This story was published in Radio Recall, the journal of the Metropolitan Washington Old-Time Radio Club, published six times per year.
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ASK THE EXPERT...
Our expert in this issue is Michael Biel, Professor of Radio & TV, Morehead State University, Morehead Kentucky.
(From Radio Recall, June 2004)
QUESTION: I’ve heard that the Hindenburg disaster report by Herbert Morrison in 1937 was the first recorded broadcast aired coast to coast from NBC in New York City. It that accurate?
ANSWER: Not quite. The broadcasts of the recording originated in Chicago, not New York City, and naturally occurred on May 7, the day after the accident. Morrison was not an employee of NBC; he was an employee of WLS Chicago, owned by The Prairie Farmer and affiliated with NBC Blue. This became an important distinction because he could not convince NBC to put him on the air the night of the accident because they didn't know him from Adam. It is also why he took the recordings back to his home base in Chicago rather than bringing them to NBC in New York.
It was not "the first recorded coast-to-coast broadcast" for several reasons. First of all, only a segment of the recording was played on the two broadcasts. The recorded segment was introduced live by Morrison and Bob Brown. Thus only a portion of the broadcasts were recorded. (I knew Bob late in his life but he never mentioned to me that he had done that broadcast--oh the questions I could have asked!)
Secondly, the two NBC networks heard this recorded segment at two separate times. Red minus WEAF plus WJZ got it at 11:38-11:45 AM Eastern, and Blue minus WJZ plus WEAF got it at 4:30-4:45 PM Eastern. I have a recording of that latter broadcast. Bill Jaker reports that Morrison remembers a third and perhaps a fourth broadcast that day.
It is possible that there was an additional West Coast and/or Hawaii repeat that would not have gone thru New York City headquarters and therefore would not appear on the official NBC NYC logs which I have photocopied. Because the two feeds we know of were not regularly scheduled programs, we do not have the usual typed list of stations that aired them, so we can only assume that they may have been coast-to-coast. It may not have been simultaneous.
Thirdly, because Mutual did not have a prohibition against the use of recordings, they may have had aired some coast-to-coast recorded broadcasts.
Fourth, all that can be claimed is that this was the first time NBC knowingly broke the rule against playing recordings (other than incidental sound effects). Ironically, several times later that month they unknowingly aired recordings during "Empire's Homage" at the end of the Coronation of King George VI, and several of Lowell Thomas' programs from Europe. They were furious when they found out about Thomas' programs, but I have never found any evidence that either they nor CBS ever found out about the coronation ceremony recordings. These we know were aired simultaneously coast-to-coast.
Finally, we can't forget that there had been recorded syndicated broadcasts since 1928. Some of them were heard on more stations than NBC and CBS combined. They may not have been simultaneous broadcasts, but there are a couple that were designed to be nearly simultaneous--including the Amos 'n' Andy series because each episode had a specific air date. While syndication might not have the glamour of network, it was an important part of radio and deserves mention.
The original four discs--16-inch Presto Green Label lacquers--are in the National Archives. They had been used for the broadcasts and an almost complete re-recording at RCA Victor on Saturday, and then locked away in the safe of the publisher of The Prairie Farmer who donated them to the Archives in early 1938. The only subsequent replay was made in the mid-70s where some additional sound at the time of the explosion was discovered--playable with modern equipment for the first time.
There also was another half sentence at the end of disc 4 that had not been transferred by RCA in 1937. This transfer was issued on LP by Mark 56 Records from the Archives dub that was given to Morrison. Many radio historians feel that all of the replays of the discs run a bit too fast, and this issue has been subject to much discussion.