Dark Anniversary Sparks Newsroom Memories

person wearing grey and orange hoodie sitting on brown wooden park bench during daytime

The anniversary of a major news event will always take us back to where we were when we heard. It’s a lot like hearing a song that reminds us of a place or a person, only not usually as pleasant.

As a radio host/newscaster for so many years, most of those anniversaries take me to a particular radio station. 9/11 is 680 News. Princess Diana’s death is CHML, Hamilton. I’ve had a few years to reflect on my career and I think some of us choose to report news so we have something valuable to do when otherwise, we’d just get sad or anxious. When a child is abducted or there’s another tragedy, we can put one foot in front of the other and do our job.

On the weekend, it was the 25th anniversary of the Columbine school shooting. I was working at 680 News, however my main role at the time was morning newscaster on 98.1 CHFI.

The two 12th graders started their rampage at 11:19 am, mountain time, on April 20, 1999, a Tuesday. I was off the air by then. Back then a school shooting in which a dozen students and a teacher were killed was incredibly shocking. In the quarter century since, there have been so many massacres of innocent people on American soil that we’re not exactly numb to it, but we’re definitely not as surprised.

Virginia Tech, 2007, 32 victims. Sandy Hook, 2012, 26 victims. Marjorie Stoneman High, 2018, 17 victims. I could go on and on.

You might have read that there were 15 victims at Columbine. That math includes the shooters who killed themselves. I refuse to add them to the count of lives they took. So, there were thirteen.

Newsroom Tension Runs High

Journalists are always on alert. But during breaking news or a huge story that’s unfolding by the minute, everyone in a newsroom is on HIGH alert. Our large team at 680 News kept an ear and an eye on every possible source in case there was an update. Two dozen students had been wounded. Did some not survive? Was a manifesto found? How could this possibly happen?

Part of my job was to write news copy for the 680 News anchor team of Paul Cook and Marlane Oliver. I wrote some C stories. The anchors wrote the A stories, the big news, for themselves. A full-time writer wrote the B stories and breaking news. I contributed less important stories because I had my own newscast to get together – my As and Bs.

We were always cutting it close to deadline. Facts don’t emerge when you want them to. They come out when they come out, so you wait until the last minute so you’re sharing the latest info. I ran down the hallway to CHFI to deliver my half-hourly newscast in the studio with Erin Davis, Don Daynard, and Ian MacArthur. I sat, put on my headphones, looked at my printed newscast and nearly screamed out loud.

A Hard Lesson

Somehow, I had grabbed the wrong papers off the printer. All I had in front of me were health stories. In other words, C stories, because that morning, there was nothing bigger than Columbine. I suspected that Marlane was looking at my newscast and wondering what had happened to her health update.

The news theme was starting, I was introduced, and I had a few short seconds to make a decision. Do I attempt to adlib the latest on Columbine and risk making a terrible mistake? It was early morning. The story’s details were fresh. I could really mess that up by using only memory. Do I confess and admit to being an idiot, on the air and in the room? Or do I just go ahead with what I have in front of me?

We could argue forever about what I should or should not have done. Today, I would make a different choice. But then, I just started in on the five or six health-related stories in front of me while withering inside.

After my weird newscast, I told the CHFI team what happened. They were all empathetic. Who hasn’t made a boneheaded mistake? I slinked back to the newsroom, wondering what the repurcussions would be.

The Fallout

It came quickly but there was less of it than I expected. My News Director, Stephanie Smyth called out to me. She was on the phone with a furious woman who wondered why I hadn’t given an update on Columbine.

Stephanie moved the receiver away from her mouth. “This listener thinks you’re afraid to talk about the Columbine shooting. Are you afraid?”

That was, perhaps, the dumbest assumption I’d ever heard and the look on Stephanie’s face told me she agreed.

“No, I’m not afraid. Please tell her it was a mistake and I’ll have the latest on the story in half an hour.”

Stephanie relayed the message and hung up. I told her what happened. Stephanie was busy and liked to get on with it. She could have chewed me out but she didn’t. She asked, “Are you going to make sure it doesn’t happen again?” Or words to that effect. You bet I would. And it didn’t.

High Standards

We expect a lot of people in media and we should. But they are, in the end, just people. This story is 25 years old. Although the technology and processes have changed, I guarantee you that someone yesterday accidentally closed a browser window seconds before they went on the air and the info they wanted was gone. Or they clicked the wrong button while inputting their pre-recorded voice track and only a snippet of it made it through. So, when it eventually got on the air, it made no sense. I promise you, it’s still happening. Because they’re just people.

The most important thing about that event 25 years ago is that innocent kids and one teacher died for absolutely no reason. For me, it also brings back the memory of my legendary screw-up. And it certainly wasn’t my only one – or even my worst.

8 thoughts on “Dark Anniversary Sparks Newsroom Memories”

  1. Thank you for sharing this story. As a fellow journo, this hits home.

    I may tell your story to my students!

    For me, Columbine was the National Post. I was in Denver maybe two weeks later to cover a Star Wars convention — my visit and the event had been planned prior to the school shooting.

  2. I really enjoy reading what goes on behind the scenes of your career in radio. Other people’s jobs are always interesting. What may have been routine to you is fascinating to me as well as the glitches and when things go smoothly. This is a great story.

  3. Nice to hear no one is perfect and we all screw up at our jobs from time to time. At the end of your column here you say this wasn’t even your worst one….now I’m really wondering what that one was ??

    1. Well Lee, I’d have to think about that one for a while. I can think of a major gaffe that I made at every radio station and I worked at a lot.of them! Tell you what – I’ll figure it out and write about it soon.

      1. I appreciate you being honest about when you screwed up at work.

        We need to normalizing mistake-making! It’s how we learn!

  4. Oh geez, I’m having a vicarious stress-induced hot flash just reading this. My literal work nightmare going back to MY all-news days at the defunct CKO radio network, is going into the booth and having nothing but entertainment listings – not even stories, but which bands were playing where – in my hand. And no safety net. It never leaves you, that panic. Oh gosh, the stories….but all we can do is say we learned from them and got better. Now, to try and forget that ever-fresh panic…..yeesh.

    1. Yikes!

      That nightmare brings back another memory. An intern at 680 News shut my computer off during the show – by mistake – and all I had in print form was high temperatures around the world.

      “It Botswana, a balmy 33 today…”

      After that, we always had a printed newscast in the booth. Always.

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