Sounds almost quaint, doesn't it? But on the night John Lennon died, CNN was only six months old, and its viewership was measured in the thousands, not millions. Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC and the rest of the cable news outlets were still years in the future, and what would become the internet was essentially a DARPA project, linking a few mainframe computers a government research centers around the world. The news cycle was still largely defined by local newspapers, the network evening newscasts, and local TV news programs.
So, when Lennon was fatally shot outside the Dakota apartment building in New York City, there wasn't an instantaneous surge of media coverage. In fact, the first journalist to learn of Lennon's death made the discovery by being in the right place at the right time. Alan Weiss, a producer for WABC-TV in New York, had been injured a motorcycle accident earlier in the evening; he was in the emergency room at Roosevelt Hospital when Lennon was rushed in. Learning of Lennon's death a few minutes later, Weiss made his way to a pay phone and called the newsroom at Channel 7.
But the late edition of Eyewitness News was delayed that evening by Monday Night Football. Additionally, the local station was reluctant to interrupt the network's highly-rated football broadcast and decided the "scoop of a lifetime" should be passed to ABC News. The network's New York newsroom quickly transmitted the information to Roone Arledge, the legendary president of ABC sports, who was in the MNF production truck in Miami, for a game between the Patriots and Dolphins.
Arledge relayed the bulletin to the announcing team: Frank Gifford, Fran Tarkenton and Howard Cosell. It would be Cosell who would break the news of the "unspeakable tragedy" that had occurred a few minutes earlier. Cosell knew Lennon personally and spoke briefly, but eloquently, about the former Beatle's life and cultural impact.
But oddly enough, Howard Cosell was reluctant to report the story. ESPN recently tracked down tapes of the off-air conversations between Cosell and his broadcast partners. With the Patriots preparing for a last-second field goal to beat the Dolphins, Cosell wasn't sure if the "game situation" was appropriate for airing such tragic news. He was also worried that the report might prove to be false. It was Frank Gifford who urged Cosell to pass along the news that would "shake up the entire world."
My own memories of that night are also shaped by the media, but as a participant, rather than a spectator. In December 1980, I was assistant news director for a couple of radio stations in the Springfield, Missouri, market. It was my second radio gig out of college, and it sounds more glamorous than it was. As the assistant ND, my job was to anchor the station's afternoon newscasts, and cover spot news in the area. And, since I didn't have to get up at 4 am for the morning shift, my beat also included local city council and county commission meetings.
On the night John Lennon died, I had returned from a commission meeting not far from Springfield. I was in our tiny newsroom, trying to find something useful from interviews conducted after the meeting. Our black and white TV was turned off, I wasn't aware of the Lennon shooting until the bell began to ring on our AP wire machine. The first bulletin was cryptic, announcing the former Beatle had been shot outside his New York apartment and taken to the hospital. A few minutes later, a second AP flash reported his death.
John Lennon's passing was clearly big news, even in a Midwestern town more than 1,000 miles from the Big Apple. But like the crew at WABC, we weren't sure how to handle it. Our stations played country music, and the program director didn't tolerate any deviations from the format. But from the perspective of your humble correspondent (and our evening disc jockey), it seemed inappropriate to announce the news without playing at least one of his songs. I remembered when Elvis died three years earlier; the 4 pm newscast on CBS Radio began with the opening strains of "Love Me Tender," followed by anchor David Jackson stating that the rock legend was dead.
Our program director was also our morning jock, so he didn't appreciate being awakened at 10 pm by Doug, our evening DJ. But on hearing the news, he instantly agreed to let us follow the bulletin with one of Lennon's songs. He suggested "Imagine"--an obvious choice. But there was only one problem; our stations had been playing country music for more than a decade, so we didn't have a copy of "Imagine." Our Beatles records had been given away years earlier, after a format switch. So, even if the PD was willing to let us play a Lennon record, there wasn't a single one in the station.
Luckily, Doug had an idea. Frank, the all-night guy, had an extensive album collection, and he lived just a few blocks from the station. However, he wasn't exactly reliable. In fact, his "show prep" often included a stop at a local bar for a couple of rounds before arriving at the station. At that late hour, Frank was probably at the watering hole, not at home. Miraculously, Frank was still at home when we called, agreed to come in early, and bring his copy of "Imagine."
Within 10 minutes, Frank was in the studio, and the record was on the turntable, cued up and ready to go. The evening jock cued me, I read the AP bulletin and the song played. After that, we returned to the regular playlist. I pulled some audio cuts from the next couple of ABC newscasts for the morning news anchor, and put some wire copy on his desk. Most of it would be outdated by the time he arrived, but at least he had something to work with.
While my shift was over, I didn't go home right away. I went back in the studio, where
Doug had the ABC feed in the "cue" position. Normally, the network played Muzak between newscasts, but the younger broadcast engineers at ABC--stuck on the graveyard shift--usually canned the Montavani in favor of the feed from WPLJ, the network owned-and-operated FM rock station in New York. WPLJ had dumped its normal format in favor of a tribute to John Lennon. We sat there in that studio and listened, not saying much. The three of us had grown up with the Beatles and we understood that a part of our lives had vanished that evening, on a sidewalk outside an apartment building in New York.