Hindenburg Disaster

Herb Morrison Reporting (36 Minutes)

"the airship is going to make an attempt at landing in the rain..."

Some of radio's greatest moments are when the actual event occurs live on the air or while a reporter is recording and the unexpected happens. Hindenberg DisasterOne such event happened to reporter Herb Morrison on May 6th, 1937 in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The mighty German passenger Zeppelin, Hindenburg, was attempting a mooring. The Hindenburg was one of Nazi Germany's finest airships. It was supposed to reflect the greatness of the German Reich and its leader, Adolf Hitler.

The airship had made this voyage before and friends and family were at Lakehurst waiting for the arrival of the great zeppelin. Reporter Herbert Morrison was there too thanks to his radio station, WLS, Chicago. The day was rainy and there had been strong thunderstorms earlier. Morrison was recording the event for later rebroadcast. The early part of his recording reflects information about the airship and the day and what is necessary to bring it into mooring under such conditions.

Engineer Charles Nehlsen was manning the Presto Direct Disc recorder. The recorder includes a large turntable with a 16-inch platter, a heavy-duty lathe, which would actually cut into the lacquer disc, and an amplifier. It was important that these recorders be perfectly level and that vibration be avoided. Ultimately, the complete broadcast would be recorded on four 16" Green label lacquer discs.

Herb MorrisonAs the zeppelin arrives, Morrison is describing the mooring when suddenly it bursts into flames. Morrison is shocked, but keeps talking though breaking occasionally overcome by the tragedy unfolding in front of him. Later the broadcast continues after the tragedy as the victims are being brought in and survivors are interviewed.

An interesting side note is at the moment of explosion, when Morrison is heard yelling "It burst into flames!" the vibrations from the explosion caused the recorder to bounce on the disc creating deep grooves until Engineer Nehlson is able to momentarily lift the lathe from the disc and place it back down. The discs, which are contained at the National Archives reflect the grooves and the force of the explosion.

It was radio news at its finest; news events reported as they happened. The description is brought home to radio's listeners and we in turn grieve for the dead and injured. This event reflected the potential and power of radio broadcasting immediately before and, later, during World War II as the Murrow Boys and others would bring the war home to America via the airwaves.

While the event was not aired live, it did air later. In those days radio reporting of events was always broadcast live only since the networks had policies forbidding the use of recorded material except for sound effects. But Herbert Morrison, the reporter, was not there to report disaster and had no facility for broadcasting live. Instead, he was there at the behest of his radio station, WLS, Chicago, to record a report on the grand airship. Later that day, Morrison and his sound engineer, Charlie Nehlsen left New Jersey with the transcription discs and headed back to Chicago. The morning after the disaster is when parts of the recording first aired over WLS. Logs of when it first appeared over NBC are not known to exist. It is known that at least five minutes of the recording did broadcast on May 7th at 11:38 AM in the New York area and over the Red Network. It was later in the day that the longer sections were played to a national audience. This was one of the few times that the networks allowed a recording of an event to be broadcast.

Resources

An in-depth technical discussion of the Hindenburg Disaster.

Dr. Mike Biel corrects an NPR report on the broadcast.

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