After the Sept. 11 attacks
NPR goes all-out with live coverage
Originally published in Current, Sept. 24, 2001
By Mike Janssen
News from before a certain moment on Sept. 11, even seconds before the second plane hit the World Trade Center, now seems false, innocent of a reality that has since been revealed.
Listen to that day's Morning Edition, at NPR's website. WNYC reporter Kerry Nolan, talking to Bob Edwards while watching smoke rise from the ruined World Trade Center buildings, was still able to cite the slim chance that a flight radar system could have gone "horribly, horribly awry." The FBI was already investigating the possibility of hijackings.
Soon after the second plane struck the tower, NPR marshaled its news team to produce reports around the clock for the next two days and offer expanded coverage into the next week. It became the feed of choice for many public radio stations and their listeners in the aftermath.
The incredible spectacle of destruction guaranteed that most Americans would choose television over radio for their news. But in the days that followed, NPR's journalists developed a unique take on events that won praise from listeners.
Robert Siegel, hosting All Things Considered from New York, sifted through the papers scattered among the ruins of the World Trade Center towers and read their contents aloud. Listeners also heard tape of one of the towers collapsing. Scott Simon played Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" and read W.H. Auden's "September 1, 1939."
Other public radio shows also changed course. News programs refocused their coverage, and cultural shows, including all of NPR's, canceled weekend broadcasts.
The confusing first moments
The news of the World Trade Center catastrophe broke shortly before NPR's regular 9:30 editorial meeting, which stayed on schedule. Throughout the day, editors met about every two hours, says Vice President of News Bruce Drake.
NPR first covered the attacks with phone interviews with eyewitnesses and reporters both in New York and Washington. Some station staffers criticized the network for being slow with the breaking news, and at one point, Edwards said, "We apologize for not having as much information as we'd like to have, but that is what we know so far."
The coverage began when Edwards interrupted a story and interviewed Nolan, followed by an eyewitness and then NPR host and correspondent Jacki Lyden, who saw the smoking buildings from her Brooklyn apartment and called Edwards around 9:20 a.m. "We were just scrambling to put information together," she says.
Edwards said the buildings looked like "two smoke flares."
Though Lyden was anxious to trek to Manhattan, she remained on call for Edwards until 11:30, when she hauled a long-neglected racing bike out of her basement, took it to a bike shop to inflate its tires, and pedaled into town against the current of New Yorkers escaping the disaster. "It looked like all of Manhattan was walking over the Manhattan Bridge," she says.
"You couldn't see the sun," she says of ground zero. "Ash was falling everywhere, and smoke was rising, and people had been telling me about seeing people jump."
Tom Gjelten, NPR's correspondent at the Pentagon, went on the air with Edwards to discuss the hijackings at 9:38the very minute, according to accounts, that the third airplane smashed into the building. He did not hear the accident from his office on the opposite side of the sprawling complex.
"You see all these quotes about how the whole building shook. Bullshit," Gjelten says.
Edwards told Gjelten that others were reporting the Pentagon was on fire, and Gjelten just then heard that the building was being evacuated. He got off the air and left his office to find that no other journalists knew a plane had hit, either.
"Imagine being at the Pentagon, and it's been hit by an airliner, and you don't know it," Edwards says. "That still stuns me."
The story kept deepening, and NPR Vice President of Programming Jay Kernis decided that the network needed to cover it around the clock. For the next two days, Morning Edition aired from 5 a.m. to noon Eastern time, Talk of the Nation from noon to 4 p.m., and All Things Considered from 4 to 10 p.m. TOTN's Neal Conan returned for a 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift, and Scott Simon held down an overnight shift. Terry Gross, whose Fresh Air had stopped production, contributed to the midday shift.
Hosts stopped saying their shows' names and instead announced "special live coverage" a decision made to follow guidelines for breaking news coverage put forth by the Public Radio Program Directors Association (PRPD). The special identification made it easier for stations that did not usually carry the programs to cut in and out of the broadcasts. (The guidelines were to be discussed at the PRPD conference in Baltimore Sept. 12-16, canceled in the wake of the attacks.)
Almost all of NPR's 70 reporters covered the attacks, and the network also relied on the journalists at WNYC in New York, who ended up uncomfortably close to the action [separate article].
