The Hindenburg Broadcast

Dr. Michael Biel

Following are posts by Dr. Michael Biel of Morehead State University an old-time radio mailing list, reproduced here with his permission.

Date: Tue, 6 May 1997 22:18:41 -0400
From: "Michael Biel"
Subject: NPR's Hindenburg Disaster

Well folks, NPR's All Things Considered screwed up history again. They broadcast a nice piece about Herb Morrison's eye-witness report of the Hindenburg disaster which happened sixty years ago this evening. But they assumed that it was a live broadcast. As we all know, it was a recording that was made on a portable Presto disc cutter and not broadcast until the following day. I will be sending a correction via e-mail, and let's see how responsive they are to their mistake.

They opened the piece by saying that it was a broadcast from May 6, 1937 and then closed by saying that the following morning there were newspaper accounts, but radio listeners had already heard about it from Morrison's broadcast. Actually, there WERE some radio bulletins but none of them were by Morrison, and the first occurred about an hour after the explosion. NBC broadcast a bulletin from the New York studios at 7:45 EDT on both the Red and Blue networks, and at 9:07 to 9:11 and again at 9:15 to 9:21 William Burke Miller broadcast interviews live from a mobile unite at Lakehurst on the Blue Network. Additional bulletins were broadcast at 10:00 to 10:03 on both Red and Blue, and again fore a minute at 10:36 on Blue only. At 11:30 to 11:43 both Red and Blue presented a report from Lakehurst by James Begley of KYW, Philadelphia. Other live reports from the NBC mobile unit were broadcast at 2:49 to 3:04 A.M and 8:21 to 8:30 A.M.

Morrison and recording engineer Charlie Nehlsen had left their disc cutter behind in Lakehurst and had flown with the four 16-inch discs to Chicago via Newark, Buffalo, and Detroit. They probably aired an excerpt of the recording on WLS, Chicago, their home station, and then at 11:38 to 11:45 A.M. EDT a short portion was aired on NBC Red plus WJZ. Morrison was interviewed live and an excerpt of the recording was played on NBC Blue minus WJZ at 4:30 to 4:45 P.M. THIS IS THE ONLY TIME THAT THESE RECORDINGS WERE EVER BROADCAST ON THE NBC NETWORK. This is also the first time that a recording was allowed to be broadcast on NBC, and I can count on my fingers the other times that NBC broadcast recordings--knowingly and unknowingly--until the middle of WW II.

The following day, Saturday May 8, 1937, the four disc were taken to RCA Victor's Chicago Studio C and dubbed onto three 16-inch 33 1/3 RPM wax masters MS 08107 thru 09. The four original Presto Green Seal lacquer discs were then locked in the vault of Burride D. Butler, publisher of The Prairie Farmer and president of WLS, and were delivered to the Federal Communications Commission by WLS's Glen Snyder in December 1937 and delivered to the National Archives on January 22, 1938 per an offer of deposit dated July 9, 1937.

The three wax masters were pressed on red label vinyl pressings, and I know of only one set. It is in private hands and there are NOT any copies held by the National Archives, NBC, or the Library of Congress. I have been mystified by this omission for many years. Test pressings were used to record two 12-inch 78 RPM masters in New York on May 21 with an introduction by Milton Cross, CS 07694-1 and CS 07696-1 which were available to the public on the "On the NBC" label. Six 12-inch 78 RPM masters were dubbed from the test pressings in Chicago on June 7, 1937 on CS 08165-1 thru 170. It is pressings of these which show up in the archives despite the fact that they time out at a total of 28 minutes 44 seconds, while the original three 16-inch dubs time out at 39 minutes 1 second. That set itself, by the way, lacks a few seconds of background sound at the beginning of the first side, about 6 seconds of low level sound at the time of the explosion, and the last half of the last sentence at the end of the last disc. These sounds, of course, are on the originals which are at the National Archives, which is the source of the recording made available by Herb Morrison to George Garabedian for issue on Mark 56 Records.

