August 1, 2014

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"Plausibly Live"

Coverage of a disaster was the first known recorded program ever broadcast.

In the wake of the discussion over NBC airing Olympics events hours after they actually happened (something ABC and CBS did long before NBC), partly because the Olympics took place overseas-and so they could be aired in prime time-there's a story about the first "event" NBC is said to have aired on a delayed basis. It was one of the biggest pre-World War II disasters of the 20th Century.

On May 6, 1937, the German Zeppelin airship Hindenburg "burst into flames" while landing at a Naval air base in Lakehurst, New Jersey. It was also one of the first eyewitness accounts which aired on radio. But it didn't, as some believe, air live.

The broadcaster was West Virginia native Herb Morrison, who worked as a newsman for Chicago radio station WLS. Morrison and a station engineer went out to record the Hindenburg's arrival at Lakehurst as part of a trip organized and sponsored by American Airlines, whose flights connected with the airships.

Morrison recorded his account of the tragedy as it happened-with an amazing, vivid account of the disaster-on what were called "Electronic Transcription" discs. They are difficult for me to describe, but, in short, they're primitive, even compared to tapes we now call "old technology".  The machines used to record them were equally primative, requiring an engineer to operate them.

But just as amazing is how Morrison and his engineer had to get them back to the station in Chicago. The Germans, who were aware of his recorded account (and remember, this is Hitler's Germany, in the years just before World War II), were on the lookout for the Chicago crew, apparently wanting to confiscate the recordings. So Morrison had to smuggle the discs to get them out of New Jersey.

When NBC (whose Blue Network then had an affiliation with WLS) knew the disaster was recorded, it wanted those recordings, since they were the only known eyewitness account of the tragedy. But, according to WLS's historians, NBC (as well as CBS) actually had rules prohibiting recorded broadcasts. Everything at that time on radio-music, news, sports, any kind of entertainment programming-was done live.  So it had to waive that rule to air Morrison's report.

It wouldn't be until the 1950's-after the arrival of television-that recorded programs and segments such as on-the-scene news reports became commonplace. The technology for "live" news reports within newscasts wasn't fully developed until the 1970's. But it was one of the biggest events of the past century-and reported by a West Virginian-brought about a historic change in broadcasting.

 

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