What it was like to be on the air the night John Lennon died
Outside of my parents and close friends, no one's death has hit me harder than John Lennon. Saturday marks 38 years and to me it still feels like yesterday. It was both the best and worst night of my radio career and I was never more prepared for the show I was about to do. Although you're never prepared for someone you worship and idolize to be gunned down in the street.
I became a Beatles fan in the early '70s when I was babysitting one night in Marlboro and channel 7 ran both "Help" and "A Hard Days Night" back to back. The next day I took the money I had made and bought Beatles albums. My favorite Beatle was Lennon. I loved his personality, the way he looked through sarcastic eyes at this world that worshiped him, and laughed at the irony of it all. He was the first to use his celebrity to advance his cause and his cause was peace. I was hooked and spent my time reading all kinds of books and articles and everything I could about him. I had no idea I was preparing for one horrible night.
Another form of my preparation came when my grandmother passed away. She died 20 minutes before my first-ever radio broadcast and seconds before I'm about to go on and do it, I get a call patched into the studio from my mother telling me that my grandmother had died but she didn't tell me which one! When I got home, she told me to break the news to my father who was very close to his Mom as she left to go to Union City and be with the family. It was the most difficult thing I had to do, yet another form of preparation.
On Dec. 8, 1980, I was working the overnight shift on WPST. About 11:00, our newsman Ira Raff came into the production studio where I was preparing my 12-6 a.m. show and told me Lennon had been shot. I'll never forget the stunned disbelief and feeling the life drain from my body like I'd been punched in the stomach. I went into the bathroom and prayed and cried.
In those days, before the internet, radio stations had what they called teletype machines that printed out the news. When emergencies happened, there were bells that went off alerting you. I was in the studio with Hoeffel around 11:45 when the bells went off. Through our shock, Dave stopped playing Stevie Wonder's "Masterblaster" and told our audience that John Lennon has died and that we would have more with me through the night.
I was stunned as I got a phone call from Tom Taylor, our program director, calming me down and telling me for the first time in my career to put callers on the air and talk about John Lennon in between playing both him and the Beatles.
It was like living a bad dream, breaking the news over and over again that the man I looked up to and loved had been murdered. At one point, a listener called around 4 asking sarcastically "Why are you playing all this Beatles music?" I answer, frayed, "Because John Lennon's dead!" Then I hear the silence followed by crying and a hangup. I was reminded that it was 4 a.m. and even though I'd been breaking the news every three minutes, there were still people hearing it for the first time.
As the night wore on, it became cathartic, putting the callers on was a great idea for the both of us. We talked, we cried and we celebrated the life of this man who only wanted to give peace a chance. I realized I was EXACTLY where I needed to be and wouldn't have traded it for anywhere else. I still remember every detail. Like I said, it's been 38 years and it still seems like "Yesterday."
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