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 flame . . ."

As has been stated in postings the last few days, 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.

The information in this posting is based on my Ph.D. dissertation "The Making and Use of Recordings in Broadcasting before 1936" which is copyright 1977. The details come from my inspection of the files at The National Archives, RCA Victor, NBC, the NBC logs, and all the recordings themselves. Quotes can be taken for non-commercial educational purposes provided that I am given credit for the information.

Michael Biel, Ph.D.
Professor, Radio-TV
Morehead State University

Date: Mon, 5 May 1997 23:06:05 -0400
From: "Michael Biel"
Subject: Re: Hindenburg eyewitness account recording

has anyone ever noticed that the speed/pitch of this recording seems to be off? All copies of the recording that I've ever heard appear to run fast. At least that was my untested theory until last weekend.

Michael Biel replies:

As Joe Salerno mentioned yesterday, we were discussing the general topic of finding the correct pitch of spoken word recordings in an after-hour session at ARSC, but it is even more funny that you mention the speed problem on the Hindenburg recording specifically because not only have I been saying that for years, I was discussing that very thing with Lee Munsick at the Cinc OTR convention a couple of weeks ago. I have long been dissatisfied with the speed of the playbacks of this recording. My reason is similar to yours.

--Last weekend I was spot-checking a few reels of big band broadcast material for a certain selection. The reel consisted primarily of airshots of various Bunny Berigan remotes from 1938 (I believe these originally came from Jerry Valburn). One of the excerpts contained the closing portion of a broadcast from the Paradise Restaurant in New York City (over Mutual) circa April, 1938. The closing announcements were done be Herbert Morrison, who identifies himself at the end of the program! By pitch-correcting the music I was able to get a fairly accurate reading on Morrison's voice, which appeared to be somewhat deeper and less-strained than what is heard on the Hindenburg recording. It appears as thought the Hindenburg account runs a minimum a three percent faster than it should!

The afternoon NBC broadcast of the recording which I describe in my dissertation was the reason why I have been dissatisfied with the speed for 25 years. Morrison is interviewed there and his voice is quite deep and, like you describe, smooth and easy. Of course, with stress the pitch of someone's voice rises, but if you go back to the beginning of the recording his pitch is also too high and there was no cause for stress then. I still haven't gotten the morning program yet, but it would be over at the Library of Congress.

And by the way, the ONLY appropriate source for this recording is either the National Archives directly (because they are from the actual original discs) or the Mark 56 LP which is made from a Nat Arch reference copy. There are sounds on the Archive's playing of the discs that are on no other version. Morrison showed up at the Archives about 4 days after I had authenticated the discs, and Les Waffen gave him the reference dub that he had made for me which was still sitting on his desk waiting to be mailed! George Garabedian who ran Mark 56 confirmed to me that this tape was the source of the LP. I wish he had checked with me before he did the LP because I would have told him to slow the tape down.

Should also mention that Mike Stosich was a big help in this project. He assisted in the pitch-correction estimates and also loaned me his copy of your thesis (is that correct?) on the history of Broadcast recording in the United States. Your notes on the Hindenburg recording were most helpful. Come to think of it, the whole work is extremely fascinating!

Thanks, I am working on getting copies to a dealer friend of mine for sale. Actually it is a dissertation, not a thesis. And say hi to Mike Stosich for me. I just did a presentation at the Association for Recorded Sound Collections about the development of instantaneous recording and showed the rare 16-inch Fairchild disc he had found for me, and I mentioned that he was the source of the disc.

By the way, the Hindenburg recording came up in Cinc because Lee Munsick is proposing a session about the recording for Jay Hickerson's convention this fall and I will probably join in. I'll show the photos I took of the original discs (which are at the National Archives,) including close-ups of the grooves at the point of the explosion. As I describe in my dissertation, you can see several digs before the cutting head left the disc and you can see how Charlie Nielsen took two revolutions to gently lower it back. I have been wanting to play the discs MYSELF at the Nat Archives (or have it played for me) and will discuss that with Les there, because I also don't like the filtering they did. If I can play it or have it played, I want to videotape the tracking of the grooves at the point of the explosion.

