Elvis Duran still recalls the phone-in topic on his morning radio show the day of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “We were talking about whether you’re cheating on your significant other if you’re flirting with someone else in an online chat room,” Duran says. “And then playing a song.”
Back in 2001, Duran’s top 40 WHTZ-FM “Z100” was located in Jersey City — just across the Hudson River from Downtown Manhattan. The “Elvis Duran and the Morning Show” team had a direct view of the World Trade Center from their 40th floor studio, and it was their phone screener who first fielded reports of smoke from one of the towers.
“It started with rumors a helicopter hit it,” Duran recalls. “Around the time we found out it was a commercial airline plane that hit it, that’s when the second plane hit the other tower. And we immediately knew, this isn’t what we think it is, this is something that we don’t understand.”
[Above: Audio clip of Elvis Duran on Z100 WHTZ New York, Sept. 11, 2001]
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, morning hosts were just arriving to start their shifts. “We’re having our pre-meeting off air before we jump on air live,” remembers Big Boy, who was then based at hip-hop KPWR-FM “Power 106.” “One of my guys comes in and says, ‘Man, some fucking idiot just crashed his plane into the World Trade Center.’ So we go into our office. And as we’re sitting there watching it live, the second plane comes in, boom.”
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks kicked the nation’s TV and radio news organizations into high gear, as they quickly went live to cover the unfolding events. But also on air that day were drive-time radio personalities who suddenly had to drop the jokes, stop spinning records, and instead pivot to becoming somber lifelines as listeners looked for information and solace.
“We got on the air and started answering calls,” says Ellen K, who back then was Rick Dees’ partner on Los Angeles top 40 KIIS-FM. “I was over seven months pregnant, and my baby in my belly, my son — who’s now almost 20 — was kicking and punching wildly because of the stress reaction I was having. I remember I couldn’t breathe very well, so I had to sit down and calm myself while we’re answering these phone calls.”
K remembers no music being played that day on KIIS. “It was just constant calls, and we stayed on the air way past 10 a.m., when we would usually sign off. We were on until almost 2 p.m. People were taking turns, coming on, crying. We were also giving information as fast as we could get it. So we had our producers calling out, we were calling friends in New York City. We were also reaching out to everyone we knew to get on the air.”
At Los Angeles alternative KROQ-FM, the hosts of “Kevin & Bean” were on vacation, so the station was replaying “best of” clips from previous shows. Just a skeleton crew were in the offices: Sidekick Ralph Garman and news anchor Boyd R. Britton (known as “Doc on the Roq”), who were originally only there to contribute a few live segments in between the repeats.
“By the time I had gotten to the studio, the news had just broken that the second plane had hit the second tower,” Garman says. “And it was only then that it dawned on us that this was not an accident. And the station didn’t know what to do. I was in there, Doc was in there. We had a board op. But the decision eventually was made: We can’t ignore this; we have to go on the air with something. And here I am, this baby broadcaster. I had done voices and stuff for the show but I’d never really taken on a larger role than that. And they said we have to go live, so we just turned on the mics and started broadcasting.”
In an unconventional move, Britton and Garman — normally two contributors who never interacted on “Kevin & Bean” — were suddenly co-anchoring coverage on KROQ.
[Above: Audio clip of Ralph Garman and Boyd R. Britton “Doq on the Roq” on KROQ Los Angeles, Sept. 11, 2001]
“We had everyone watching CNN and local news and Doc had the news wires as well. So we were trying to gather bits and pieces of information from any source that we could and then they would write it up and hand it to me live on the air while I was in front of the mic… The weight of having to give that information and the pressure of trying to get it right too was really tough. It was a disaster that just kept getting worse. We didn’t know what was going to happen, we didn’t know how far this disaster was going to keep rolling along. Were we at risk in the west coast as well? Were there additional attacks planned? It was the unknown that was almost as scary as what was actually happening.
