Announcer Graham McNamee called it the “most terrific broadcast [he] ever took part in.” He was referring to NBC’s on-the-spot coverage of Colonel Charles L. Lindbergh’s return from France to the United States on this day, 11 June, in 1927. It certainly was a technical achievement worthy of “this new world hero, this new ambassador of America to all other countries,” as McNamee heralded the “unassuming, quiet boy” who was anxiously awaited “not only the crowd of us ordinary folks but the cabinet of the President of the United States, high officials of the army and of the navy [. . .].”
According to the September 1927 issue of Radio Broadcast, NBC’s coverage of the event set a “new record,” requiring fourteen thousand miles of “wire line” and involved three-hundred and fifty engineers.
Now, the figures differ depending on who does the counting and recounting. In Empire of the Air, for instance, Tom Lewis claims it took twelve thousand miles of wire and four hundred engineers. But never mind those figures now—or the fact that the figure of Lindbergh itself differs now that the man must be held accountable for his fascist views and Third Reich sympathies. It was an historical event on and in the air, in aviation and broadcasting alike.
Awarding him with the Flying Cross, President Coolidge called Lindbergh a “[c]onqueror of the air and strengthener of the ties which bind us to our sister nations across the sea.” When it came to strengthening ties, the public-conquering airwaves were second to none. Not only was NBC’s coverage of Lindbergh’s return home the biggest network hookup to date, it was also, as McNamee reminded listeners, “the first time band music or music has been transmitted from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast, which is another epoch.”
As columnist John Wallace argued in the September 1927 issue of Radio Broadcast, the
making known of great national events, while they are actually taking place is, after all, radio’s unique contribution, and the one field in which it reigns supreme without competition from phonographs, theaters, churches, or newspapers. And it is greatly to radio’s credit that it does this job so thoroughly and well.
Seizing the day, NBC may have rather overdone its coverage of the “hullabaloo incidental to Lindbergh’s arrival.” Commenting on the banquet given in the aviator’s honor, Wallace remarked that he
would have been quite content had all the speeches of eulogy been omitted and only that of the flyer broadcast. Never have we heard worse blah sprung at a banquet, and sprung by such eminent leaders, divines and statesmen!
Aware that his was no doubt a minority report, the journalist added that “the nation as a whole was interested in every and any detail of the flyer’s reception and credit must be given to the National Broadcasting Company for slipping up on no smallest part.”
What, though, of all those who were unable to be part of that moment because they were away both from Washington, D. C., where the celebrations took place, and from the wireless? Able to annihilate space, radio was nonetheless time-bound. Given the “ephemeral” nature of broadcasting, the effort and money set aside to capture and yet not hold this historic moment seemed almost perverse:
Thousands of dollars are spent to engage talent, wires covering half a continent are hired, advertising is scheduled in newspapers, several studio rehearsals are held, and finally the elaborate program is put on the air. For an hour it lasts but it can never be repeated. If you did not hear it, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put it into your loud speaker again.
For some time, radio listeners had been able to appreciate the voices of their radio favorites on their phonographs. Not only could they take home Sam ‘n’ Henry, Vaughn De Leath, or the Happiness Boys—radio had made that happen—but they could hold and keep them there. “A very great number of well-known radio artists are regularly recording for each of the important phonograph companies,” Radio Broadcast pointed out—and supplied a list of
fine recordings made by the favorites of the Atwater Kent hour, and the famous artists of the Victor, Brunswick and Columbia hours. As for the jazz bands, the comedy duos, and other entertainers with a more local fame, they, too, are forever at your beck and call on the black discs.
What makes the festivities in honor of Lindbergh’s return to America another milestone in the history of radio is that, for the first time, phonograph records of the live broadcast were made available for sale. As Radio Broadcast reported,
Victor has the distinction of pioneering and they offer three double-face records of the national welcome to Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh at Washington. On these three records you have the voice of President Coolidge, the interspersed announcements of Graham McNamee, a short address by Colonel Lindbergh, and his longer speech at the National Press Club. It’s all there and if you close your eyes, it isn’t hard to imagine that the events are just taking place.
True, what has been preserved for us is an edited copy of the live event; the “ceremonies were recorded on forty-six record surfaces” and “edited down” to six. True, editing is judging what matters; it is, to a degree, falsification, intentional or otherwise. Still, without the technology available back then, without the efforts of those broadcasting pioneers, I would not be writing about radio today.
As much as I at times deplore my second-hand experiences, my removal in time and space from thrilling events and fascinating personages, I, as a belated auditor, am indebted to those records. And I am grateful, too, for the “new record” in aviation that marked the beginning of an age in which sound was no barrier.