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Radio, and the Discrete Epitaph

Dave Randall

Posted on October 2, 2017 22:31

4 users

On the air, when celebrities pass away, there's a fine line between tribute, respect and maudlin.

A week ago, Monday, Tom Petty played the third of three dates at the Hollywood Bowl before pausing his 40th anniversary tour and heading to New York for scheduled gigs at Madison Square Garden. But Fate interfered in a devilish and dolorous way. 

It shouldn't surprise anyone that news of his passing was reported about a dozen hours before it was confirmed. It was all over the airwaves in Southern California, across the country and around the world. Tributes were hastily aired ... then withdrawn as word came that he clung to life. 

Not to toot my own horn, but I was on the air in Ventura, CA, carefully navigating my way through the terrifying massacre in Las Vegas the night before (the day we get used to this kind of horror is when our society will no longer know the way back from the edge).

Naturally, when on air, news comes from sources other than your own reporting. Being wrong is worse than being late. Which is why, at 12:45 pm, I relayed the events surrounding Petty's heart attack in order of occurrence, gave his age, and the fact he was taken off life support, but did not say he died. Not yet. 

I'm not sure why, maybe because I worked so many nights, weekends and holidays in my career, I've been on the air when a stunning number of notable people passed away: when John Denver's homemade plane crashed into the Pacific; Christmas morning, 1995, when Dean Martin died. George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Pope John Paul II, Johnny Carson; and when Seal Team Six got Bin Laden - getting two sources before airing it, just ahead of President Obama's address to the nation.

At the station where I spent two decades KRTH, Los Angeles, the idea was to relate the essence of who the person was, what they contributed, all in a line or two without stopping the forward momentum of the station. I got pretty good at it.

Very early in my career, at a public station, I had had to go on after a co-worker had been found murdered in an alley. I tried, but had to leave the broadcast. The next year, I informed another co-worker of an artist's passing, during a break in an interview he was conducting. He lashed into me with unforgettable venom. Needless to say, it contributed to my policy of smoothly, confidently and discretely relating the passing of a personality in short bursts, leaving the mawkish to those who live for that sort of thing. 

For Tom Petty, I chose to tell listeners that if they were among the thousands under the stars at the Hollywood Bowl, who saw the concert on September 25th, it's a memory they will treasure, always. A great at his greatest. And then I did what the radio business does - moved forward, hoping the few words I chose in the brief time I had, were eloquent, and as worthy as an epitaph. 

Dave Randall

Posted on October 2, 2017 22:31

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