Herbert Morrison (announcer)

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Herbert Morrison
Herbert Morrison announcer.jpg
Born(1905-05-14)May 14, 1905
DiedJanuary 10, 1989(1989-01-10) (aged 83)
Occupation Radio journalist

Herbert Oglevee "Herb" Morrison (May 14, 1905January 10, 1989) was an American radio journalist 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.

Broadcast journalism field of news and journals which are broadcast

Broadcast journalism is the field of news and journals which are "broadcast", that is, published by electrical methods instead of the older methods, such as printed newspapers and posters. Broadcast methods include radio, television and the World Wide Web. Such media disperse pictures, visual text and sounds.

<i>Hindenburg</i> disaster Airship fire, 6 May 1937

The Hindenburg disaster occurred on May 6, 1937, in Manchester Township, New Jersey, United States. The German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed during its attempt to dock with its mooring mast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst. On board were 97 people ; there were 36 fatalities.

LZ 129 <i>Hindenburg</i> German airship in service 1936-1937

LZ 129 Hindenburg was a large German commercial passenger-carrying rigid airship, the lead ship of the Hindenburg class, the longest class of flying machine and the largest airship by envelope volume. It was designed and built by the Zeppelin Company on the shores of Lake Constance in Friedrichshafen and was operated by the German Zeppelin Airline Company. The airship flew from March 1936 until it was destroyed by fire 14 months later on May 6, 1937 while attempting to land at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in Manchester Township, New Jersey, at the end of the first North American transatlantic journey of its second season of service with the loss of 36 lives. This was the last of the great airship disasters; it was preceded by the crashes of the British R38 in 1921, the US airship Roma in 1922, the French Dixmude in 1923, the British R101 in 1930, and the USS Akron in 1933.


Little is known of Morrison's early life, his career prior to the on-site report he gave of the Hindenburg's fiery destruction, and of his career subsequent to the tragedy.

The Hindenburg disaster

Morrison and engineer Charlie Nehlsen [1] had been assigned by station WLS in Chicago to cover the arrival of the Hindenburg in New Jersey for delayed broadcast.

WLS (AM) clear-channel news/talk radio station in Chicago

WLS is a commercial AM radio station in Chicago, Illinois. Owned by Cumulus Media, through licensee Radio License Holdings LLC, the station airs a talk radio format. WLS has its studios in the NBC Tower on North Columbus Drive in the city's Streeterville neighborhood, and its non-directional broadcast tower is located on the southern edge of Tinley Park, Illinois.

New Jersey State of the United States of America

New Jersey is a state in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. It is a peninsula, bordered on the north and east by the state of New York; on the east, southeast, and south by the Atlantic Ocean; on the west by the Delaware River and Pennsylvania; and on the southwest by the Delaware Bay and Delaware. New Jersey is the fourth-smallest state by area but the 11th-most populous, with 9 million residents as of 2017, making it the most densely populated of the 50 U.S. states with its biggest city being Newark. New Jersey lies completely within the combined statistical areas of New York City and Philadelphia. New Jersey was the second-wealthiest U.S. state by median household income as of 2017.

Radio network policy in those days forbade the use of any other recorded material than that used for sound effects, and Morrison and Nehlsen had no facilities for live broadcast. Even so, the results still became the prototype for news broadcasting in the war years that followed. The event had no effect on this policy, and recordings were not regularly used until after the end of World War II.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Morrison's description began routinely, but it changed instantly as the airship burst into flames:
(Complete recording here.) [2]

It's practically standing still now they've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship; and (uh) 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 (uh) slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it (uh) just enough to keep it from...It's 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 between it. This is terrible; this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world. Oh it's... [unintelligible] its flames... Crashing, oh! oh, four or five hundred feet into the sky, and it’s a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. There’s smoke, and there’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; it – I can't even talk to people, their friends are on there! Ah! It's... it... it's a... ah! 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. 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 I've lost my voice. This is the worst thing I've ever witnessed.

Herbert Morrison, Transcription of WLS radio broadcast describing the Hindenburg disaster.
[3] [4]

Morrison and Nehlsen continued their work, reporting at length on the rescue efforts and interviewing survivors, with several pauses while Morrison composed 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 that 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.

Acetate disc type of gramophone record

An acetate disc is a type of phonograph (gramophone) record, a mechanical sound storage medium, widely used from the 1930s to the late 1950s for recording and broadcast purposes and still in limited use today.

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. [5]

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. [5] [6]

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, making the crash a media event and raising its importance far beyond other less well-reported and documented disasters.

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.

Morrison later served in the Army Air Forces during World War II and was the first news director at WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh. He also ran for Congress three times as a Pennsylvania Republican. Prior to retirement he served as a technical adviser for the 1975 film The Hindenburg and developed a radio and television section at West Virginia University.


  1. BBC Prime: TV Documentary: Days That Shook the World (2003): TV Episode: Disaster in the Skies (2004); Charlie Nehlsen played by Dickon Tolson
  2. Herbert Morrison's Complete Radio Broadcast, from WLS Eye Witness Recording Of Airship Hindenburg Disaster, 1937 LP vinyl recording.
  3. The full recording is available at “Hindenburg Disaster: Herb Morrison Reporting,” Radio Days, www.otr.com/hindenburg.shtml (accessed May 21, 2014).
  4. "Herb Morrison - Hindenburg Disaster, 1937". National Archive.
  5. 1 2 Jeff560.tripod.com
  6. The Making and Use of Recordings in Broadcasting before 1936 copyright 1977 PhD dissertation by Dr. Michael Biel, Morehead State University

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