We’ve all seen the tape of Walter Cronkite announcing the death of President Kennedy, and heard his voice break when he delivers the news. It’s a powerful moment even after all this time. Good reporters work hard to keep their emotions in check and out of the story, even when stories hit close to home, even when they find themselves having to struggle with how the stories make them feel. But on November 22, 1963, the story was so big that it revealed the person behind the reporter. In that moment, Walter Cronkite’s emotional display was completely appropriate.
The worst thing I ever had to report on the radio was the explosion of the Challenger in 1986. I think I’ve told the story here before—neither of my stations was carrying the launch live that morning, although the guy on the AM station was listening to Associated Press Radio coverage off the air. I don’t remember if he came out of the studio and said that something had happened or if I heard the multiple bells on the AP wire that signaled a bulletin, but I remember standing in the station hallway by the wire machines and seeing it: “There has been an explosion aboard the space shuttle Challenger. The fate of the crew is unknown.” I was emotionally affected by the news, but when I read the bulletin on the air, I didn’t let it show—beyond reading with a certain grim and authoritative tone, because that’s the sort of thing I would have done when I was 26 years old.
I wish I could have been on the air on the night of December 8, 1980. This, too, is a story I’ve told before. I was program director of our campus radio station. Our transmitter had crapped out days before, and we didn’t know how long it would be until we got the necessary part to fix it. And so, our signal was silent at the one moment in our lives when we—not just me, but every jock on the staff—most wanted to have an outlet for our passion. Because unlike most of the most significant news events of the last half-century, John Lennon’s death belonged not to journalists but to disc jockeys, people who know music, love it, and understand in their bones what Lennon’s life and death meant.
When veteran New York DJ Vin Scelsa checked in for his 10PM-2AM shift on WNEW-FM that Monday night (the night of the station’s staff Christmas party), there was no reason to believe it was going to be anything other than an ordinary night. There were new albums out by Queen, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, the Police, Rod Stewart, and Lennon, so there would be plenty of worthwhile stuff to play and talk about. And then. . . .
You can almost hear Scelsa’s thought process as he works: He knows that it’s his job to tell his listeners what happened, and he wants to keep his emotions together, but he struggles with every sentence. “I didn’t wanna go on the air and say this,” he remembered. “I had gone on the air other times in my life and announced that people had died. John Lennon, I knew right away, that this was something that went beyond just a pop-star murder or a pop-star death. That this was truly a significant moment in our cultural history.”
In most cases, a reporter’s feelings about the story during the progress of reporting it are a footnote to be remembered later. In this case, the reporter’s clearly audible feelings are part of the story. Anything less and he would have gotten the story wrong.
(Another radio tale from the night Lennon died is here.)