There are some days you’ll never forget. I can remember my parents telling about where they were and what they were doing on December 7th, 1941 – the “day which will live in infamy”.
I vividly remember November 22nd, 1963. I was in the 8th grade at St. Charles School in Lima, Ohio when the school principal, Sister Mary Patrick, went on the public address system and asked for prayers. Then, she put the radio on throughout the school so we could hear the events unfolding in Dallas. Our 8th grade teacher was Sister Ann Rita. She was about 80 years old at the time (or it seemed like it) and when the announcement came that President Kennedy had been assassinated, she wept. I’ll never forget it. School was dismissed early and we all retreated to our homes. When I got home I saw my mom, ironing in front of the TV with tears streaming down her face. My mom was a big Kennedy supporter and 3 years earlier, she attended a Kennedy campaign rally ion Downtown Toledo when she was pregnant for my brother David. I recall her coming home beaming because she got up close with JFK. She talked about it for days. Being Catholic, of course, gave all of us a sense of ownership in this president. And now, he was gone. I think all of us felt empty.
And then there was September 11th, 2001. The day after my 51st birthday. For me, the day started out like most days. I recall the weather was perfect. I was the Market Manager for Clear Channel in West Michigan. My office was on the 10th floor of the Michigan National Bank Building in Downtown Grand Rapids. Before I went to the office, I dropped off my Rotary Club exchange student at school. I was a sponsor of a nice young girl from Istanbul, Turkey named Sezin Ata. Sezin was 15 or 16 at the time and was one of our international exchange students. After school hours, she came down to the radio station and worked as an intern for my daughter, Cara, who was a DJ on one of our stations and worked with our promotion team. By the way, I didn’t hire my daughter. She got the job essentially without my knowledge and without my help. But I must say she was (and is ) a real go-getter.
As was part of my morning ritual, I would go through morning e-mails (yes, we had e-mail even back then) from corporate, check with my assistant Patty Newman (“anybody sue us today?”) and then I’d head down to Romper Room – my name for the studio floor. The 9th floor at Clear Channel Grand Rapids was where all the fun was. It was a little after 9AM and as I walked into the WOOD Radio newsroom, I saw staffers gathered around a TV. “What’s going on?” I asked. “Someone flew a plane into the side of the Word Trade Center in New York”. I could see the gash on the side of the north tower and I recall someone saying a private pilot may have had a heart attack or some other medical event which caused them to fly their plane into the building. But I looked at the size of the gash and compared it to our building. I said, that might be a Cessna if it flew into our building but that’s the World Trade Center and that gash is so much bigger…and at that point, the 2nd plane hit the south tower. We all looked at each other, jaws hitting the floor. “Son of a bitch!!!” We knew what just happened and who did it. There was no doubt. Bin Laden. News Director John Bry and Program Director Phil Tower instantly knew what we were dealing with. And they jumped into action. It was one of my proudest moments in broadcasting. Perhaps my proudest. To see how everyone, working in concert, developed a plan and got information, instantly, on the air. We not only provided news and information, we launched a fundraising campaign to funnel cash resources to New York City. By early afternoon, we had raised over $15,000.
September 11th, 2001 was the day that changed talk radio forever. That was the watershed event that breathed new life into Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity. It was also the day that essentially put an end to Dr. Laura’s show. Her program of personal advice became non relevant as listeners had an unquenchable thirst for news. At WOOD, we took Dr. Laura off the air – permanently. And put Glenn Beck on the air. All of the Clear Channel stations in Grand Rapids took the news feed from WOOD in order to provide the best coverage to all of our listeners.
Around 3 in the afternoon I had to go back to the middle school and pick up Sezin. I felt awful because Sezin had the same last name (Ata) as one of the terrorists who flew a plane into the World Trade Center. I feared she had encountered problems at school because of her background. When I went to pick her up, she was very well aware of what had happened. She didn’t appear to have experienced any problems from other students which was a great relief. As we drove from Heritage Hill down to the station, she told me how terrible the entire thing was and how bad she felt. I learned something important that day about tolerance. About not jumping to conclusions. And I learned it from a teenage girl from Istanbul.