Herbert Morrison (announcer)
Herbert "Herb" Morrison (radio reporter best known for his dramatic report of the Hindenburg disaster, a catastrophic fire that destroyed the LZ 129 Hindenburg zeppelin on May 6, 1937, killing 36 people.May 14, 1905 – January 10, 1989 ) was an American
Radio network policy in those days forbade the use of recorded material except for sound effects on dramas, and Morrison and Nielsen had no facilities for live broadcast. Still the results became the prototype for news broadcasting in the war years to follow. The fame of this recording had no effect on network policies, however, and it was not until after the end of World War II that recordings were regularly used.
Morrison's description began routinely but changed instantly as the airship burst into flames:
[It's practically standing still now. They've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship, and they've been taken a hold of down on the field by a number of men.] It's starting to rain again; it's—the rain has slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it just, just enough to keep it from — It burst into flames! 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 one of the worst catastrophes in the world. [Indecipherable word(s)] It's–it's–it's the flames, [indecipherable, possibly the word "climbing"] 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 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, I can't even talk to people whose friends are on there. Ah! It's–it's–it's–it's ... o–ohhh! I–I can't talk, ladies and gentlemen. Honest, it's just laying there, a mass of smoking wreckage. Ah! And everybody can hardly breathe and talk, and the screaming. Lady, 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. I, listen, folks, I–I'm gonna have to stop for a minute because I've lost my voice. This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed.
Morrison and Nehlsen continued their work, reporting at length on the rescue efforts and interviewing survivors, with several pauses while Morrison composes himself. A small and dashing looking man, Morrison wore a blue serge suit and a topcoat. Morrison mistakenly thought there were 106 people aboard the flight, when in reality there were 97 aboard. Thirty-five people died in addition to one fatality on the ground. The 16-inch green lacquer disk recordings were rushed back to Chicago by airplane and broadcast in full later that night. Portions were rebroadcast nationally by the NBC Radio network the next day. It was the first time recordings of a news event were ever broadcast, and also the first coast-to-coast radio broadcast. Morrison's quick professional response and accurate description combined with his own emotional reaction have made the recordings a classic of audio history.
Several people believe that this classic recording is not an accurate reflection of Morrison's speech. These people theorize that Nehlsen's Presto 6D recorder ran about 3% slow, causing Morrison's voice to sound different from how it actually was, and that Morrison's normal speaking and radio announcer voice was actually quite deep as evidenced by other recordings of his voice from the same era.
One of these people is audio historian Michael Biel of Morehead State University, who studied the original recordings and analyzed Nehlsen's vital contribution as an engineer as well as the playback speed issue:
I have closely examined the original discs and photographed the grooves at the point of the explosion. You can see several deep digs in the lacquer before the groove disappears. Then almost immediately there is a faint groove for about two revolutions while Charlie Nehlsen gently lowered the cutting head back to the disc. Fortunately the cutting stylus never cut through the lacquer to the aluminum base. If that had happened the most dramatic part of the recording would not have been made because the stylus would have been ruined. The digs and the bouncing off of the cutting head were caused by the shock wave of the explosion which reached the machine just after Morrison said "It burst into flames…"
I and several others believe that the originals were recorded slightly slow, and that all replays have been at too fast a speed. Comparison with the now two other known contemporary recordings of Morrison demonstrate this conclusion.
Morrison's description has been dubbed onto the newsreel film of the crash, giving the impression of a modern television-style broadcast. However, at the time, newsreels were separately narrated in a studio and Morrison's words were not heard in theaters.
The availability of newsreel films, photographs and Morrison's description was a result of heavy promotion of the arrival by the Zeppelin Company, ironically making the crash a media event and raising its importance far beyond other disasters, less well-reported and documented.
Morrison's usual broadcast work was as an announcer on live musical programs, but his earlier successful reporting of Midwestern floods from an airplane led to his assignment at Lakehurst that day.
- BBC Prime: TV Documentary: Days That Shook the World (2003): TV Episode: Disaster in the Skies (2004); Charlie Nehlsen played by Dickon Tolson
- The Making and Use of Recordings in Broadcasting before 1936 copyright 1977 PhD dissertation by Dr. Michael Biel, Morehead State University
||This section includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (October 2009)|
- “Herbert Morrison, Hindenburg Reporter” New York Times, January 11, 1989.
- “Herbert Morrison; Gave Report on Hindenburg” Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1989, page 13.
- “Herbert Morrison, Radio Reporter at Hindenburg Crash” Los Angeles Times, January 11, 1989, page 1-20.
- “Unforgettable Day” New York Times, May 5, 1985, page 58.
- Real Audio playback of Morrison's report from the Radio Days web site (36:47)
- Alternate playback from the Voices of the Twentieth Century web site (0:57)
- Corrected speed version of Morrison's recording from the WLS History web site
- Historian Michael Biel at the Wayback Machine (archived August 14, 2007) and others in an exhaustive discussion of the broadcast and recordings from the old.time.radio mailing list.
- Hindenburg Disaster on YouTube