers were treated. It was that injury that gave Gibbons his trademark eye patch for which he would be known in later years. You can read Gibbons' own account of the event here.

Later on, Gibbons made the transition to radio as both a newsman and commentator. His fast-talking and descriptive approach to the news was as interesting as his writing. Here is a clip from his reporting on the devastating flooding in the Connecticut River Valley in 1936, which he observed during a 300 mile flight up and down both sides of the river:

Gibbons even had a book series called the Floyd Gibbons School of Broadcast (of which I thankfully have a set), and also wrote The Red Knight of Germany, a biography of the Red Baron.

Gibbons was also a very popular voice on newsreels during the 20s and 30s, including the Oscar winning "With Byrd at the South Pole," and he eventually received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Sadly, Gibbons died at his Pennsylvania home in 1939 at the age of only 53. I was fortunate to have had the chance to listen to much of his work, and still have copies of each of his books. They sure don't make reporters like they used to!

56 Years Before 9/11: B-25 Bomber Crashes into Empire State Building

On the morning of 9/11 I stepped off the train from CT in Grand Central at approximately the time the first plane was flown into the World Trade Center, though I wasn't aware of the incident until I got to my office about 15 minutes later. Like the rest of the world, I was riveted to my TV, watching coverage of what we later learned was a terrorist attack, not an accident.

What many of us don't realize, is that something somewhat similar happened in NYC more than a half century before. Not a terrorist attack, but an accident, as a B-25 bomber flew into the side of the Empire State Building.

Long story short, on July 28, 1945, Lt. Col. William Smith was piloting a B-25 Bomber through New York City on his way to Newark when he got lost in the fog. Rather than land at LaGuardia, Smith continued his flight, and at 9:49 a.m. the plane crashed into the 79th floor of the north side of the Empire State Building. Fourteen people, including Smith and his crew, were killed in the incident.

Like 9/11, there were those who jumped to their death as they sought to escape the wreckage and fire. Two women were in an elevator that plunged 75 floors, and one of them survived.

All three major radio networks (CBS, NBC, and Mutual) covered the event, including interviews with witnesses and survivors.

My friend Joe Richman, producer of NPR's "Radio Diaries" put an amazing audio piece together two years ago, which includes interviews with some of the survivors, and some amazing archival audio material, including a recording of the actual incident as it occurred, as recorded by a dictation machine. Listen in to The Day A Bomber Hit The Empire State Building.

This was an amazing event with some incredible radio coverage. Coming out of World War II, radio news had grown up and was well prepared to cover events of this stature. Good radio is described as that which paints a "word picture." Not only did the radio of the time paint some amazing word pictures as reporters described the situation, but the Radio Diaries piece that Joe and his team put together gives you a great sense of what went on.

Listen to this piece, and I'm convinced you'll be fascinated.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

"Oh, the humanity!..."

It is one of the most famous and most memorable broadcasts in history: the Hindenburg disaster. You've probably heard excerpts of the radio broadcast and seen the newsreel footage on television. But there are a few interesting facts about this broadcast/event from May6, 1937 that make it even more interesting. But first, here is the text of a portion of Herbert W. Morrison's coverage of the event, during which he breaks down in tears:
It's practically standing still now. They've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and they've been taken ahold of down on the field by a number of men. It's starting to rain again; it's... the rain had slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it just enough to keep it from...It's burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it's falling, it's crashing! Watch it! Watch it! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! Get this, Charlie; get this, Charlie! It's fire... and it's crashing! It's crashing terrible! Oh, my! Get out of the way, please! It's burning and bursting into flames and the... and it's falling on the mooring mast. And all the folks agree that this is terrible; this is the one of the worst catastrophes in the world. [indecipherable] its flames... Crashing, oh! Four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it... it's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It's smoke, and it's in flames now; and the frame is crashing to the ground, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh, the humanity! and all the passengers screaming around here. I told you; it—I can't even talk to people Their friends are out there! Ah! It's... it... it's a... ah! I... I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest: it's just laying there, mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk and the screaming. Lady, I... I... I'm sorry. Honest: I... I can hardly breathe. I... I'm going to step inside, where I cannot see it. Charlie, that's terrible. Ah, ah... I can't. Listen, folks; I... I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because [indecipherable] I've lost my voice. This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed.

