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50 years later: How Syracuse broadcasters covered JFK

50 years later: How Syracuse broadcasters covered JFK

SYRACUSE — Clips from the network news coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which happened 50 years ago today in Dallas, are readily available online, and will no doubt be rebroadcast on a multitude of channels today.  But how did local broadcasters cover the story in 1963?  Many who were working in local newsrooms that day are no longer with us, but we caught up with a few who remember the day.

It was a sunny, reasonably nice day in Syracuse, for late November. Returning from lunch, as so many were doing on the East Coast, Phil Markert entered the Channel 9 studios when he learned that President Kennedy was assassinated.

As it was with the rest of the nation, life came to a “screeching halt” here, as one TV news anchor would later put it, when the first shocking announcements came, that Kennedy was shot while riding in a Dallas motorcade.

That “screeching halt” came at 1:40 p.m., 50 years ago today, when Walter Cronkite interrupted “As the World Turns” on CBS with the first bulletin.

While the Herald-Journal rushed an extra edition, Central New York radio and television stations immediately dumped four days of program schedules  that Friday afternoon, sending their crews out for local reaction while staying with network coverage. Their colleagues across the country were doing the same.

Channel 9 (then WNYS-TV) was only one year old.

As Markert, Channel 9’s young program director, walked through its doors, dozens of children were lined up in the lobby, in the Shoppingtown basement, to be studio guests on that afternoon’s “Baron’s Bloody Buddy Club.”

Pandemonium swept the crowd, Markert recalled, although much of it was probably children upset because they weren’t going to be on the show, hosted by Mike Price. Monday’s show was canceled, too.

“There was considerable confusion as to what to do with all these kids,  because the show was going to be canceled,” Markert said.

While radio had covered World War II, and other major events, this was an unprecedented story for American television, which was still in its infant, black and white world. The evening news had only just expanded to half an hour.

There were only three TV stations in Syracuse, one in Utica.

Channel 9’s news department had only four employees, Markert said.

Channels 3 and 5 had larger news departments, shared with WSYR and WHEN radio, respectively, a common practice in the industry at the time, said Dr. Rick Wright, a radio personality and recently retired professor of media at Syracuse University. Often, the same person delivering the evening news on TV would announce for the radio station, including Channel 3’s first anchor, Fred Hillegas, Wright said.

Each of the Syracuse TV stations had different call letters (to match up with their radio partners of the time), but the same network affiliations as today.

Local radio stations yanked records as they were playing to deliver the news, and, before long, were handling long lists of cancellation, said Wright.

There was still some music, but several rock and roll stations immediately switched formats — to classical. Channel 9 anchor Rod Wood, who was getting his first tastes of local media as an intern at WOLF radio, said his station and others felt it would be inappropriate to play any music  that wasn’t soft or patriotic.

“Everything was subdued,” he said, adding that the streets of Syracuse were bare that first night.

He recalled some DJs ran out to local record shops to buy classical albums to play.

Central New York radio and television stations went out to get reaction. Mostly, though,  they stayed with network coverage, Wood said.

“All of the attention was on what was going on at the national level, not someone’s opinion on Warren Street,” he recalled.

News was shot on film, and had to be processed and edited. On that Friday, Channel 9 went upstairs, into the mall, to get local reaction, recalled Markert, who was also Channel 9’s news anchor.

Channel 9 did have a local newscast that night, he said.

Television live shots were difficult technologically, and not yet available in Syracuse. Although confirmation was not available from every station, Robert Thompson, a media culture professor at Syracuse University, said it’s doubtful that any recordings of Central New York coverage still exist. For one thing, videotape was expensive back then, so tapes were routinely rerecorded.

While radio had covered many major stories, the Kennedy assassination marked the first time television had offered “wall to wall” coverage of any breaking news. There were some primitive things, like Cronkite holding up wire pictures from Dallas, and NBC’s first few minutes are lost because no one turned on the network’s video recorder, said Thompson.

While he cautioned that TV news didn’t “come of age” during this weekend, as some insist — it had covered big stories before — there was nothing like this.

He said CBS’s coverage was the best, led by the legendary Cronkite.

“TV news was rising to an extraordinary challenge, and they did an amazing job,” Thompson said.

Much of the way reporters were covering it, they were making it up as they went along, he said.

The assassination coverage, to a stunned nation, ran for four days, through Kennedy’s funeral on Monday, including the live shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald Sunday morning in the basement of the Dallas Police Department. NBC aired it live; CBS, on a replay, within minutes.

Wood, only a month out of the military, was working for a company called the Cooper Decoration Company on Erie Boulevard. Within a few weeks, he had a full time job at WNDR radio, and his career was on its way.

“It was really sad, and the big shocker was on Sunday morning,” when Oswald was shot, said Wood, who was watching.

“We couldn’t believe someone could kill the president of the United States.”

Markert said it was the “most riveting weekend,” and one he will never forget.

Special coverage on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy

  • Local ABC affiliate NewsChannel 9 (WSYR-TV) is airing an hourlong special on the Kennedy assassination, called “JFK: Then and Now.” Produced with cooperation with two television stations in Abilene, Texas, it will look at developments  in Dallas and perspectives from home, including Kennedy’s several visits to Central New York. It airs tonight at 7 p.m.
  • Syracuse.com has re-released eleven pages of coverage from 1963, including the front page of the Herald-Journal from the evening of Kennedy’s death, the next morning’s front page of the Post-Standard, that Sunday morning’s Herald-American front page, and several other pages of coverage.
  • Dallas radio station WBAP recently announced someone had the forethought to store airchecks of its coverage from November 22, 1963 in metal canisters, preserving them beautifully.  Today, the station is re-airing the coverage in its entirety — at the exact same time it aired 50 years ago — starting at 7am Central (8am Eastern) on its website, WBAP.com, and also on the iHeartRadio mobile app.
  • CBS News is live streaming 4 days of its television coverage, at the exact same times the coverage aired 50 years ago.  Here’s a link to the schedule — the live streams begin today at 1:38pm, the time when CBS first broke into regular programming to report Kennedy had been shot.

Add your memories

Were you working in local broadcasting when JFK was shot?  Or perhaps you remember listening to coverage on local radio, or watching on television.  Feel free to share your memories below by posting a comment, either via Facebook, or with your free CNYRadio.com login.

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