Michael Biel

Date: Fri, 9 May 1997 00:33:26 -0400
From: "Michael Biel"
Subject: Re: Hindenburg Disaster

Have perused all the posts on this over the last few days but don't remember seeing any ref to what I heard on NPR's "All Things Considered" tonight.

Thanks for bringing this up. I had not heard the piece and I didn't realize that they had run this "correction" on Wednesday night's program instead of waiting for the letters section on Thursday. It was not yet up on the NPR web site in Real Audio this morning and I had to wait till this evening to hear it. I still haven't heard the Thursday letters section so I don't know if there was some other notice about it tonight.

They reported that Morrison's report was recorded and played over the network about three hours after the incident.

Their correction was still wrong. They referred to Win Matthias, an old pal of mine at the Library of Congress. Now, Win has access to the sound recordings of the NBC collection, so maybe he DOES know something that I did not see in the handwritten comments in the NBC logs that are also there, but as you mention, NPR stated that what NBC Blue aired was a "three hour old recording." As I mentioned in my posting on Tuesday, there was a bulletin on both networks from New York at 7:45 and then there were some on the scene reports by William Burke Miller (who was chief announcer of NBC) from 9:07 to 9:11 and again at 9:15 to 9:21 on Blue. There is no evidence in the handwritten comments on the back of the NBC logs that this included a broadcast of the Morrison recording, all it says that there were interviews in the 9:15 segment. I'll try to give Win a call tomorrow and ask him if perhaps he listened to the recording and they DID play the Morrison disc, but I really tend to doubt it. While Miller WAS the one who two years later wrote the memo that allowed NBC to replay the recording of Prime Minister Chamberlin's declaration of war address which had occurred in the middle of the night U.S. time, Sept 3, 1939, even then his memo states that it is "on authority of Mr. Royal" who was NBC president. I doubt Miller would have taken his own initiative at Lakehurst. I never did find the memos that declared who gave permission to air Morrison's recording--it might have been done by phone. Morrison was still at Lakehurst at the time of the 9:15 report I believe, and perhaps HE was interviewed.

(Aside:--Sam B: could you show this and my earlier posting to Win and have him check on this before I call. And Les W: do you have any of these bulletin broadcasts at the Archives?)

The [NPR] report said that both CBS & NBC at that time permitted only live feeds whether music, drama, comedy, news or what have you. But due to the gravity of this report, an exception was made. Morrison thus became the first radio newsman to file a transcribed piece.

NPR went on to say that the general ban on recorded programs lasted for several years until Bing Crosby made an issue of it and won out.

With the exception of my dissertation, no broadcast history I have ever seen has mentioned the ammunition that Bing was able to use on ABC. Throughout the Spring and Summer of 1946, ABC was delaying their programs via recordings for one hour for the stations that had not switched to Daylight Savings Time. SURPRISE! Actually, it was the EDITING of the recorded program that was the major difference, not just the fact that it was recorded. The editing was done by disc dubbing in the fashion that the Armed Forces Radio Network engineers had perfected. Tape was not used until 1947, and the first tape edited show was aired on October 1, 1947 via a disc that had been dubbed from the tape. They did not air from the tape directly until May 1948, and that was only because ABC had just started doing the Daylight Saving Time delays via tape instead of disc.

But even after Bing was able to cajole ABC into allowing him to pre-record Philco Radio Time starting in the fall of 1946, NBC and CBS were hesitant to allow recordings on the air. Actually, Pacific Coast Blue had been allowed to use some delayed recorded programs as far back as 1940 because there were some competitive problems, and NBC also did daylight savings delays in starting in '47 via disc, it was not until February 8, 1949 that Ken R. Dyke sent out memo #2-49-005 that rescinded all prohibitions from the airing of recordings on NBC. My theory is that TV was the reason for this decision. They were airing film and kinescope film recordings on their TV network, so it was a contradiction to not allow a radio program to be pre-recorded. I have never seen that admission in print, by the way, but it seems logical. Films and kines were noticeably of lower quality than a live TV program, but a lacquer disc or an audio tape was potentially indistinguishable from a live radio show. NBC had been using the "sound quality" excuse since the 1929 NAB convention to propagandize against recorded broadcasts, and now this excuse was no longer defendable. (Actually it was a lie in 1929 too, but that is another story!)

