Many of us who worked in radio for a while have had to deal with “breaking news” while on the air. Here are some incidents of note that occurred during my career – some to me, some to my fellow radio folks. It reminds us that radio was once the heartbeat of a town, telling its story, while also entertaining us. Radio was what you ran to turn on or up when someone told you shocking news. It represented us. When I heard JFK died, when I heard there was a fire in the East Bay hills, when I heard George Moscone and Harvey Milk were shot, I turned to the radio. Radio gave us the story, but it also gave us comfort.
KTEO Radio in San Angelo, deep in the heart of West Texas, was a strange little radio station, but they offered me $100 a week to do a six-to-a little-after-midnight shift back in 1971. I was looking for a place to grow my limited skill set and I needed a hundred bucks a week, so I drove from California to the town where my grandmother died and many of my Van Zandt relatives lived, to see what I could do. The shift was to 12:30 AM because the bars closed at midnight, and we provided music for the ride home.
KTEO radio was set up in the “honeymoon suite” at the San Angelo Holiday Inn, at the top, over the pool. My job was to play country music and to play five minutes of news at the top of every hour – a fairly typical way of doing things back then. We had an old teletype machine in a closet, with an equally old microphone hanging over it, to provide that “newsroom sound” when we did the news. We would “pot up” the news sound as we delivered the newscast, then turn it down when we were done.
One night, as I was reading the latest update, with the mic from the closet turned up, I heard a string of bells ringing from the teletype, and the door of the closet open, then my boss exclaiming “Holy Sh*t!” Turning off the closet mic, I started a song, so I could check out what was going on. My boss had stumbled in to borrow ten bucks, decided to check out the news, and heard the bulletin bells. He shouted, “Some nut out in California has killed a bunch of people!” In May of 1971, farm worker Juan Corona was arrested for the murder of 25 other farm workers, whose bodies were found buried in orchards along the Feather River.That was the first time an obscenity made it on the air on my shift, and the first shocking bulletin to come over the wires while I was on the air. The adrenaline rush and the story about incidents like it are well-known and documented among our colleagues over the years.
Almost everyone has had a moment like this in their career. When radio and television people get together over drinks and stories, the stories inevitably come up. “Where were you, when…?
My colleague Charlie Seraphin was much more directly involved than the average newsman. We became friends at KIOI, where we were both DJs, but Charlie moved on, and up, to KCBS as News Director there. Years later, Charlie helped negotiate the release of innocent children from the Branch Davidian Compound in Waco before it burned to the ground. He was a very active News Director at KCBS in the 1980’s, going into the street to deliver live on-site coverage of local incidents. He was great at it.
Jim Dunbar was a legendary broadcaster who happened to be the guy that a man claiming to be the Zodiac Killer called while he was on the air in October 1969. Jim was also on the air when a deranged listener tried unsuccessfully to shoot him through the bulletproof glass of KGO Radio studio in1973.
One of the Bay Area’s top counterculture newsmen, Dave McQueen, was the first to tell of the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst by a radical group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. McQueen announced it over KSAN, after a friend at KPFA alerted him, and later a ransom tape came directly to KSAN. “That was probably the craziest time in the history of broadcasting,” McQueen said in an interview shortly before he died. McQueen was on the air with retired and respected San Francisco newscaster John Evans when the planes hit the towers in New York City on 9/11. Evans later recalled that when the planes hit, he and McQueen were on the air at KKSF, a smooth jazz station. They cut the music and delivered the news for three hours straight without interruption, with McQueen utilizing his knowledge of geopolitics and Islam to provide instant context. John later recalled how it felt on that fateful morning: “It was the most alive I’ve ever felt on the air.” On that same day I was doing fill-in news and DJ work at KFRC. I was out for a run with my wife Carol and came into the house to the ringing of our phone. KFRC’s Program Director told me to come in immediately to cover the story. That was definitely a challenging day. When I got there, the morning crew was angry because in the chaos nobody had called and told them to stop the music and tell the story. Just like most of us on that terrible day, they felt lost and confused. But we managed to do our part amid the chaos as the events unfolded.
Over the years, there’ve been a few times when we just stopped the music and shared the bad news with listeners, hoping to ease their anxiety with a calming voice and a compelling presentation. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the great Bill Collins and the amazing KNEW news crew held down the fort from Jack London Square for days. Our building, the iconic Tribune building, had also been damaged. There were huge cracks in the walls in the staircase, and the Chinese restaurant on the floor above us just shut down. (Weeks later, someone said “What’s that smell” and we investigated; the restaurant hadn’t bothered to empty the food pantry or the refrigerators! Dim Sum?!) In the days after that horrible earthquake, Oakland was chaotic; the freeway nearby had just collapsed and phones weren’t working – so we took turns sharing the news as we got it, letting listeners vent on the air, and fetching food to keep everyone going during those critical first days after the Bay Area was shaken and still burning. After being drilled as a young man about the importance of radio in the community, those days confirmed for me why radio was my chosen career. But it was on TV that I made my worst mistake.
In November of 1978 I was co-hosting a live “magazine style” entertainment show on KRON TV in San Francisco with Trudy Allyson (Taliaferro), which aired from 6 to 7 PM on Saturdays. During a commercial break, I went to the bathroom, only to have a producer knock on the door and tell me to hurry up because I needed to read a bulletin that had just come across the newswire. The KRON News team took a dinner break between six and seven, so there was no newsperson to read it. I had just a few seconds to scan it and was so shocked by it I began to blush as I read it live. The bulletin read that over 900 people, including U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan, had been found dead at the Jonestown compound in Guyana, South America. But I was so flustered that I said “South Africa” instead of South America! That was a dumb mistake that I never lived down, and years later, when our show was canceled, the last thing said to me as I was handed my final check was “Guyana’s in South America, genius!” It wasn’t funny then and it’s still not funny. To me at least. The nature of our jobs as entertainers in real time, who need to turn on a dime when tragedy struck, was both a challenge and a rush for me personally. What John Evans said about covering disaster is true: It was the most alive I’ve ever felt on the air.