(Editor's note: This article was originally published a year ago; it has been updated to change the time since John Lennon's death.)
It’s been 30 years today since John Lennon was murdered in New York City. The ex-Beatle’s death came near the apogee of local FM rock radio, when a handful of on-air personalities at a few stations in each major city held sway over a huge percentage of listeners.
In Seattle, Steve Slaton was one of those powerful personalities, heard in those days over rock powerhouse KISW “FM 100.” Slaton, who was with KZOK until last year, was on duty at KISW on Dec. 8, 1980, when the news came that evening, and he presided masterfully over an impromptu on-air memorial.
In a recording made by this writer (on a cheap Sanyo portable cassette deck held near the speaker), Slaton can be heard repeating the news of Lennon’s murder and then taking listener phone calls. The expletives fly freely from Slaton and from callers — including the “s” word, and at least one f-bomb. One caller suggests that the then-unidentified killer should be hoisted into the air via part of the male anatomy not usually described so graphically on an FCC-licensed station.
The most gripping moment comes when Slaton speaks with a caller named Bruce. Bruce is a big Lennon fan, and is angry about the shooting of a musician whose latest single is called "Starting Over." Slaton begins to speak of the Beatles’ status as the “most potent force in music,” and then acknowledges his love of AC/DC, Led Zeppelin and The Who. Slaton tries to complete the thought, but then hesitates, audibly overcome with emotion, as he breaks down into heavy sobs. As heard in this complete recording of the call, the articulate Bruce deftly steps in to fill the wordless space. Bruce tries to comfort the deejay with supportive language as Slaton at least partially regains his composure. Slaton then bids Bruce goodbye and plays a Beatles’ tune written and sung by, ironically, George Harrison.
The confluence of Lennon’s premature death at age 40 and FM rock radio’s ability to lead the public mourning is not something we’re likely to see again. Lennon was a global personality with broad appeal (and a vast catalog of hits), and he died during a time when local radio regularly reached a far greater percentage of the audience. It was also a time when live and local on-air talent were standing by to react and take phone calls, whether about a great album or a terrible tragedy (very much unlike the situation earlier this year when Michael Jackson passed away).
Reading a Facebook status update or a tweet under similar circumstances — something like, i’m really upset right now and can’t really talk, check out my playlist while i regain my composure — will never be any match for simply listening in to what Steve Slaton and a guy named Bruce did with a transmitter and a phone nearly 30 years ago.
John Lennon, performing "Mother" at Madison Square Garden in New York: