DJ STORIES: What It Was Like Being On The Air on 9/11 & 9/12

Since I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by legendary current and former radio talents like Mitch Michaels, Eddie Volkman, Scott Mackay and so on, I thought it’d be cool to get their stories of what it was like being on the radio 22 years ago when the entire world changed.

How do you navigate that on air? Here are their stories.

SCOTT MACKAY (current morning show host, 95.9 The River)

I was at the studios in Boston working for 969 FM Talk. I was listening to Imus in the morning while working on promos for the station. I heard the I-Man say, “Did you just see that?” and Chuck, his news guy said, “Yeah, I did!” I stayed there for many hours producing heartfelt montages and promos highlighting what was going on. I walked into the news room to get some sound bites when I looked up and saw the 2nd plane fly into the 2nd tower and that’s when we realized we were under attack. This was definitely a “terror attack.” #neverforget

MITCH MICHAELS (Chicagoland Radio Legend)

I was at home getting my kids ready for school. Watching the unbelievable event unfold before my eyes on live television. The second plane hitting the south tower right behind Katie and Matt on the screen and then the towers falling. It seemed so surreal and yet of course it was so real. The quiet aftermath of no air traffic for 10 days or so was even more bizarre. 

EDDIE VOLKMAN (current Program Director/Morning co-host at Star 96.7)

I was on the air at B96 when Karen Hand-Harper told us a plane had hit the first tower. We watched the TV monitor and when the second plane hit knew we were under attack. Instead of going off the air at 10 AM, we stayed and took phone calls from listeners who expressed anger, fear, sadness, and a whole array of emotions. We felt for many people, we were like family and needed to be there for them. We stayed on the air well into the afternoon and fortunately were affiliated with NewsRadio 780 So we were able to also provide news and updates, as there was a lot of unknown and also tons of misinformation. People still mention it to me to this day and I get extremely emotional.

LEN O’KELLY (current communications professor at Grand Valley State)

I was hosting mornings at News/Talk WROK in Rockford. We had no news wire that morning – the lawn crew cut the cable the day before and AP was coming to fix it the next day. Needless to say, they were busy. I basically called the play-by-play with an eye on the TV and instant messenger boxes going back and forth with reporters that I knew. (It was a pre-smartphone world, after all.) It was surreal to see it all unfold live. While it was going on my wife was on the way to O’Hare to get on a flight. In the middle of a break, the receptionist came to the window and held up a sign that said “Wife is on phone.” Took a quick break and told her not to continue to the airport.  The next morning I opened the show with the National Anthem and then said “So – now what?” None of us knew the answer to that question.

(On 9/12) We were the news station, so we found ways for people locally to help. Rather than take listener calls, which would have been hours of “this is bad,” we decided to give airtime to resources. Blood donations were needed, so the Red Cross came in. Food banks. Support services. Things like that.

SAMANTHA JAMES (former evening host at 95.9 The River)

I was at a Top 40 station in Washington DC Z104 – Our station was located very close to the Pentagon and we knew we had people who could potentially be listening to our station who may have lost loved ones there. I was a weekender so I wasn’t on the air on 9/11 but I remember when I came back to the station that first weekend. Our playlist had changed substantially. We had gone through out list and pulled out any song that could be remotely upsetting to anyone and we played a much more mellow selection some of which were completely off format. We had strict instructions to keep all talk to a minimum and although we were a high energy up beat station – our delivery changed immensely. We slowly started getting back to what we traditionally played but it took a while.

CAROL MCGOWAN (former morning show co-host, 98.3 WCCQ)

Roy and I were on the air out of our old building on Rock Run Drive. No TV. I first heard of it as I actually had BBM on at my desk in case there was a traffic item I missed. At first, you think it was a true accident when the first tower was hit. Second one, you know it’s not. Pentagon is when I felt a gut punch and was afraid. We turned into a talk station and cut all commercials. Roy was able to get ABC’s feed in the early afternoon if I remember correctly, but it was crazy/scary/sad all at once and trying to keep it together with just us as things were coming in. It feels like yesterday, and forever ago at the same time.

On 9/12, we were back to music but not joking about anything, obviously. Was very somber with mentions of blood drives, vigils, etc, and artists reactions and statements.

BRIAN FOSTER  (current regional manager, Alpha Media Chicago)

I was at a chamber membership event in which we were doing a tour of Naperville. My cell phone kept going off and finally I was whispering and the bus started to buzz. The tour guide asked if I had something to share, I’ll never forget the next 10 seconds of my life. I stood I announced the plane hit the World Trade Center and one was heading for the White House because at the time that’s what they thought and that we were are under attack. Tour guide I said wow that sounds horrible and went right on with the tour. We didn’t get off the bus for another hour I immediately flip 95.9 the river and heard wjol. I knew our general manager Dennis would have never left the format unless the world has changed and it had. 3 days later we were in Lisle doing a remote to help raise funds and blood never member standing in a field not seeing any planes in the sky and that was the second thing I’ll never forget.