The Last Words

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(Pictured: a young man holds a sign in tribute to John Lennon, 1980.)

Mark was a colleague of mine, another part-time DJ at KDTH, a country station in Dubuque, Iowa, back at the turn of the 80s. He worked a 10-to-midnight shift on Mondays, and a few years ago on Facebook, he wrote about his experience on the night of December 8, 1980:

As I usually did about 10 minutes before my airshift was to begin, I found my way to the newsroom to clear the AP wire and prepare for a little sportscast I did after the 10:00 news.

The moment I arrived in the newsroom, the mechanical AP wire went absolutely apeshit, with a tremendous, clanging racket of bells such as I’d never heard. In those days they didn’t ring the warning bells on the wire often and when they did it was always news of some import, usually a flash or breaking news. I checked the wire just as the flash headline was printing out, JOHN LENNON SHOT DEAD.

Immediately, I ripped the story from the wire and ran from the newsroom into the air studio, and gave it to the woman I was about to replace on the air …. She read it on the air, choking up while she read it, and played “Imagine” immediately after. We unilaterally decided to play all Lennon or Beatle songs for the rest of the night, and none of the usually cantankerous country fans even called to complain.

While I was pulling my airshift on the AM station, the program director of our automated FM station called to ask the news guy and myself to dub off as many Beatle/Lennon songs as we could find and feed them into the automation system …. coming within an eyelash of airing “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” on the radio, the very night its singer and songwriter was assassinated….

Somehow, I managed to get through my airshift. Immediately after signing both stations off the air, I went up on the roof of the station as I often did, rolled up a fat joint, smoked it, and allowed myself a good cry. This horrible, obscene thing was just too much to bear. 

I looked back at Radio and Records to see how the industry reacted to the murder in real time. It devoted much of the front page of its December 12 issue to a montage of pictures and a written tribute. Inside, under the heading “The Last Words,” it was reported that John and Yoko spent three hours late in the afternoon of December 8 being interviewed for the RKO Radio Network, and how afterward, the Lennons caught a ride with the RKO guys to the Record Plant studio. The article mentions waiting for Lennon to sign an autograph for a fan outside the Dakota. We know now, of course, that the fan was Mark David Chapman.

The magazine also detailed how program syndicators were scrambling to accommodate the Lennon story, in many cases updating year-end programs that had already been produced. It was reported that “Watermark has dropped a regularly scheduled hour of its American Top 40 for this weekend in favor of a specially-produced retrospective on Lennon.” That did not actually happen, although Casey’s producers made available an alternate program segment that stations could drop into the already-produced show to replace “(Just Like) Starting Over,” which was at #4 for the week. The AT40 production staff was also forced to update a feature earlier in the show about the top posthumous acts of the rock era.

In the December 19 issue, it was reported that a radio station in Baltimore had planned a memorial benefit with proceeds going to a gun-control group, but its lawyers advised that the Fairness Doctrine might require the station to give an organization such as the National Rifle Association equal time to respond. The event was canceled, and the station instead donated proceeds from an earlier event featuring Beatles movies to one of Lennon’s favorite charities.

On the Contemporary Hit Radio page, columnist John Leader wrote about radio’s response to the murder, how stations tossed their regular programming out the window on that night, how they opened the phones just to let people talk, how they helped arrange public memorials, and more. Leader concluded:

Radio can and should be so much more than the playlist, commercial log, and jock schedule. Radio is communication on a very personal and basic level. Radio is entertainment and companionship. Radio is always there with the flexibility to respond to the needs of its listeners. 

Last week radio did itself proud in the worst and the best of times. 

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