(edited a bit since first being posted)
I keep telling regular commenter Yah Shure that he needs his own blog. His knowledge of pop music is encyclopedic, and he’s an old radio guy on top of it. Twenty-eight years ago tonight, he was on the air at WJON in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and was doing an oldies show after the 10PM news block as part of his evening shift. Here are his memories of that night:
WJON’s 10 o’clock report typically ran until a little after 10:25 PM Central time. I kicked off my oldies show with a big hit, but I have no idea now what it was. That record was still playing when the news reporter, having just finished her newscast, came in and mentioned that there had just been a report that John Lennon had been shot. She handed me the bulletin from WJON’s Associated Press teletype:
(NEW YORK) — THERE’S A REPORT THAT JOHN LENNON HAS BEEN SHOT. IT HAPPENED IN NEW YORK, ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE.
POLICE SAY A MAN TENTATIVELY IDENTIFIED AS THE FORMER BEATLE WAS SHOT AND WOUNDED AND HAS BEEN TAKEN IN A POLICE CAR TO ROOSEVELT HOSPITAL.
A SUSPECT HAS BEEN TAKEN INTO CUSTODY.
NO WORD JUST YET ON HOW SERIOUS IT IS.
I immediately began to roll tape to record ABC Radio’s closed circuit feed. [A network audio link that would transmit bulletins to member stations–Ed.] Ordinarily, I would have said something going into the next record, but I just segued in order to buy some time. There wasn’t enough information in the news bulletin that I felt like I should have read it right then and there, and I needed to prepare for some contingencies depending on how the story played out. I reached into the bin of current 45s next to the turntables on my right, and pulled out “(Just Like) Starting Over.” Having just moved to a brand-new building next door barely two months earlier, WJON had mostly all-new equipment in the on-air studio, including turntables. But there were only two, and I was using them both to play my own records. So I set the Lennon single down next to one of them to have within easy reach if needed.
I don’t recall anything about what songs I was playing at the time, because of the suddenness of the Lennon news. Some people—myself included—can sometimes remember exactly what music was playing at a given moment. But part of being an on-air radio personality involves doing a lot of mental multitasking, and there was plenty of that going on at that moment. But at this particular moment, the things that would normally occupy my mind were bumped aside because of who it was that had reportedly been shot. . . .
When the breakup of the Beatles was announced in 1970, it was no real surprise. Really, what else could they do as a band that they hadn’t already done? But letting go of the dream that they would continue to blaze the trail was a lot more difficult than accepting the fact that they were calling it a hard day’s day. There was always the chance, however slim it might have been, that they might make some more music down the road. Subconsciously, the sudden possibility that this may never come to pass filled me with a foreboding feeling. I wanted to be proven wrong, but deep down inside, I knew it wouldn’t be long before the ABC Radio news bulletin light in the studio would come on.
I’d segued into a third record when that light came on, followed by the closed-circuit alert to affiliates mentioning the forthcoming bulletin “on the death of John Lennon.” [The AP transmitted a four-word bulletin over its teletype: “John Lennon shot dead.”–Ed.]
My heart just sank. I cued up “(Just Like) Starting Over,” its now suddenly ironic title hitting like a hammer.
I recorded the bulletin, rewound and cued the tape, and played it on the air without saying a word, followed by the Lennon record. At that point, the adrenaline took over, as I scrapped the planned show, playing nothing but Beatles records and repeating the recorded bulletin several times. There was nothing much that I could add or say. I’d had the wind completely knocked out of my sails. The dream really was over.
At 11 PM, I got off the air, then went back to the newsroom with a box in which to place all news items on John Lennon. I took calls from friends who’d heard the news while watching Monday Night Football. I had some commercials to produce, then set about preparing for an entire evening’s worth of Lennon and Beatles music and tributes for the following night.
It was about 1:30 AM when I made the two-mile drive home from WJON to my apartment on the other side of US Highway 10. Some time around two o’clock, while sitting on my bedroom floor and looking at some Beatles 45s, the adrenaline wore off, the reality sunk in, and I cried long and hard.
As so many did. Please share your memories of that night in the comments, if you’d like.