Oh the humanity!

Radio listeners and television watchers around the world are accustomed to broadcast interruptions for breaking news events. We have all seen the “breaking news” graphic and dramatic music which suddenly interrupt programming for coverage of everything from thunderstorm warnings to Presidential press conferences to the outbreak of wars.

These broadcast interruptions and the momentous events they sometimes foretell are burned into the memory of those who see them, live or delayed. Even those of us who were not alive in November 1963 know what follows Walter Cronkite’s sudden “here is a bulletin from CBS News….” More recently many Americans recall the breaking news alert that preceded scenes of the burning twin towers in New York, the chaos at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, or happier events like the birth of the future King of England.

For radio listeners, the words and the mental picture these alerts paint is no less vivid. Listeners to a Sunday afternoon professional football game in New York in 1941 suddenly heard the staccato tones of a breathless announcer nearly shouting into the microphone, “Flash! Washington! The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor!”

But it was an event four years earlier, on this day in 1937; recorded as it happened but which did not go on the air live; which cemented radio’s place as a source for breaking news coverage and which showed how the new medium could bring its listeners right into the heart of a major developing news story as it happened.

And it was brought to listeners across the country by a young Illinois radio reporter.

Herb Morrison was a news reporter for WLS radio in Chicago. The station had gotten started in April 1924 as a way for its parent company, Sears (known as the World’s Largest Store, or WLS for short) sought a way to communicate directly and immediately with the farmers to whom it marketed many of its products. Its first studio was housed on the 11th floor of the Sears-Roebuck Tower in Chicago. One of the station’s early hits was the National Barn Dance variety show geared toward rural audiences. Before long the station had moved to a larger studio in Chicago’s Sherman Hotel.

Sears exited the radio business in 1928, but the station retained its call letters. Meanwhile WLS continued to expand its programming and by 1937 Herb Morrison was part of a team which delivered news updates during breaks from such programs as Homemakers Hour and The Smile-A-While Show.

In early May the station gave Morrison a different assignment, this time out in the field. He would be reporting from Lakehurst, New Jersey, as the German airship Hindenburg arrived at the end of a flight across the Atlantic.

The flight of the large airship had been heavily publicized by Germany’s Zeppelin Company, seeking to build a market for trans-Atlantic airship travel. Before he left Chicago, Morrison had been given a pamphlet by the city’s German consul general, describing the airship in detail. He had also studied up on the proper terms to describe an airship’s arrival, and what distinguished the Zeppelin from a blimp.

So common was the belief that airships were the vehicle of the future that New York’s newly-constructed Empire State Building had been designed with an airship mooring mast atop its roof to allow passengers to embark on journeys around the world from midtown Manhattan. The Zeppelin Company sought to make the Hindenburg’s tenth arrival in the United States on May 6, 1937, a truly momentous event.

Thanks in part to Herb Morrison, it was.

Eight days shy of his 32nd birthday, Morrison and engineer Charlie Nehlsen were among the crowd of onlookers as the massive airship approached the mooring mast at Lakehurst Naval Air Station just outside New York City. WLS did not have the capability to broadcast live from the field that day, so Nehlsen was recording Morrison’s narration onto a 16-2/3 RPM acetate disk which would then be handed over to a courier from NBC who would take the record to the network’s headquarters in New York for playback on the air.

“Well here it comes ladies and gentlemen,” Morrison said, stepping outside into a light spring rain as the Hindenburg approached its destination at 7:25 p.m. “We’re out now, outside the hangar, and what a great sight it is, a thrilling one, just a marvelous sight.”

Morrison’s wonder at the scene he was describing would turn to horror in an instant.

Suddenly a flame shot out of the huge craft. Inflated with extremely flammable hydrogen gas, the Hindenburg was a massive floating bomb. All it took was one spark to set off a rapid, unstoppable conflagration. Morrison was in mid-sentence when the shocking scene began unfolding before his eyes.

“The back motors of the ship are just holding it just enough to keep it from…Oh! It’s burst into flame!” he shouted into the microphone, turning to make sure Nehlsen was recording the sudden turn of events. “Get this Charlie! Get this Charlie! It’s fire, and it’s crashing! It’s terrible, oh my, get out of the way please!”

Morrison’s voice cracked as he was overcome by the emotion of seeing the giant airship now burning from end-to-end, its metal frame crashing to the earth while ground crew members raced to avoid the falling debris, then heroically turned around and ran back in to rescue survivors.

“This is terrible, this is one of the worst catastrophes in the world…It’s crashing, oh the flames, four or five hundred feet into the sky and it, it’s a terrific crash ladies and gentlemen, it’s smoke and its flames now, and the frame is crashing to the ground now, not quite to the mooring mast. Oh the humanity!”

Finally Morrison had to stop his narration as the enormity of the scene he was witnessing struck, and through his tears he apologized to his listeners. “I’m sorry, honestly, I can hardly breathe. I am going to step inside where I cannot see it….Listen, folks, I’m going to have to stop for a minute because I’ve lost my voice. This is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed.”

Recovering, Morrison continued his narration, describing the scene and the rescue efforts of the 61 survivors of the crash, as well as the death of 35 on board and one member of the ground crew.

Press tickers across the nation came alive with the bland news alert that “the German airship Hindenburg is on fire,” while Morrison’s much more emotional immediate narration was packed away in Nehlsen’s equipment (the NBC courier was nowhere to be found in the chaos following the crash). State police secured a wide perimeter around the crash site, which kept other reporters out, meaning Morrison was one of the few media eyewitnesses to the entirety of the disaster.

Speculation ran rampant as to what had happened. Sabotage was (and still is) among the theories behind the cause of the crash, though many believe static electricity in the air from nearby thunderstorms may have been enough to provide the spark which ignited the hydrogen.

Whatever the cause, Morrison and Nehlsen later said they were followed by German SS officers who were at the site to secure the landing and to round up any evidence of what happened. They spent a few hours after the crash hiding from the SS and then decided to rush back to Chicago on the first flight, along with their precious recording. The next day, Morrison’s report aired on WLS and was broadcast nationwide by NBC, the first such recorded report ever aired by the network.

The WLS reporters’ words painted a picture for listeners like they had never experienced from a news report before. Though they did not hear it live, the immediacy of the event struck everyone who heard it, and still does to this day. Morrison’s anguished, “Oh the humanity!” would become the timeless phrase of the narration of the terrible event. His emotions during the broadcast are a far cry from the on-air professionalism so common in the demeanor of broadcasters today, yet they lend an undeniable authenticity to the description. A recording of the broadcast was even said to have been studied by Orson Welles’ theater troupe a year later as they prepared for their War of the Worlds production.

The wreckage of the Hindenberg
the day after the disaster.
Back in Chicago, station owner Burridge Butler presented Morrison and Nehlsen with gold watches in honor of their historic reporting. Morrison would stay with WLS for two more years before moving on to the nationwide Mutual Broadcasting System. He joined the Army Air Force during World War II. After the war he was an early television pioneer, working as news director at a Pittsburgh TV station and even running for Congress from Pennsylvania, but without success. Nehlsen remained at WLS for the rest of his career, retiring from the station nearly 30 years later.

Herb Morrison, the Chicago radio journalist who in an instant went from a variety show announcer to America’s first iconic breaking news reporter, died in 1989 at the age of 83.