Three Things Special: The Impact of September 11 on Public Radio

From the Public Impact Group

The remembrances across media of the events from September 11, 2001 have been powerful, emotional experiences as news organizations have examined the events and the impact of that day and the days that followed from virtually every angle and perspective.

Whether we lost loved ones or not, the memories of that day are still vivid, and the coverage from the past two weeks has summoned recollections of that time that have been buried deep in our brains.

Major news events have always had a profound impact on public radio in terms of serving our audience, and I would probably say that the events of September 11, 2001 and the aftermath may have been one of the most significant moments in the history of our industry.

For this special edition of Three Things, I would like to share some thoughts on that time, twenty years ago.

THING ONE: The First Few Hours

American Airlines Flight 11 was the first plane to hit the World Trade Center north tower in lower Manhattan at 8:46 am (Eastern Time). United Flight 175 hit the WTC’s south town seventeen minutes later at 9:03 am.

I was living in northern Indiana and had recently celebrated my 19th anniversary as the Station Manager of WVPE, the NPR member station that serves South Bend. I was driving to work listening to Morning Edition on the station without any knowledge of what was happening in New York City as the first plane hit the WTC.

What I remember though from that moment was a commentary by late, great Texan columnist Molly Ivins poking fun of her fellow Texan, President George W. Bush, and his unique use of the English language as part of her continuing series of essays described as “Bushisms, ” this time touching on everything from education to foreign policy.

What struck me weeks later was that this was probably the last time that I heard anyone in the media poking fun of the President for several weeks in the aftermath of 9/11.

For better or worse, no one would dare go after the President in the days following the attack.

I would have included a link to Ivins’ commentary1, but the NPR website has a bad link to the piece. When you click the link to the audio, it’s a story from Ketzel Levine about Bonfante Gardens Theme Park in Gilroy, California, that also aired on September 11, 2001.

When the second plane hit the Trade Center, Carl Kasell was in the middle of his 9:01 am (ET) newscast. He briefly mentioned the first plane hitting the tower, but if you remember at that moment, more people thought that it was an air traffic control issue, not terrorism.

And then Morning Edition returned to its normal clock with a rollover of the A-1 segment that had also aired at 5:10 am and 7:10 am Eastern Time.

It’s fascinating to look back at the rundown from that morning which included a story from NPR’s Michael Sullivan reporting from Afghanistan on rumors that Ahmad Shah Masood was dead. Masood was a leader of anti-Taliban forces and one of the most effective guerilla commanders in the 1980s war against Soviet occupation. We would certainly hear a lot more about Afghanistan in the days that followed and for the next twenty years.

It wasn’t until much later in the 9 am (ET) hour when Morning Edition host Bob Edwards jumped into the middle of a Susan Stamberg piece about a first-time teacher that the weight of what had happened was starting to become clear to most Americans. However, after cutting into that story to provide an update, the show returned to the rollover for most of that hour.

I recall that WVPE, and many other stations, actually flipped to the BBC coverage during that hour because NPR was not in a position to go live with special coverage until 10 am Eastern. NPR.org has the 10 am and 11 am hours of coverage archived, and it’s interesting to hear how the network was slowly getting itself together to cover this enormous story.

Meanwhile, it was day two for Neal Conan as the new host of Talk of The Nation. How lucky we were to have a guy who had recently just finished a stint doing minor league baseball play-by-play to anchor the live coverage during the middle of the day, sorting through the fact and falsities that were coming non-stop during that infamous day.

Sadly, I can’t find any audio from TOTN from that day as the program’s archives are not available on the website2.

Later that day, the network was in wall-to-wall coverage mode. One of the most memorable moments was a remarkable essay from native New Yorker Robert Siegel about scraps of paper that lined the streets that he found while wandering around the edge of Ground Zero on September 11.


THING TWO: Day Two and After

While stunned chaos was taking place in New York City, Washington DC, and across the country, many of public radio’s leaders were either in Baltimore or headed that direction for the annual Public Radio Program Directors Conference.

Many folks were attending a pre-conference workshop when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania. For a public radio program director, this was a nightmare scenario to not be at your station at a moment when you’re trying like hell to figure out what is going on and what you’re going to put on the air. This was before wifi and smartphones, making it a real adventure for folks trying to program their stations from a distance.

Wyoming Public Radio General Manager Jon Schwartz, who was Chair of the NPR Board of Directors at the time, was on a plane about to take off for Baltimore on the morning of September 11 when his flight was called back to the gate. I remember Jon giving me details of his conversations with NPR President Kevin Klose throughout that difficult week.

I was scheduled to fly to Baltimore on September 12 and never made it. The flight and the conference were canceled, of course.

But public radio stayed on and stepped up.

WNYC-FM’s transmitter was on top of the World Trade Center and went off the air when the tower collapsed. But the WNYC-AM tower was in New Jersey and stayed on the air at full power. They were also able to simulcast on WNYE-FM, the public radio station licensed to the city’s Board of Education, so that listeners could hear the station on FM as well.