NPR dispensed with underwriting credits, promising make goods to clients. Its website was retooled to a low-graphics version to accommodate the heavy traffic that overloaded many news sites as the story unfolded. Four hundred thousand people visited NPR's site Sept. 11, compared with the usual 70,000 visitors a day. Ratings for NPR's radio coverage will not be available until next month.
"The world's still revolving"
A Pew Internet & American Life Project poll said that more than 80 percent of Americans tuned to television for most of their news in the first few days after the attacks. Another Pew Research Center poll said radio became less important as a news source during the aftermath. But even with a television at hand, Rod Gelatt turned on NPR.
"I go to television to get the picture, the real visual sense of what's going on, but then I find that you want to get more than that, more insight into what is happening," says Gelatt, a professor emeritus in the broadcast news department of the Missouri School of Journalism who was once a public radio newsman. "That's when I turn to NPR, because I think it's obvious that you're going to get much more insight, more detail and more of a variety of stories and opinions even when TV is going nonstop, without commercials."
Gelatt also said that, compared to commercial television, NPR has "less of an alarmist sense."
"I just got a little more of a sense of the world's still revolvingit's OK," he says.
Drake says comments from NPR's listeners echoed Gelatt's. "People who had been watching television and getting agitated and depressive all said that when they turned to NPR and heard these voices that were familiar to them, they got a sense of calm and familiarity," he says. "I think that was something we offered that was really important to people."
Now, as they face the possibility of covering an extended conflict, Drake and his staff are preparing themselves. In the week following the terrorist attacks, the show's schedules reverted to normalcy, but there's cause to think they may be stretched again. NPR's staff and resources might be as well.
"I think it's really important that we pace ourselves," says Gjelten, who has been following the U.S. military response. "This is not a story that's going to be over with it could dominate us for the next six months. We have to be aware of that."
PRI producers likewise shift gears
Like NPR's newsmagazines, many of the shows distributed by Public Radio International covered the terrorist attacks exclusively in the days following Sept. 11. The World offered rolling coverage of developing events from 3 to 9 p.m. on the day of the attacks. Throughout the week, the program offered a more global take on events, in keeping with its usual mission.
Marketplace looked at the economic ramifications in a series of special programs. Its Sept. 12 show featured former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. KCRW's To the Point also provided special coverage.
The BBC World Service turned in 33 consecutive hours of attacks coverage, its longest continuous news broadcast ever. According to PRI, BBC New York business correspondent Steve Evans was in the foyer of the World Trade Center's north building when it was hit by the first hijacked plane and gave an eyewitness account.
Classical 24 programmed four hours of special music Sept. 14 to commemorate the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance.
Several of PRI's weekend shows produced special installments, including Sound Money, which looked at the impact of events on the economy (stations also had the option of airing a re-run). And Savvy Traveler, which was free to all PRI affiliates that weekend, gathered reactions from pilots, travelers, flight attendants and travel industry workers.
Many of PRI's shows, including The World, To the Point, Marketplace, BBC World Service and Classical 24 were free to stations in the days following Sept. 11. PRI says that all of the shows saw jumps in carriage. Forty-nine additional stations picked up the BBC, and 50 stations that already carried it added extra hours. The World aired on 28 additional stations.
Studio 360, Whad'Ya Know?, Satellite Sisters and This American Life all fed repeats the weekend of Sept. 15.
Starting tomorrow, PRI will begin feeding weekly hour-long installments of Peacemakers, a selection of Humankind programs produced by independent producer David Freudberg. The shows focus on people who have devoted themselves to resolving conflicts in societies around the world. Some of the shows have aired before, while others are new. Subjects include Ahmed Kathrada, a jailmate of Nelson Mandela's, and Tajae Gaynor, a 20-year-old Bronx native who starting a national anti-violence crusade aimed at young people. According to PRI, the series is intended to balance rising calls for war with "voices of peace."
. To Current's home page . Related stories: Sept. 11 coverage by public TV and NPR; effects on New York stations and canceled meetings in public broadcasting.
Web page posted Sept. 27, 2001
The newspaper about public television and radio
in the United States
A service of Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.