In 1937, an announcer for WLS Chicago — Herbert Morrison — was in Lakehurst, NJ to cover the arrival of the Hindenburg airship. It had just completed its first year of service and had successfully returned from Europe. American Airlines hired the Hindenburg to shuttle passengers from Lakehurst to Newark for connecting airplane flights. It was when they were trying to dock into its mooring tower that people began noticing gas was leaking. There was little time for reaction as the dirigible caught fire midair and exploded as it hit the ground.
Not only was this event significant as a huge disaster in our history, but it also served as the first time pre-recorded material was broadcast over a radio network. Morrison’s emotional description of the Hindenburg’s final moments was played and replayed over and over again. His recorded track was put to film to create newsreels that moved the catastrophe from people’s imaginations to actually being there while it happened.
Watching the newsreel footage with the aural experience is much more effective. Try watching this next video with no sound. It’s horrible to watch, but it doesn’t stir the emotions that Morrison does through his experience.
Newsreel footage from the Hindenburg crash without sound – from AlbusPercyDumbledore
Even this next video — from a Universal Pictures newsreel — doesn’t bring about the same pathos to its audience because it lacks true emotion. There is music playing and a very professional announcer, but it sounds just like a movie. It doesn’t make the viewer feel like they are there, experiencing the explosion as it happens.
While the Hindenburg’s crash was a great catastrophe in our history, the death toll was surprisingly low. Of the 93 people aboard, only 35 people actually died — along with one person on the ground. Many jumped out or were pulled to safety in time. The newsreels of the time were somewhat inaccurate — over-emphasizing the death toll. Nothing can compare, however, to the strong emotional appeal Morrison makes through his recorded broadcast. Radio would never be the same, and it’s easy to see how powerful television would become in news making and news telling in the future.