“When I handed it off, I just remember collapsing in a heap in a chair and just bawling,” Garman says of the moment he finally went off the air. “I wasn’t allowed to feel anything up until that point because I was so laser focused in trying to get the information out and trying to do the job, that I hadn’t really had a chance to process it myself.”
At Power 106, Big Boy began the day trying to do a regular show with his normal comedy segments and DJ mixes, but quickly realized he couldn’t. “We started potting up CNN and other outlets, and just letting it go live,” he says. “And then we started taking calls from people that we knew on the East Coast. And I remember a friend of ours, Jennifer Norwood, she was talking to us, and I was like, ‘what do you see?’ And she’s explaining frantically what’s going on. And then I hear her start screaming, and she was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re jumping out of the buildings! They’re jumping out of the windows!’”
And over at adult contemporary KOST-FM, host Mark Wallengren was solo that day, as his co-host Kim Amidon was on vacation. He remembers prepping a show to discuss normal topics like the Dodgers and back to school plans. “We would have been playing our regular games,” he says. “We had a feature where we would tell you a story about a particular song, and our entertainment reports, and we had a joke of the day.”
That morning, Wallengren decided to listen to a CD on the drive to work, so it wasn’t until he arrived that he ran into Charlie Tuna — the late, legendary broadcaster who then hosted mornings on KOST’s sister station KBIG-FM — who told him that “a small plane has just hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center. And I just flipped on the TV and there’s smoke coming out of the tower. So just as I hit air, I didn’t even play a jingle, I said, ‘There has been a plane that has hit the World Trade Center.’ And as I’m talking about this, all of a sudden, there comes plane number two, right into the other tower. When that second plane hit and I watched it, I said on air, ‘This is a terrorist attack.’”
[Above: Audio clip of Scott Shannon on WPLJ New York, Sept. 11, 2001]
Back in New York, Duran and crew vacated the station after the first tower fell. “We realized we needed to get out of the building,” he says. Z100 switched to a live audio feed from one of the local TV stations. “As I was driving away from the Hudson River to my house in Jersey, I looked into my rearview mirror and I watched the second tower fall,” he says.
Duran returned to the station the next day, and even though Z100 was still simulcasting CNN, he noticed the phone bank was lit up. “They were ringing at 5:15 in the morning, which never happens,” he says. “So I put on my headphones, turned down CNN audio, said ‘Good morning, this is Z100,’ and I just started answering phones. The first call would be, ‘My dad worked in World Trade Center Tower One, we haven’t heard from him since yesterday. If anyone has heard from him, please let us know.’ The next call was, ‘We’re down at the waterfront, putting supplies on the ferries to Ground Zero. We need baby booties to put on dogs’ paws to keep them from getting shredded as they look for [survivors].’
“It was truly the pure essence of public service, of what radio was originally meant to be,” Duran adds. “The days following was non-stop programming, tears and moments of anger. Or we’d play a dedication for someone. We were all still in shock, not knowing how to process it.
“There was no playbook to read that tells you what to do,” he adds. “You just go by your gut instinct. I think we all gave it our all, because we were actually learning a lot about ourselves. We were scared too, and we weren’t hiding it. We weren’t being script or teleprompter readers. We were reading from the heart, and letting people come on and talk about what was in their hearts as well. And it really was pretty fantastic at the same time as being awfully tragic.”
Big Boy says he remembers how dramatic the pivot felt, as he had to completely drop music and do a show he never expected he’d have to do. “We became news and talk radio, and we let people have the airwaves,” he says. “I’ve got three shows that come back to me for my whole career of 27 years. It’s when I announced that Tupac died, when I announced that my mother died and 9/11. I get so many people that say to me, ‘I was listening to you that morning. I turned you guys on in and heard how serious you sounded.’”