WNYC studios at the time were near Ground Zero. The studios were not damaged, although, according to a story in Current, staff did have to evacuate after the attacks.

Power outages forced the station’s reporters to relocate to NPR studios in midtown, and administrative personnel set up shop at WNET on West 33rd Street. WNYC was able to re-launch its FM service on Sunday from the Empire State Building.

If I recall correctly, Scott Simon worked some overnight shifts that week and delivered one of the most powerful essays I’ve ever heard on the Weekend Edition broadcast on September 15 as he reflected on the new heroes3 discovered that week.

NPR, stations, and other national producers all worked tirelessly to produce some extraordinary radio. In a moment when the nation needed civility and healing, public radio was there with a remarkable mix that included music performances, conversations, and trusted information.

We rose to the occasion. And the American public noticed.


THING THREE: The Audience

Around ten years after 9/11, I had moved to St. Louis to run St. Louis Public Radio. I was at a Gala for a nonprofit and struck up a conversation with Dave Peacock, who was an executive with Anheuser-Busch at the time. Dave told me the story of his post-September 11 experience.

Peacock was on the east coast on that morning with August Busch IV, who was the CEO of Anheuser-Busch at the time and the last of the family to control the company. Peacock or Busch were not public radio listeners before 9/11.

However, they had to get back to St. Louis, the corporate home of A-B, from the east coast. So, like thousands of others, they were able to get a car and make the 15-hour drive across half the country.

And like thousands of others, public radio became a lifeline on that surreal road trip that many took to get from wherever they were stranded to home in the days immediately following 9/11.

Peacock then went on to tell me that once they had returned home, Busch IV sent him a message that simply said, “BUY NPR.”

Now I never did find out from Peacock if his boss meant that they should buy some NPR stock, not knowing that it was a nonprofit, or that A-B should begin sponsoring NPR programs, but the impact of what public radio provided during those strange days in September 2001 left a mark on him that he made such a statement.

And that impact was felt across America. This was a moment public radio delivered on its promise to connect and engage Americans when they most needed it.

Our audience during the fall of 2001 went through the roof. Those of us at stations were a little timid about going on air with funding appeals at first - very similar to the early days of the pandemic. But by October 2001, we had the courage to ask for support, and our audience responded. As a result, stations had record on-air campaigns with thousands of donors stepping up to give for the first time.

I often wonder had we had sustainer members at that time, what the long-term impact may have been with as many new names added to our databases.

And there were many lessons learned along the way.

We learned how important it was to be ready to cover breaking news. Twenty years later, we still struggle in those times - most recently, January 6 comes to mind. But we started to understand how important it was to be in the moment.

The moment also brought a connectedness in the station community. Stranded listeners driving across the country to get home would scan the lower end of the dial from one city to the next to find the local public radio station. In 2021, a listener might tune into a station’s stream and listen to it throughout the road trip.

It was time when stations recognized that they could move from being a radio station to becoming an institution in their communities.

And the value of NPR as a national institution was also firmly established during those months in the fall of 2001. I don't believe it was a mere coincidence that Joan Kroc’s transformative estate gift to NPR occurred two years later.

The death of Neal Conan last month started my thinking about the impact of September 11 on our industry. Neal wore many hats at NPR, but his time as host of Talk of the Nation, particularly his amazing work in those days after 9/11, will stay with me forever.

His parting words on the last broadcast of Talk of the Nation from June 27, 2013, are worth sharing to close this remembrance because they serve as a North Star to guide us in what public radio should be doing in its daily work.

“Over all my time at NPR, I worked as a reporter, editor and producer. And as much as I loved all those jobs, the past 11-and-a-half years, this job has been the best. It's been an honor to talk with you every day.

“I counted them up: 600 weeks. Give away time off for vacation, throw in all the special coverage, let's round it off at 5,000 hours. There is still so much to talk about, but that's going to have to be enough.

“So, in a minute or so, I will go back to where I started in public radio. I will be one of you again, a listener. Yes, a listener-sponsor, but a listener-critic, too. I will cry and laugh and yell at the radio. And we listeners have a vital function. It is our job to hold member stations and NPR accountable.

“So right here, I form my own private compact with NPR and my member stations. I will listen and, yes, I will open my checkbook, but I need some services in return. Go and tell me the stories behind everything that happened in the world today. Explain why it happened, and how it affects our lives. Do it every day. Tell me what's important, and don't waste my time with stupid stuff.

“Bye-bye. Signing off for TALK OF THE NATION and from NPR News, I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.”

Thanks for taking the time to look back with me.

1

Here’s the bad link.

2

Neal and the team from TOTN deserve to have the audio from the program archived on the NPR website. The audio files on the website, if you can find them are antiquated Real Audio files.

3

Scott gives kudos to New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the essay, noting how the country felt about him at that moment in time.