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When the Levee Breaks: The Origin of On-Demand Content

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Near the end of Empires of the Sky, Alexander Rose’s soaring history of Germany’s Zeppelin company and the race to achieve transoceanic passenger flight, he finally gets to the part of the story that everybody knows: the hy­dro­gen leak that caused the massive Hindenburg airship to descend in flames over a New Jersey airfield, killing 35 passengers and crew members and gravely injuring nearly 60 more.

Hours after the disaster, radio journalist Herbert Morrison and recording engineer Charlie Nehlsen rushed to deliver the only existing audio recording of the tumult surrounding the airship's demise—including Morrison's second-by-second commentary on the disaster as it unfolded—to their station managers at WLS in Chicago, who refused to play it. In 1937, radio networks banned the playback of recorded audio on air, based on the prevailing assumption that radio listeners were only interested in hearing live news broadcasts and live performances.

The WLS managers eventually relented and played short excerpts of the recording the following morning. NBC followed suit later in the day. "These were the only occasions on which Morri­son'as-it-happens reports were ever played on the radio," Rose writes, "but they marked the first time
that recordings of a breaking news event were ever broadcast.” Radio was never the same again.

Nearly a century later, most of us have seen newsreel footage of the Hindenburg disaster paired with Morrison's poignant "Oh, the humanity!" narration, and it's certainly rendered no less stunning by not being live. Here in the streaming world, of course, we have our own preconceived notions of what needs to be live and what doesn’t, as well as a prevailing sense that when live is possible, live is preferable—or even necessary.

The radio industry's delayed recognition that there was a willing audience for the one-of-a-kind Morrison-Nehlsen Hindenburg tapes—and the broadcast-standards floodgates that opened in their wake—reminds us that it's often the content, not the live or VOD, that separates a successful launch from a lead balloon.

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