Garman, who left KROQ in 2017 (and now hosts the daily podcast “The Ralph Report”), annually hears from former listeners too. “Every year I invariably get contacted from people who’d say that I was the voice that broke the news to them,” he says. “So many of them say, ‘We could tell immediately that this was not a bit, you weren’t being funny, something was really going on.’ I often regret the fact that we did put some stuff out there that was iffy. But I think people understood we were working with the best information that we had.”
At KOST, Wallengren (who departed the station in 2020) said the initial instinct and speculation was that the world had forever changed. “It was about letting listeners vent their feelings, people calling in tears, me trying to hold back the tears,” he says. “In the 35 years I was on KOST, you sit in a little room and you’re talking to a microphone. But in an event like that, you realize the power and the responsibility of trying to do something that is going to be meaningful and touch people.”
In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, radio personalities continued to focus their attention on the news. “We asked our listeners, ‘what do you want? Do you want to keep talking about? Is there a song that will make you feel better? Can we bring in a guest that will make you feel better?’” K says. “They told us when they were ready. It was about a week of mainly just phone calls and then we got slowly back into music, but still people calling, what the song means to them, and why it makes them feel good.”
Early on, the question of whether comedy could exist in a post-9/11 world was debated. “There was the question, do we ever get to go back to being a stupid morning show again,” Garman says. “Pretty early on we recognized that it was almost our responsibility to try to bring people some relief from that constant barrage of horror and emotional news by doing what we do, which is let people check out for a minute and try to give them a laugh and a smile while they’re dealing with everything else.”
At KOST, Wallengren remembers the music mix briefly changing, with any songs that even hinted at conflict, like Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield,” pulled from the playlist. In heavy rotation were more inspirational tracks like Five for Fighting’s “Superman (It’s Not Easy).” But things eventually returned to normal.
“We knew the time would come that we would be back to normal, these songs that we pulled would be put back in,” he says. “What was the right time? We spent a lot of time talking about that. When I could be planning our bits we would make sure that we weren’t going to have anything that might be insensitive. For probably the first two weeks, it was the everyday aspect of, ‘hey, we’re checking in with you. How are you doing?’”
It obviously took longer for normalcy to return in New York, particularly as so much of the city remained in a state of uncertainty. “The thought of actually laughing on the air at that point was such a foreign concept,” Duran says. “You didn’t know if that would ever return because you’re still in the middle of it. Subsequently, a week later I remember someone on our show actually said something and someone else laughed. And it was the most foreign sound we’d ever heard. It was almost as if that one bit of laughter gave everyone license to relax a notch.”
K’s son was born healthy that December, and that same month the station she now works at — adult contemporary KOST-FM — went wall-to-wall Christmas music for the first time, a holiday format that has been replicated to much success annually on stations across the country. (K’s husband, Roy Laughlin, was in charge of KOST at the time and helped institute the all-Christmas format.) “Once we got the Christmas music on the air that December, things started to feel a little more normal,” she says. “Even though we never gone back to our real normal but I know that there was a turn after that.”
Wallengren helped usher that first flip to all-Christmas on air at KOST. “To just have a little magic back and something to look forward to, it was huge,” he says.
[Above: Audio clip of Don Imus on WFAN New York, Sept. 11, 2001]
In the years since 9/11, there have been more tragedies, including school shootings and even the COVID-19 pandemic, that have similarly forced radio hosts to balance the gravity of the moment with their usual lighthearted shows.
“In the last couple years we’ve been a little bit more political because that’s the climate,” says Big Boy, who now hosts mornings on KRRL-FM “Real 92.3.” “You do have your comedy and that’s what you’re known for. But there are days that I’ve cried on the air and it didn’t seem goofy because I’m a human being. You’ve got to know how to bring that human element to what you do on radio too.”
Duran continues to run a moment of silence every year on his show to recognize when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. And even though this year’s 20th anniversary falls on a Saturday, he is preparing a special to air that morning.
“We still have conversations about that day,” he says. “We go through it, talk about the emotions, and where we are today compared to then. As long as I’m on Z100, we will stop [for that silence] every single year. This is how it has to be.”