I can still hear it now: Reliving 9-11 on NPR

A radio buff recalls the day when Bob Edwards and his not-really-live broadcast had to react to an incredible breaking news story.
Crosscut archive image.

The ruins of the World Trade Center

A radio buff recalls the day when Bob Edwards and his not-really-live broadcast had to react to an incredible breaking news story.

I spent part of this Thursday, September 10 doing what I have done a few times over the years since 9/11: listening to recordings of NPR and KUOW coverage of the attacks.

I'ꀙve loved radio as long as I can remember, and while I'ꀙll admit to owning a TV, radio is still my medium of choice for news and entertainment. Listening to vintage radio is not about nostalgia for me. I believe the old recordings have stories to tell about how America and Americans have changed over the years, and teach valuable lessons about preparing for the future.

I'ꀙll also admit that the images of the flaming towers and their collapse are the most memorable thing I'ꀙve ever witnessed on live television (yes, even I turned on my TV on 9/11). But, the audio version of that dark day is nearly as powerful, and definitely worth another listen. I bought 9/11 recordings via the web several years ago, as well as made some of my own eight years ago.

Listening to those recordings, I was first struck by all the shock and confusion of that morning. Knowing how it would 'ꀜturn out,'ꀝ it'ꀙs easy to nitpick all the conjecture and factual errors in NPR'ꀙs coverage, and NPR wasn'ꀙt alone in this. But it'ꀙs also remarkable how much they got right, and what a time capsule the recordings have become less than a decade later.

What strikes me foremost is the absence nowadays of Bob Edwards from "Morning Edition," a program he launched in 1979 and from which he was unceremoniously retired just months before he could celebrate its 25th anniversary. The 9/11 tapes reveal that Edwards was obviously flustered, and my guess is that this was because "Morning Edition" is not a traditional 'ꀜlive'ꀝ program. It simply wasn'ꀙt set up in a way that allowed NPR to easily cover the biggest story in decades if that event happened to unfold while the show was on-air.

Most segments of "Morning Edition" (and "All Things Considered" for that matter) are taped in advance; even topical phone interviews with guests that seem as if they are being conducted live are done moments beforehand and edited for clarity and timing. In this not-really-live model, the two-hour show is first produced for Eastern NPR affiliates between 5 and 7 am Eastern Time. With (usually) minor tweaks to keep up with dynamic events and circumstances, the feature?heavy show often changes very little between the first two hours and the final hour (which ends at 9 am Hawaii Time — an astounding nine hours after the program begins). One notable exception to the pre-taping approach are the hourly and half-hourly news updates, which are always done live, as well as the cut-ins from local NPR affiliates such as KUOW which are also typically done live.

Edwards broke into the pre-taped "Morning Edition" and at about 9:15 am Eastern Time, about 15 minutes after the second tower was struck. He did an admirable job knitting together wire copy, what he could see on a video monitor in his studio, and live phone interviews with NPR reporters and eyewitnesses in and around New York. Edwards remained calm in what must have been a maelstrom of sounds and images, and only erred in letting NPR'ꀙs Jackie Lyden (reporting live from her third-story Brooklyn loft, with a view of the towers) ramble on perhaps a little too long and too personally. Again, understandable given the circumstances.

The most jarring element of the NPR coverage of 9/11 was the live half-hourly news update at 9:30 am Eastern, roughly 30 minutes after the second impact. News anchor Jean Cochran (still on the job eight years later) led with an item about the tragedy unfolding in New York, and provided a respectable amount of detail. The jarring part was the 'ꀜin other news'ꀝ portion that followed — that Elizabeth Dole would be holding a press conference later that day to announce her candidacy for Jesse Helms'ꀙ old Senate seat; that (ironically) Iraq claimed to have shot down an American drone; and that, hold the presses, the US Postal Service was projecting a $1.6 billion deficit (the good old days!) and looking to raise the price of a First Class stamp to 37 cents. While NPR was talking North Carolina politics and postal posturing, cable and broadcast network news had been wall-to-wall for at least half an hour.

Where Edwards and NPR really stumbled was in their persistence in not definitively referring to the events as a terrorist attack, even nearly an hour after the Pentagon was struck and at least two hours after President Bush had deemed it so (in impromptu remarks from a Sarasota, Florida elementary school). Bush'ꀙs remarks, incidentally, were not carried live on NPR and were instead played back a few minutes later.

Hearing the local updates from KUOW still sends a chill up my spine, as officials moved to evacuate the 76-story Columbia Center and Washington State Ferry Service was disrupted as a precaution against possible attacks. The terror was right here in my hometown.

Whether changes made at NPR (and, in particular, at "Morning Edition") since 9/11 and since Edwards'ꀙ departure in 2004 have made the network more capable of covering breaking news, remains to be seen. When the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in 2003, Scott Simon and the "Weekend Edition" Saturday team did an incredible job with a story that broke in the midst of that program. Fortunately, we'ꀙve all been spared tests on the scale of 9/11.

The real time capsule effect of the 9/11 tapes kicks in with all the elected officials whose names come up during the coverage who have since moved on:Gov. Pataki and Mayor Giuliani, California Gov. Gray Davis, Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, and, of course, President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Bob Edwards and the politicos are gone. The only 9/11 player still in power is, unfortunately, Osama bin Laden.


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