Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK 1963 - a reporter's memories

1963 - Larry Ray, KLRN-TV &  KUT-FM Newscaster, Austin, Texas
We all have memories burned into our minds about where we were and what we were doing on that Friday, November 22, 1963 when we learned that President Kennedy had been shot. 

Many learned of it while listening to the radio, which was how most folks got their breaking news in those days.  I had just finished a class on the campus of The University of Texas in Austin and walked outside to find a girl sitting on the sidewalk, her books strewn around. I thought she might have fallen and I stopped to ask if she was OK. She looked up, eyes swollen from crying, and simply said, "They shot him." I asked who had been shot and she answered with bewildered anger, "Kennedy ... they have shot the President!" 

Then I looked up and could see groups of students, just stopped in their tracks staring, some sitting on the grass and hugging their knees and some hugging one another in despair and grief.

I sprinted the hundred yards up the long sidewalk to the University Radio-TV building which housed the studios of KLRN-TV, Channel 9 and the KUT-FM radio studio. KLRN TV was part of the fledgling television network called NET, National Educational Television which in October, 1970, would become the Public Broadcasting Service, PBS, that we know today.

In May of 1963, as a Radio-TV-Film major I had joined KLRN-TV's newly expanded evening newscast as a young student/staff newscaster ... "Anchor" had not yet been coined. KLRN's TV signal had a large Central Texas coverage area around Austin as well as a repeater transmitter covering the San Antonio metro and rural viewing areas. We reached more of Central Texas than any commercial TV station back then.

I had raced to the studio to see what was happening to get both our TV and FM Radio studios up and ready to go live since we did not originate live until later in the afternoon. Literally running onto the building the first thing I saw was a mob of fellow student broadcasters and faculty around our two chattering teletype machines.

Station manager, Bernard "Bernie" Crocker spotted me and waved me over. "Larry we are getting circuits patched up in master control to take live feeds from all the major networks and they are getting the studio lit right now. You need to get your hair combed, put on a tie, grab your suit jacket and get ready to go live out of studio one and break the station to join these Net news feeds."

And for the rest of that day, and around the clock until the following Tuesday, our evening news on-air announcers, news director, Bill Moll, our "Weather Girl," Jann Arbogust, and I rotated on the news set doing intros to the breaking news reports from the major networks and padding with wire copy in between. I also took shifts reading wire copy from the new KUT-FM radio studio which had just been built in the Radio-TV building. We cat-napped in the wee hours but I do not ever remember feeling tired with such a story breaking all around us.

For four and a half days, we literally did not leave the Radio-TV building as the news unfolded in a constant stream ... confirmation of the President's death, Lyndon Johnson's being sworn in aboard "the President's plane" as it was then called, and Oswald's capture, brief detention and his startling murder by Jack Ruby on live TV.

And since there was no instant replay in 1963, for those who had not seen it live, newscasters had to verbally recreate what had happened in all that confusion as Oswald was being transferred in handcuffs when someone lunged at him and a shot rang out.

There were no teleprompters like today and until film from the broadcast scene could be developed and distributed there was lots of padding and speculation by on-air reporters. Videotape recorders were few and far between and finicky to operate. It was seat of your pants live black and white TV in its infancy.

We continued to broadcast live around the clock as a major feeder of network news and local information across Central Texas until we finally just "rode the Net" starting that Tuesday afternoon. By then there were uninterrupted live NBC and CBS feeds of the cortege carrying the President's casket from St. Matthew's Catholic Church following a solemn requiem mass to his final resting place "on an open slope in the Arlington National Cemetery."

An estimated one million people lined the streets in Washington to watch the President pass by for the last time. And millions more watched on TV. I left the studio mid afternoon and went to be with a close friend, and I finally broke from the reporter's discipline and cried with her for the first time as she and I held hands and watched the President's arrival at the cemetery and fought to understand the enormity of what had happened over the past few days.

Now, all of a sudden, it is half a century ago that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Yet while many of my memories have begun to fade, those four and a half days as a young on-air journalist, challenged with reporting this huge, tragic and incredibly sad story still remains clear and detailed in my mind. I wanted to share a bit of it with you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Larry, you've had no doubt one of the most formidable and challenging formative experiences of any journalist. I enjoyed reading the play-by-play. Too bad there's no tape from it.

- Larry in Austin

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