And here is some of that recording which was later married to some newsreel footage:

One of the most interesting things about this broadcast, of which most people aren't aware, is that it wasn't aired live on radio...and almost didn't make it on the air at all. The Hindenburg began it's journeys from Germany to Lakehurst, NJ in March of 1936. Reporters provided live coverage of a number of those voyages during its inaugural season, but by 1937 it was old hat, so no one was on hand in Lakehurst to provide live coverage. Compare this to coverage of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Coverage of shuttle missions had become so commonplace, that by the time of the Challenger launch, none of the broadcast networks were providing live coverage, leaving CNN as the only source for coverage of that historic event from the beginning. The other networks obviously broke in after the fact, but missed those first crucial moments.

Enter Herbert W. Morrison, reporter for WLS out of Chicago. Morrison was an airship enthusiast who implored the station to allow him to go and record the landing on transcription discs, along with engineer Charlie Nielsen. (Transcription discs were the recording medium of the time; looking like vinyl albums, yet generally 16" in diameter. Most of them were aluminum based, covered in acetate).

The two main radio networks of the time, NBC and CBS, had strict policies against airing recorded material (outside of recorded sound effects). It just wasn't done, and, in fact, the Mutual Broadcasting System was seen as a lesser network because it did broadcast some pre-recorded material in year end retrospective shows. (CBS had an interesting way of handling this. In their weekly news retrospective program The March of Time, rather than use recordings of newsmakers, they would use actors and impersonators and recreate famous events. It was on programs like this that Orson Welles got his start in radio.)

As a result, it took nearly 24 hours for NBC to agree to actually air the recordings of this dramatic event, and they only did so in conjunction with an on-air interview with Morrison. This is the first time a major network allowed pre-recorded news on the air.

It is also important to remember that radio news really didn't exist at this point, with the exception of live coverage of events. For the most part, regularly scheduled newscasts did not exist; they wouldn't really come along until more than a year later when CBS's coverage of the Munich Crisis gave rise to the much heralded World News Roundup (which is the prototype for the way broadcasters cover news to this day). For the most part, news was on the air only with the occurrence of major events.

Because of this, Morrison's coverage of the Hindenburg explosion was a major resource and source of inspiration for a young Orson Welles and writer Howard Koch, as they prepared and presented the famous 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast. They tried to emulate the passion and emotion from Morrison's recordings as they described the landing of Martians (also in New Jersey!).

Finally, audio experts have listened to the recordings of Morrison and believe that they were recorded at a slightly slower than normal speed, meaning that when played back, his voice is actually faster and at a higher pitch, adding to the sense of urgency and emotion. Engineers have also examined the original transcription discs and have noted deeper grooves at the actual times of the explosion. With that sort of primitive technology (advanced for the time!) it is truly a miracle that these recordings exist at all.

History Does Not Exist In A Vacuum

History does not exist in a vacuum. The media that record history, also shape that history.

As someone who works in Social Media, and as a historian of sorts, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how media itself is a part of history: a shaper of history that is often ignored. My background is in radio and I’ve read plenty of books about both history and radio (and the history of radio!) to know that it’s rare for historians to give media its proper place.

Recent events have spurred me on to revive this blog and, for at least a while, look at specific events in our history as delivered to us via various media. In most cases I’ll be talking about radio, since I spent a good many years studying and analyzing the history of radio and its place in history.

In many cases, the media that records our history is an important player in that history.

So stay tuned...I hope you enjoy the ride. This blog, as it takes a new shape, is mostly for me, as I research a number of ongoing projects and use this space to give voice to some of that research. I'll be writing about a lot of topics: advertising, sports, aviation, war, disaster, life in general...but all in relation to the media that reported on and influenced them. And hopefully you'll find it interesting and learn something along the way.