- Herbert Morrison (announcer)
Radio network policy in those days forbade the use of recorded material except for sound effects on dramas, and Morrison and Nielsen had no facilities for live broadcast. Still the results became the prototype for news broadcasting in the war years to follow. The fame of this recording had no effect on network policies, however, and it was not until after the end of World War II that recordings were regularly used.
Morrison's description began routinely but changed instantly as the airship burst into flames:
It's practically standing still now. They've dropped ropes out of the nose of the ship, and they've been taken a hold of down on the field by a number of men. It's starting to rain again; it's—the rain had slacked up a little bit. The back motors of the ship are just holding it just, just enough to keep it from — It burst into flames! It burst into flames, and it's falling, it's crashing! Watch it! Watch it, folks! Get out of the way! Get out of the way! 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 agree that this is terrible, this is the worst of the worst catastrophes in the world. [Indeciperable word(s)] It's–it's–it's the flames, [indecipherable, possibly the word "climbing"] oh, four- or five-hundred feet into the sky and it ... it's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen. It's smoke, and it'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, I can't even talk to people whose friends are on there. Ah! It's–it's–it's–it's ... o–ohhh! 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. Lady, 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. I, 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.
Morrison and Nehlsen continued their work, reporting at length on the rescue efforts and interviewing survivors, with several pauses while Morrison composes 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 sixteen-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 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.
The emotional feeling may be intensified by the fact that Nehlsen's Presto 6D recorder ran about 3% slow, causing Morrison's voice to sound different than it actually was. Morrison's normal speaking and radio announcer voice was actually quite deep.
Audio historian Michael Biel of Morehead State University studied the original recordings and documented 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.
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, ironically making the crash a media event and raising its importance far beyond other disasters, less well-reported and documented.
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.
An urban legend has it that Morrison was fired by WLS for his emotional reaction, but according to the station's weekly magazine and Morrison himself, this is not true. In fact, he was highly praised by station management, and the story of how he and Nielsen made the recording was described in detail. It is possible that the story of his being fired came about because Morrison left WLS a year later to work for the Mutual Broadcasting System and that network's New York flagship station, WOR.
Morrison served in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, and later became the first news director at WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In the 1975 motion picture The Hindenburg, Herbert Morrison was employed as a technical adviser. He was portrayed by actor Greg Mullavy in the movie, but his recording was used in the film. Herbert was also sent across the country by Universal Studios to promote the film.
He retired to live outside Morgantown, West Virginia. He was active as a lecturer to colleges and news organizations. He died in Morgantown, survived by his wife Mary Jane.
During the 75th Anniversary broadcast of The History of WLS in 1999, producer and narrator Jeff Davis played the corrected-speed version of Morrison's Hindenburg recording. This was the first time that the version was heard by a national radio audience. The corrected-speed version is noticeably different, as the shock wave from the blast is now clearly audible. In the previous, higher-speed version the shock wave was somewhat muffled.
"Oh, the humanity"
Morrison's phrase "Oh, the humanity" has become an American idiom, most often used in a satirical way to ridicule, diminish and trivialize emotional displays the speaker deems overly sentimental. It is also used to satirize heinous acts of world leaders.
The phrase has also been used in a cynical way to decry exaggerated responses to minor tragedies - examples being on the "Turkeys Away" episode of WKRP In Cincinnati, "The One Where Ross Can't Flirt" episode of "Friends", The Red Green Show, Heathers, Wayne's World, "The Pothole" episode of Seinfeld, "Rainy Days" episode of Recess, on Mystery Science Theater 3000 by TV's Frank when Dr. Forrester blows up the Underdog balloon at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, "Cow Days", "Terrance and Phillip in Not Without My Anus" and "Simpsons Already Did It" episodes of South Park, the "Lisa the Beauty Queen" episode of The Simpsons, frequently said by Soun Tendo on Ranma ½, by Lou Diamond Phillips' character in The Big Hit, "Couch Potato" on "Weird Al" Yankovic's Poodle Hat album, Celebrity Deathmatch when Marilyn Manson kills Hanson and the Spice Girls, The Grinch, twice in the television series Monk (in season 2's "Mr. Monk and the Paperboy" when Adrian Monk accidentally wipes his hands with a garage rag and gets engine oil onto them, and in season 3's "Mr. Monk and the Kid" when he is changing a diaper), in the video game Spore if and when the player destroys the planet Earth, and in Series 6 Episode 5 of British comedy Peep Show (TV Series) when someone does a poo in the toilet during a flat party.
Morrison seems to have used the word "humanity" or "humanities" to indicate large numbers of people; he calls the crowd on the ground "a seething mass of humanity" before the crash. The band The Reverend Horton Heat recorded a track entitled "Aw, the Humanity," which contains the lyrics, among others referencing the crash of the Hindenburg as a humorous allegory for a public breakup, "Aw the humanity, though it really wasn't clear what that guy meant when he said 'Aw the humanity.'"
- “Herbert Morrison, Hindenburg Reporter” New York Times, January 11, 1989.
- “Herbert Morrison; Gave Report on Hindenburg” Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1989, page 13.
- “Herbert Morrison, Radio Reporter at Hindenburg Crash” Los Angeles Times, January 11, 1989, page 1-20.
- “Unforgettable Day” New York Times, May 5, 1985, page 58.
- Real Audio playback of Morrison's report from the Radio Days web site (36:47)
- Alternate playback from the Voices of the Twentieth Century web site (0:57)
- Corrected speed version of Morrison's recording from the WLS History web site
- Historian Michael Biel and others in an exhaustive discussion of the broadcast and recordings from the old.time.radio mailing list.
- YouTube - Hindenburg Disaster
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