November 21, 2013
This week I've been geeking out on all the JFK assassination retrospectives on TV, in print and online, as Friday, November 22nd marks 50 years since that horrific day in Dallas. Like conspiracy theories that continue to abound from this awful, world-changing event, there appear to be an endless number of programs commemorating it.
On the surface, that sounds pretty morbid, I guess. But there's a reasonable explanation for my fascination with this historical day.
I was almost five years old the day Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas and like anybody even remotely aware of it, it remains a defining moment in my life ... a powerful, terrifying, unsettling moment. And if you're my age or older, I bet you'd agree, right? Mostly, I remember the news being on every minute for like, five days in a row and my dad -- more serious than his usual serious self -- constantly telling me to be quiet so he could hear the coverage.
Kennedy's murder is one of probably four, "Where were you?" moments of the last 100 years, the others being Pearl Harbor, the 1986 Space Shuttle explosion and 9/11.
Believe it or not (Go ahead, insert 'old fart' joke here), I was NOT around for Pearl Harbor. And while those images are black and white, grainy and old-looking -- like the JFK images are now for so many -- I still understood the significance of it, via school and my parents. My father was inspired to join the Army because of it.
But I was around and even working in radio for two other, monumental days.
On January 28th, 1986 I was nearing the end of my morning show on then-Country KZLA/Los Angeles when news of the Challenger space shuttle explosion broke. I first reported it live -- nervously and poorly, I might add -- then we flipped on our AP Audio and eventually, a TV news feed, I think. We stayed with that for hours and played no music again until early afternoon.
As the PD of KZLA on September 11th, 2001 I had to make split-second decisions all morning and into the afternoon, about how we should cover what was unfolding before our non-believing eyes. We ditched all music and imaging, then opened the phones in between airing audio of CNN's continuous coverage.
Peter Tilden, our morning personality, was justifiably freaking out because his wife Tommi was in New York City that morning on a business trip. Admittedly ADD already, Peter was all over the place, trying to trying to be a calming presence on the air while juggling attempts to reach her on his cell. He finally did and she was fine.
Simultaneously, I tried to curb my personal emotions, which can be summed up easily in two words: Scared shitless.
You can find a lot of people in our business with similar stories about the 1986 shuttle explosion and a bunch more with tales of where they worked on 9/11 or how it was covered in minute detail. The latter especially, had the same feel as Kennedy's assassination. Actually, it's probably safe to say 9/11 is now a clear winner for the most horrible, awful, terrifying day in U.S. history.
While the Kennedy coverage became TV's defining moment, I've only heard random stories about radio's handling of it. I wondered if I knew anyone who was in radio or on the air the afternoon of November 22nd, 1963.
It turns out I do. Two of them. And you may know them as well. I had to look no further than the Country Radio Hall of Fame, of which both are members.
Albright & O'Malley & Brenner's Jaye Albright told me she was actually on the air at WNOB/Cleveland the moment news of Kennedy's death broke. "The bulletin came across AP and I read it, breaking down in tears," Jaye said. "Later I heard that Walter Cronkite had as well and so I felt a little better about what I feared was unprofessional behavior. Some stations signed off after the news. We went to symphonic funeral music. Not sure of what others did, but Hymns, I think, came during the funeral."
Jaye remembered that while TV was covering the story TV wall-to-wall, "Radio wasn't as networked as it is today, so network stations -- there were four, ABC, NBC, CBS and Mutual -- did wall-to-wall as well, but the majority played sad music."
"Bob Kingsley's Country Top 40" host Bob Kingsley was a fresh-faced part-timer at KFOX/Long Beach, CA. in November of '63. Like Albright, he was at the station when the bulletins started coming in.
"Unfortunately I do remember that day," says Kingsley. "My biggest memory of it is how stricken I was." Though KFOX was his fourth radio job, it was just his second Country station. And to Albright's point about not all stations being networked, Kingsley remembers how information was delivered. "It was all off AP."
Next, he says, "The station went all religious music. And remember, this was back in the days when we ended every hour with a Gospel song," said Kingsley. "I think the station played religious music for a couple of days and by the end of the weekend we went back to regular programming."
Also unlike today, there was no looking over the playlist in the aftermath, to be sure no songs could be considered offensive. "No," says Kingsley. "We were playing straight-ahead Country songs so adjustments weren't needed."
"With everything I'm reading this week it's all coming back to me today. It sure did rock my world as it did so many others," said Kingsley.