By the way, before I close, I want to thank everyone who said such nice things about my earlier posting on this subject. It makes this work worthwhile. I really appreciate it. And some of my 78-L friends were even able to come up with the matrix numbers and dubbing date of the American Record Corporation 78 RPM releases that I had not known about (Chicago June 2, 1937, C-1916 and C-1917.) Now I have to see if ARC had access to the original discs or the RCA dub, or maybe even an NBC aircheck. The research never ends!

And once again, if you quote from this, please give me proper credit (or blame). Thanks!

Michael Biel, Ph.D.
Professor, Radio-TV Morehead State University, Morehead, Kentucky

Date: Fri, 23 Jun 2000 11:11:30 -0400
From: Michael Biel
Subject: Re: Hindenburg

John adds this comment: I once interviewed Herb Morrison, the guy who did the broadcast of the "Hindenburg" disaster. . . . John mentions that this is one of the earliest incidents of recorded material being used in a news broadcast and that it opened the door for future recordings.

Actually the door slammed tightly shut immediately after the Hindenburg broadcasts. NBC and CBS continued to ban the use of any recordings on the network except for incidental sounds in a drama. They didn't notice, however, that the following week they accidentally aired six short recorded excerpts of the Coronation of King George VI in a program "Empire's Homage" from the BBC at the end of the Coronation day. Ironically CBS had stationed a young Robert Trout in a studio in London to cut off the new King's message at the end of that program if he detected evidence that the speech had been pre-recorded because of the King's speech impediment. Many years later Trout told me that he would have been too afraid to have done it! But NBC got very upset at Lowell Thomas when they found out he included a recorded interview with the French Premier in his program from France the same week as the Coronation, and the Dutch Queen at the end of the month. When Radio Daily reported on the Thomas events, NBC became more vigilant. Other than the Hindenburg, the only news recording that NBC specifically allowed in the 30s was Chamberlain's Declaration of War on Sept 3, 1939. It had been broadcast so early in the morning (6:15 New York time) that they allowed it to be aired on the hour thru noon (minus Red at 10 and minus WEAF at 11). Further use of recordings on the networks did not resume until late in the war, and ONLY for notable battlefield reports--such as on D-Day, a playback of Churchill's VE-Day announcement which happened simultaneously with Truman's announcement, and the Japanese treaty signing which MacArthur would not allow to be broadcast live.

Michael Biel

Date: Tue, 28 Oct 2003 18:24:09 -0500
Subject: Re: Hindenburg question

Randy Miller asks if Herb Morrison lost his job following his Hindenburg disaster broadcast. This fable has been discussed here before, and is absolutely false. In fact, quite the opposite happened. He was highly praised by WLS, and the story of how the recording was made was published in the station's weekly magazine. He was even considered too valuable an asset to risk on physically risky assignments. It seems strange to all of us who commented on this story last time (Bill Jaker--who knew Morrison--and Elizabeth McLeod) as to why this fake story of his being fired is still being circulated. If I remember correctly, Elizabeth figured that it might be a reaction to the fact that he left WLS a year or two later to work for the Mutual network. Although this meant leaving a major network affiliate in the number two market, going to work for a national network is really a career advancement.

Michael Biel

Bill Jaker

Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 21:10:38 -0400
From: (Bill Jaker)
Subject: Hindenburg: How come?

