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.


Bryan Rutt said...

Great piece! An excellent recap of a very important piece of broadcast history.

I still get goosebumps listening to that broadcast. Radio has always had the power to make things more real, more urgent, and more powerful because, unlike other media, its user is not passively engaged. Rather, the listener becomes part of the event, drawn into it by the images he or she creates in his/her own mind to accompany the broadcast.

In drama, that is very effective indeed; in the reporting of a real-life catastrophe such as this, it can shake you to your core.

Would be interested in expansion on your point of comparison to the coverage of the Challenger catastrophe - did we, could we, or should we have learned anything from the coverage of the Hindenburg? At what point does an event once thought impossible become so commonplace as to no longer warrant news coverage in and of itself?

Ken said...

Thanks for the comment, Brian, and you bring up a valid point. It's the "man bites dog" scenario. Commonplace things are no longer newsworthy. I mean,think about this thing called the Internet. When you and I were in HS, we could never have dreamed of this. Yet it is here! Sure we report on aspects of it, but not as if it were new and amazing.

Sadly, I think in the end, with the exception of a few, we base the newsworthiness of something on slipping ratings. If people stop watching...we stop covering. Which is why today's news is based almost solely on bad things: crime, violence, war, disaster, etc.

Andreas said...

For a ton of details about the Hindenburg and the disaster:

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