In response to the question of why the Hindenburg's final arrival was transcribed at all even though the networks had a rule against recorded programs (a rule that I believe existed because programs distributed on disk could be direct competition to network service):

The Hindenburg broadcast was supposed to be a local program. Herb Morrison was announcer on "The Dinner Bell Hour", a midday series on WLS in Chicago that provided farm news and other information and entertainment, and was produced on a non-commercial basis. Morrison had done some impressive reports on the 1937 spring floods, describing farm devastation as seen from an airplane put at the disposal of WLS by American Airlines.

His relationship with the airline people led to his being invited to go to Lakehurst to see the arrival of the dirigible Hindenburg -- which AA booked and with which it made connections -- on the first anniversary of its transatlantic crossing. Herb had long believed that such events could be pre-recorded, American Airlines liked the idea, so of course did Presto Recording and so the management at WLS decided to go along with the experiment. The Hindenburg Broadcast started out as a publicity stunt: there are several mentions of American Airlines before the explosion, and even a couple afterward.

The idea was simply to record a few interviews with Chicago-area passengers and fly back to Chicago that night. As we all know, Morrison and the world got much more than was expected.

By the way, since WLS was an affiliate of NBC-Blue, Herb Morrison did try to contact the NBC newsroom in New York from Lakehurst and was told by the NBC operator that there had been a terrible disaster and she was under orders to allow no calls through. When he explained that it was Herb Morrison of WLS and that he was calling from Lakehurst, the operator responded with something like, "WLS? That's in Chicago. What would someone from WLS be doing in New Jersey?", and pulled the plug.

Date: Mon, 11 May 1998 21:17:42 -0400
From: Bill Jaker (
Subject: Re: Hindenburg

Well, since you were kind enough to ask...

As noted, Herb Morrison and Charlie Nehlsen (the correct spelling; I'm sure the family is used to all the variations) brought their recording equipment to Lakehurst by air and, according to Herb, after the explosion were pursued by German agents who wanted to keep the radio report from being heard, so they had to flee with the disks. By the time the NBC crew arrived at Lakehurst, Herb and Charlie and the disks were on their way back to Chicago. Herb tried to call the NBC newsroom in New York but the NBC operator wouldn't put him through.

It never occurred to them to take the recordings to New York or Philadelphia, where they could have fed them to the network, or at least to WLS.

If anyone took a picture of Herb and/or Charlie I never saw it in Herb's memorabilia, and I'm sure he would have valued it if such existed. After the broadcast, of course, there were several posed pictures back in Chicago with the Presto transcription cutter (which I guess was later flown back after being abandoned at Lakehurst).

A sidelight: a few of days after the Hindenburg broadcast Herb was invited to appear on an NBC network program. He would have to fly to New York and WLS wouldn't let him go. "You're much too valuable to us now," he was told. "We can't take any chances with you."

Date: Mon, 4 Dec 2000 12:58:18 -0500
From: Bill Jaker
Subject: Hindenburg broadcast

Did U know that the famous "on the spot remote" of the Hindenburg Disaster by Herb Morrison was not broadcast "live'? It was recorded and rushed back to the studio and played back on the air about 15 minutes later. Herb Morrison revealed this some time ago in an interview on a local Radio talk show.

There's been much discussion here of the Hindenburg broadcast, and we should all know the first part of Owen's comment by now. However, the rush back to the studio took more than fifteen minutes. Morrison and engineer Charlie Nehlsen flew back to their station WLS in Chicago with the discs, where the broadcast was first heard on the morning after the crash. It took a special dispensation from the president of NBC to a recording to be played on the network.

I knew Herb Morrison well and once asked him why he didn't just take the discs to Radio City rather than fly all the way back to Chicago. His reaction made it seem as if the idea had never occurred to him, and he said that since it was WLS's program they deserved to have it first. He may also have been annoyed at NBC since he tried to phone New York from Lakehurst just after the explosion and was told he couldn't be put through to the newsroom because of the terrible disaster that had taken place. Apparently the switchboard operator believed that someone claiming to be at Lakehurst and reporting for WLS in Chicago had to be perpetrating a hoax.

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